Understand Your Situation: How to do a Personal SWOT Analysis

GPS tool personal situation SWOT analysis
Photo by Kamaji Ogino: https://www.pexels.com/photo/crop-hiker-with-smartphone-in-forest-5064609/

The importance of understanding where you are before setting off to where you want to go

Where are you right now? What is your location and present situation? 

Having an accurate assessment of our current circumstances is very important. As novelist and poet Wendell Berry notes:

“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” – Wendell Berry

The importance of situational awareness

“Show me where you are.”

The sergeant looked at me expectedly, waiting for me to point out my location on the map. It was a simple question, and in most cases, a simple thing to answer but in this situation, it was not straightforward.

I, along with a group of other military trainees, had just been dropped off from the back of a truck. We had been travelling for over an hour and, during that time, we had not been able to see much due to the canvas covering the vehicle. The only glimpses of the outside world were through the flapping material to the rear, and that view was usually little more than a receding track.

So, in this case, the question (from the slightly scary senior non-commissioned officer) triggered immediate feelings of anxiety. 

I took some deep breaths to stem the rising panic.

Having wrestled my pre-frontal cortex back from this temporary amygdala hijacking, I started to think. Where was I? What clues could I see that would help me identify my exact location? 

We were not allowed to use a GPS device but there were other things to help me. I knew where I had started and, with a rough time and distance appreciation, I could at least guess at the general area we had been dropped at. Next, looking at the relief of the land, I could see a couple of distinct hills and the track intersected with a nearby stream in a re-entrant (small valley). I found similar features on my map and then made sure their alignment was correct by using my compass. 

Don’t start moving forward until you know where you are 

I looked up from the map and, using a blade of grass, pointed out where I thought I was to the sergeant. He gave no sign that I was either right or wrong. He just said, “Your next checkpoint is at grid 385957. The clock has started.”

The pressure of the situation rose again. More deep breaths. This was a timed march and we had to finish the course in under the set time or risk failing the course. I quickly found the grid reference on the map and started to take a bearing that would give me my starting direction.

As I was trying to do this, I saw people running off in various directions. Worry again. How had they finished so fast? Were they trying to go to the same place? If so, weren’t they going the wrong way? Or had I got the location wrong?

I suppressed the urge to start running. As people left the area, I swiftly re-checked my logic. I came to the same conclusion. my location was correct; I was ready to set off. Stowing my map, I fixed my eyes on a feature in the distance, as indicated by my compass, and started the shuffling run of the over-burdened soldier. 

Fortunately, I got it right and I completed the test. Not everyone was so lucky. Hours later, after the cut-off, various figures hauled themselves and their heavy rucksacks back into the wagon. Their bodies sagged with defeat. I recognised many of the same faces that I had seen dashing off prematurely at the start.

The GPS Tool: A Personal SWOT Analysis.

I was not fortunate enough to have a GPS then but most of the time now, when I am in the mountains or on an expedition, I carry a GPS device. It is a great tool for quickly and accurately confirming one’s location. Along with other tools, such as a map and compass, one can build a good picture of the situation.

In our life’s journey, it is also important to periodically confirm our current position so we can make good choices about our next steps. We need to understand where we are to ensure we successfully get where we want to go.

Various conceptual tools can help with this, but it is hard to beat the SWOT analysis. Like a GPS, it gives us a quick snapshot of where we are and provides the data we need to do an effective situational assessment. 

You have likely come across the SWOT Analysis tool before, but you might not have used it as a tool to examine your personal circumstances. We might think we know where we are and roughly what our situation is, but what does that actually mean? As Malcolm Gladwell puts it:

“The key to good decision-making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” – Malcolm Gladwell

The SWOT analysis allows us to quickly identify the key themes of our current situation and then analyse them to have a better understanding and then make better decisions about future direction. 

How to do a Personal SWOT analysis

To do a personal SWOT analysis you can follow these simple steps:

Step 1: Create

The SWOT table is created this way:

  • Strengths and weaknesses are usually listed in the first row of the matrix; S and then W. These relate to internal factors.
  • Opportunities and threats are external issues or circumstances. These create the second row; O and then T. 
  • In this layout, the first column, strengths and opportunities, are the positive or helpful factors
  • The second column, weaknesses and threats, are the potentially negative or harmful issues

Step 2: Brainstorm

Now, brainstorm as many different considerations as you can under each heading to fill out the matrix. 

Here are some questions to help you:

Strengths (internal/personal):
  • What are your key skills, areas of experience or expertise?
  • Can you define what makes you different? What is your USP (unique selling point/proposition)?
  • What are your core values? What do you love, enjoy, or prioritise?
Weaknesses (internal/personal):
  • What do you not enjoy doing?
  • Where have you failed or fallen behind others?
  • What skill gaps do you have?
 Threats (external/circumstantial):
  • What circumstances are most troubling you?
  • Who is your major competition?
  • Which challenge is the most important right now?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen to you/?
Opportunities (external/circumstantial):
  • How can you leverage your present situation?
  • Who/what could most help you right now?
  • How is change providing new openings?

Step 3: Prioritise

Now prioritise the items in each section and work out which are the top three to five things in each quadrant.

Step 4: Analyse

Look at each item in turn and consider the actions you could take. Here are some questions to help:

  • How can you play to or maximise your strengths?
  • What personal development goals, people and processes can help address your weaknesses?
  • How can you exploit, expand or multiply the opportunities?
  • What control measures do you need to put in place to limit the threats?

Now look for any further relationships you can identify across the columns, rows and diagonals.

Remember that weaknesses are often a reflection of strengths. For example, if you have a strength in that you are very good at coming up with lots of ideas, or you are a business with lots of products, a weakness might be that you find it hard to focus on just one of them. 

Similarly, look at the flip side of external factors; you may find that threats can also provide opportunities. 

Personal situational awareness: know where you are and what that means

The instructions above are taken from a longer post, so if you would like more background on the SWOT analysis and an example then please read: How to Do a SWOT Analysis

You can also watch the YouTube video for further explanation and a visual of how to create a personal SWOT template.

Once you are happy, take some time to do a personal SWOT analysis and note down your findings. Sometimes that means facing some unpleasant realities but confronting the brutal facts (as per the Stockdale Paradox) is a crucial element of planning for a successful outcome. As writer James Baldwin observed:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – James Baldwin

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