What is Reflection and Why It is Helpful

by Murray Johannsen. Comments? Feel free to connect by Linkedin,  or by email.

What is Reflection?

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” — Confucius

Reflection is the process of thinking about your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is a way of gaining insight into yourself and your experiences. Reflection can be done in a variety of ways, such as journaling, talking to a therapist, or simply taking some time to sit quietly and think.

There are many benefits to reflection. It can help you to:

  • Understand yourself better
  • Identify your strengths and weaknesses
  • Learn from your mistakes
  • Make better decisions
  • Improve your relationships
  • Reduce stress and anxiety


Reflection has been part of Buddhist philosophy for thousands of years, but it is not widely practiced in the West. For some reason it’s not taught by mainstream universities, perhaps since these institutions assume that meaningful learning must come from a book in a class taught by a professor requiring a grade. And because it’s not taught, you don’t learn from experience.

How terrible it is. For the educational system doesn’t present a way to learn — to reflect—that accelerates skill development and prevent repeated mistakes

How I Learned About Reflection

In my case, I was 52 years old before I learned about reflection. And I learned about it by accident.

I happened to be sitting in a lecture at Korea University in Seoul where a professor was going through the major religions. In this case, she was talking about Buddhism having for over 2500 years a tradition of learning from experience. This roused me from my normal state of lethargic mindlessness so I asked her what was meant by reflection. She replied that it was a mental process in which we review experience: what we should do and what we should not do in the future.

Too much of my life was spent in a library nose in the textbook and paging through research journals. To be honest, I am a creature of learning in the building, whether that’s a library or a university. I forgot that there’s another aspect of learning. Consequently, the ability to learn from experience was gravely stunted. And you can anticipate that this would be the same for almost anyone with a university degree. Sad to say, but having a bachelors, masters or Ph. D. does not mean you knows how to do something in the real world.

Thinking about this further, I realize had known people in my life who had this ability but I failed to pay attention to their example. José came from Mexico to Southern California many years ago. He did not have the advantage of a good education. Nor did he speak English well when he first came. But when I met him he was in charge of the heart of a manufacturing facility, three machine centers that made up of cell that made most of the product and most of the profits. José intrigued me. Because I was curious, how someone who had none of the advantages given by the education and rich parents was able to do so well. So I asked him one day, and this is what he said. 

He said, “Teacher, when I first came in this organization, I started as a janitor. Essentially, I was cleaning the floors. But I was very curious, so I would always talk to the guys on the night shift about their machines. At first it was about how to keep these machines clean. But over time through they showed me how to run these machines. In those days, running a CNC machine did not involve a lot of software and programming. And want to learn simply by observation so I would observe how they set-up the machines, why they would use this type of tooling, and how they could tell if the machine was producing good or bad parts. All these things could be observed.”

And then he said something that I never forgot. “And you know teacher, as I left work and was going home on the bus, I would always think about my day. Try to figure out what I did well so I could continue to do the same thing. But I was also alert to what I could do better, what I didn’t do well, mistakes that I made. And I resolved never to make that same mistake again.”

You might say, José understood lifelong learning. He understood that life is as much a school as a building is. But life only teaches, we only learn if one has a robust capability to reflect. Otherwise, you are likely to continue to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. You won’t understand what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well you won’t be open to negative feedback, the information that tells us how we could do better.

Why Use Reflection?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

Reflection is very closely related to self-awareness. And self-awareness, is associated with consciousness and our self-concept and self-identity.

One of the more interesting experiments in this area was done a few years ago in a zoo in America. They had an elephant stared a very very large mirror. In the mirror she saw herself, but she also when she was looking at her self salt white mark on her for head. This is known as the mirror test. When she saw the red dot she was able to touch it with her trunk. She knew it didn’t belong there. She was reflecting, I suppose, that this wasn’t fashionable or elegant.The Mirror Test

Source: The Smithsonian

There are many reasons why you might want to use reflection. Here are a few of the most common reasons:

  • To improve your self-awareness: Reflection can help you to become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This can help you to understand yourself better and make better decisions.
  • To learn from your mistakes: Reflection can help you to learn from your mistakes so that you don’t make them again in the future.
  • To improve your relationships: Reflection can help you to understand your own needs and the needs of others. This can help you to improve your communication and build stronger relationships.
  • To reduce stress and anxiety: Reflection can help you to identify the sources of stress and anxiety in your life. This can help you to develop coping mechanisms and reduce your stress levels.

When you get good at reflection, you can adjust your behavior in real-time. This comes in handy in perfecting verbal communication skills such as interviewing. 

Strive to Prefect Skills with the Mastery Practices

Building a skill is actually not as difficult as it sounds. The problem? Most of us have never been taught how to learn new skills — except that you are supposed to practice, practice and practice. 

People Don’t Learn From Experience — J. Edward Deming

This concentration consists of Four Full Classes, one Short Course, and optional electives. All programs are offered online for convenience and ease of access.

Are you striving to reach the pinnacle of success but feel something is missing? That your efforts aren’t producing the results you want? 

