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Making Sense of the World

Craig Van Slyke,  Franke College Dean Let’s start this month’s column with a quick quiz. What do management guru Peter Drucker, ancient Roman orator and philosopher Cicero and the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola, have in common? All were big believers in the power of self-reflection. Drucker said, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” Taking a different tack, Cicero stated, “It is not by muscle, speed or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character and judgment.”

Loyola made reflection a cornerstone of Jesuit education. So here we have three very smart individuals, in different fields of endeavor, who lived centuries apart (Cicero was assassinated in 43 B.C.), all valuing reflection. I don’t know about you, but that makes me think reflection might be important. (By the way, Confucius and Einstein were also reflection fans.)

Reflection is the moment of quiet contemplation that gives us space to make sense out of a complex, confusing world. As we face the chaos of the holiday season and the end of the year, I urge you to make time for reflection. Although I’ve always been reflective, I never really thought about it (ironic, isn’t it?) until I taught at Saint Louis University, which is a Jesuit institution. My five years at SLU made me appreciate the value of reflection. As a teacher, I tried to take advantage of the learning value of reflection. The greater impact on my life, however, was to take my own critical self-reflection more seriously. In this short column, my goal is to persuade you to accept the gift that reflection offers.

The goal of reflection is to gain a better understanding of yourself and the world around you. The core idea is to look back with an eye on the future. We can consider this from two perspectives, retrospect and prospect. Retrospective reflection is a kind of mental debriefing. After any significant event, I try to look back and reflect on what happened, what went well, what went poorly, what it means and what I want to learn from it. Part of this is the “what, not what, so what” model of reflection. The “What?” question helps you understand what transpired, and what you and others did. The “So What?” question is aimed at the importance of the event, your reactions to the event and what you’ve learned as a result. These two questions are the looking back part. The “Now What?” question is future-oriented, asking what you should do next, and how the event and subsequent reflection prepares you for later events. My goals for this sort of reflection are to better understand the event and my role in it and the resulting consequences, and to prepare myself for future related events.

Of course, throughout all of these is the notion of learning. I reflect to learn. I also reflect on the future; this is prospective reflection. There are two aspects to this reflection. The first concerns thinking about how I might be able to improve my actions and thoughts. The second is focused on planning for the future. These two overlap; planning for the future often involves improving specific aspects of myself.

While reflection is a positive habit, there is danger in reflection. Reflection sometimes leads to regret. To make mistakes is the nature of life. Reflection is about learning and growth, not regret. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to slip into negative thought when reflecting. If you find yourself feeling regret while reflecting, ask, “What should I learn from this experience?” or “How should I act in the future?” These questions help shift your thinking from the negative (regret) to the positive (learning and growth).

Much like exercise, reflection is best practiced as a regular habit. Some people keep reflection journals. Some people use meditation. You should use whatever works for you, but be sure to make time for reflection daily. My practice is to reflect while I’m walking the dogs early each morning (while simultaneously watching for skunks!). Find a place and time that works for you. Accept the gift of growth, learning and understanding that reflection offers. You will be better for it.

Since we’ve just passed Thanksgiving, I’d like to say that I’m thankful to be a part of The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University, where I’m part of a team that’s dedicated to the success of our over 3,000 students and to the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: or email me at FBN










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