Today’s accelerating pace of disruptive change challenges many people’s ability to adapt. Despite our best efforts, many of us feel left behind — failing to learn quickly enough to move with the times.

The ultimate culprit is not simply a lack of awareness of developing trends or technologies. I believe it’s more fundamental than that: Many of us act on autopilot most of the time. When the going gets tough, those of us on autopilot tend to crash — or wind up landing someplace we don’t want to be.

The alternative to autopilot is what I call being conscious. Being conscious is not about being smart, though it does make us smarter. Being conscious encompasses deep self-awareness, plus awareness of our relationships and surroundings. Conscious people know themselves but are also relentlessly curious about the world.

Discover Your Inner Self

The first step to becoming more conscious is about harnessing the power of introspection. By going deeper, we can build a greater awareness of ourselves and others, develop more open minds, and make self-reflection central to our daily routines.

It all starts by looking clearly at the cards we’ve been dealt and understanding how to handle them. There are four relevant cards:

  • Our genetic makeup. It determines our physical vulnerability to stress and disease, as well as how we handle anxiety and stress.
  • Our childhood and family development. Early attachments and childhood experiences are as powerful as genetic makeup in shaping how we act in groups. The more conscious we are, the less likely we’ll become hijacked by past triggers in the future.
  • Professional past. What we have achieved thus far does more than pad our resumes. Our experiences also lead to certain behaviors and responses to stress, healthy or not, that need to be understood before they become instinctive.
  • Our personalities. To strengthen our self-awareness, we need to understand our deeply held beliefs and the personal stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how life works.

See a World of Possibilities

Once we’ve looked inside ourselves and have grasp of who we are what we’re about, we need to look beyond the boundaries of our own experience and seek out new ways of thinking. That’s hard to do: The plethora of digital information available to us — with more made available literally every second — we tend just to see what we already agree with.

How do we resist this, and in effect, become your own drone, finding ways to peer over the horizon and think big?

  • First, and this may sound counterintuitive: check your cognitive tendency to be overly optimistic.
  • Second, understand that expanding your mind is like throwing the door open to a world free of distortion. Simple “either-or” thinking doesn’t reflect today’s realities. Conscious people create more choices by holding opposing ideas in their heads at the same time.
  • Third, value diversity. Becoming conscious means knowing that inclusion is good for expanding your mind. Open your eyes, experiment with fresh ideas, and let go of counter-productive preconceptions.

Become Your Own Change Agent

To become more honest and intentional in our lives, we need to learn how to be simultaneously optimistic and realistic. We spend most of our lives living in the gap — the gap between our current reality and our desired future. Conscious people are faster at both assessing where they are and what resources it will take to get them to their desired destination.

When I see people getting real about creating change (and turning off their autopilot!), they typically ask themselves these questions:

  • What perceptions about myself and others may be hindering my ability to see this situation clearly?
  • What assumptions that I’ve made might be simply erroneous?
  • What persistent feelings are interfering with my ability to change?
  • Are my behaviors moving me closer to success?

Take Conscious Action

Conscious people possess a higher purpose that allows them to unleash their personal power, stand up for themselves, and take risks. Of course, if you’re on autopilot, you probably never thought to ask, “What is my purpose here?” For those new to that question, I’d start with asking yourself:

  • What do I love doing?
  • What are my natural talents and skills?
  • What do others say my special abilities and qualities are?
  • Where do my talents/skills and what matters most to me intersect?

Answering these questions enables us to take decisive and deliberate action and to move confidently forward in our professional and personal lives — without the predictability and limits that autopilot often brings.