Our mastery practices courses offer a comprehensive solution, equipping you with the tools to learn any skill effectively and fast-track your journey to skill mastery.

To master a skill, you need to PRACTICE PHYSICALLY and MENTALLY. For mental practice is just as effective as rehearsing behaviorally. And many SOFT SKILLS are best mastered by doing both.

Develop The Mastery Practice of Reflection

It’s been said, that success can be achieved in two ways — making better decisions or making less mistakes. Reflection helps you with both. And it helps your to develop skills so you don’t get stuck. 

“People Don’t Learn From Experience” — J. Edward Deming

Check out the online class on learning reflection to learn how you might benefit more from what life teaches.

This is a self-paced course. It’s low-cost and accessible 24/7.

Three Reasons To Practice Reflection

Charles-Amable Lenoir (1860–1926): Méditation. In Western art, meditation is not portrayed as sitting in the full-lotus posture as is done in the East. In fact, it may not be meditation at all but is really reflection.

Reflection: The Key to Learning and Growth

Reflection can be done in a variety of ways, such as journaling, talking to a therapist, or simply taking some time to sit quietly and think.

Without reflection, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We may never learn from our experiences or grow as individuals. Reflection is essential for learning and growth. It allows us to see our own blind spots, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and make changes in our lives.

Otherwise, we continue to make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again. As one nurse explained to me, “I’m a problem solver — I solved the same problem 50 times last year.”

The Dangers of Not Reflecting

Alexander Ignatius Roche (1861–1921): The Looking Glass.
Alexander Ignatius Roche (1861–1921): The Looking Glass. Reflection is vital, especially for individuals who cannot work with teachers and coaches. 

Without reflection, we live a life on automatic, repeating the same slip-ups, blunders, and missteps. We may never learn from our mistakes or grow as individuals. This can lead to a number of problems, such as:

  • Stuck in a rut: If we never reflect on our experiences, we may never realize that we are stuck in a rut. We may continue to make the same mistakes and never achieve our goals.
  • Low self-esteem: If we never reflect on our strengths and weaknesses, we may develop low self-esteem. We may never realize our potential and never reach our full potential.
  • Poor relationships: If we never reflect on our communication style or our needs, we may have poor relationships. We may not be able to communicate effectively with others or meet their needs.

Other Examples. Students keep getting bad grades since they fail to revamp study habits, memorization, or test-taking skills. Entrepreneurs expect sales to go up but refuse to change their business processes and strategies. And professors? They keep teaching the same boring lecture year after year without making changes.

The Importance of Reflection for Mastering Skills

Reflection is an important tool necessary for mastering mental and behavioral skills such as all types of communication skills, complex leadership styles, and self-mastery in general. When we reflect on our experiences, we can identify the specific skills that we need to improve. We can also identify the strategies that we need to use to master these skills.

For example, if we want to improve our communication skills, we can reflect on our past conversations. We can identify the specific areas where we need to improve, such as active listening, body language, or verbal clarity. We can also identify the strategies that we need to use to improve these areas, such as practicing active listening, taking a communication course, or reading books on communication.

Reflection is an essential tool for mastering any skill. It allows us to identify our strengths and weaknesses, develop strategies for improvement, and track our progress. If you want to master a skill, make sure to reflect on your experiences regularly.

Applications of Reflection

Daily Reflection

One of the best places to start would be to allocate a few minutes at the end of the day or at the beginning of a new day for daily reflection. Daily reflection in essence means the ability to go over past experience and determine what one should keep and what one should stop doing. It’s not that difficult, everybody has time, but we we have to start a new habit.

Improving Meeting Processes

A key meeting might be a face-to-face sit down with the boss. Another key meeting might be held in a conference room where there’s seven or eight or more people sitting around each trying to solve a problem, each trying to make themselves look good. It’s been my observation that there’s always something that could’ve gone better and there’s always something I missed. 

Mastering a Skill

The third very high payoff application for reflection concerns its value as a feedback mechanism when learning we skills. If you have a personal coach, you probably don’t have to do this. However most of us will have to reflect upon our performance to determine what we could do better and what we need to change. This is a process step that we incorporate into all our skill building programs

Case Example: So you know a sociopath?

As you know, sociopathic personality disorder has been around for a number of years. It’s relatively rare undefined except in prisons. But we see a less extreme form in too many business and political elites.

Definitions of the Disorder

Unfortunately, this type of personality structure also exists in “good people” who don’t go to jail.  As the article says, “She’s a successful law professor and a Sunday school teacher, with a host of family and friends. But her interpersonal calculus centers on how to manipulate and outmaneuver the many people in her life. Welcome to a world of ruthless cost-benefit analysis, charm, and grandiosity.”

Great article, well written and illustrative of someone with keen powers of self-awareness and reflection, two important mental processes associated with self-mastery.

Confessions of a Sociopath


If one wants to learn from experience, one must master reflection. It’s as simple, and as complex as that.

First published May 9, 2016. Updated June 16, 2023

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