Managing Oneself (Peter F. Drucker, 2008)

Six months after I arrived in Paris in 2018 for my foreign assignment, I ordered a book in Amazon about the history of France. Then, I saw that one of the recommended books is a white and orange booklet with the helpful title “Managing Oneself.” I thought, “Why not? It will possibly help me adjust to life and do my best at work in a place far away from home, plus it doesn’t cost much.”

My order finally arrived and of course, I saw the cute little book, much like the size of my journals that I usually keep in my bag everywhere I go, and started reading.

The first part went like this:

History’s great achievers—a Napoleon, a da Vinci, a Mozart—have always managed themselves. That, in large measure is what makes them great achievers…

The author then went on to say that the personalities he mentioned are “rare exceptions” based on their talents and accomplishment. He added that most people, including those with “moderate endowments” must learn to manage themselves. It crossed my mind that the author was already addressing what many readers probably think about themselves—that being not as good or as talented as the people mentioned, they need self-help.

The book continued to discuss several areas of managing oneself, guided by a series of questions/topics listed below:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How do I perform? How do I learn?
  • What are my values?
  • Where do I belong?
  • What should I contribute?
  • Responsibility for relationships
  • The second half of your life

The book was easy to read. I got some insights, or better yet, reminders that I should know my strengths, focus on them, understand how I get things done, reflect on my core values, think of my possible legacy to the society, and plan for the latter part of life. There is nothing too dramatic or too amazing about the concepts presented, since at most points in people’s lives, they really strive to manage themselves. They are successful in some days or period, but in some, not so.

All the pages were neutral and calm, like listening to your old grandma or a respected elderly professor give an advice. However, a paragraph on page 9 (continuing to page 10) under the topic “How do I perform?” elicited an internal reaction/objection within me. Let me share that part to you:

One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence . It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. And yet most people especially most teachers and organizations—concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer.

I thought, “What? Why would anyone be limited to do things that are certainly within his/her capability? What about the opportunity to discover one’s field, or even, just to improve one’s self? How can people know outright what activities or tasks perfectly suit his/her personality and capacity?”

After about a year, I reread the booklet; by that time, I had a calmer and deeper view of the matter. I wrote at the margins of page 9: “I didn’t agree with this idea at first. Now, it makes sense somehow but I still believe that people should be allowed to explore their capabilities.”

There are some things to learn from the book. It isn’t mind-blowing as other books I’ve read which really made me pause and say, “Indeed!” or “Wow!” Still, I can say that Drucker’s “Managing Oneself” contains some nuggets of wisdom useful for personal and professional development. It suggests that success is mainly the result of managing oneself, that an individual who does so becomes a better member of a team/company/organization and that it motivates a person to perform well if his/her organization’s value system is not unacceptable or incompatible with one’s own.

Another thing that I appreciate about the book is the portion on “The second half of your life,” not really because I am getting old (Haha!) but because in this part, the author suggests to readers that those who have managed themselves and have reached the peak of their professional competence will most likely go towards a second career, which may be done in two ways: (1) to actually start a second career; and (2) to develop a parallel career. I felt that this made the content inclusive, not just focusing on the age group when people are just starting to build their careers after graduation, but also those who wish to do more when they reach their senior years.

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