the value of self-knowledge

Do you ever wonder, why did I have that fight about something stupid last night? Do you ever realize you just spent an hour wondering what someone else thinks of you? Do you ever think you are no closer to your goals than you were last year?  For some of you there is a way to help yourself improve in areas like these. “Help yourself”; that is the key. This isn't a post with an easy answer.

When it comes to marketing messages, one of my favorites is, “the few, the proud, the Marines.” The Marines don’t say “we can help anyone do this.” No, they say only a few will make it, do you have what it takes? Similarly, I’m not going to give you an easy formula and say anyone can do it.  What I’m talking about is self knowledge. Self knowledge carries many benefits:

  • It helps you formulate the goals or the why of your life

  • It helps you align your behavior with your standards
  • It reduces your dependence on the acceptance of others
  • It helps understand how and why others are different and therefore be more accepting of them
  • If you are partial to existentialist philosophy, it is a moral good

PhotonQ-Cold Thinking

Aren’t we all self-aware? Not as much as you might think.  There are some things that you are an authority on regarding yourself.  A great example is your mood.  By far the most reliable way to find out someone's current mood is to ask them.  No Mentalist can't compete with that methodology.  Note that only works for right now.  Asking about last week's mood is much less reliable.

For most things in our heads, we do not have a privileged view of your own knowledge. For instance if you try and enumerate every movie you have ever seen you will fail.  Sure, you might rattle off a couple hundred.  But then a couple of days later you'll see The Lost Boys on TV and say, "oh yeah, I forgot that one!"  Then you'll kill a couple of hours watching it.  Because that movie is great.

This contributes to the better-than-average effect.  Almost every person alive thinks they are better drivers, better lovers, and have a better sense of humor than the average Joe.  This happens because we don’t understand our own abilities (lack of privileged knowledge).  And even if we did we'd have no way to make an objective comparison with others.  So we end up making self-affirming comparisons to those other idiot drivers we see everyday.  After doing that a few years in a row we conclude that we are above average.

So I’ve learned that I have merely an average sense of humor. That is a disappointment. I’m still a better driver than all those idiots though.

It gets worse. Being a scientifically-minded type, I grew up think I was eminently rational and always logical. You might think that I would learn otherwise the first time I had a girlfriend.  But no, it took a little more convincing for me.  I have read many, many examples of science showing us why we peeps are not rational automatons.  Eventually I gave in.  Here are a couple of  examples from the You Are Not So Smart blog if you'd like to know more.

Beyond my irrationality and yours, what else can we learn?  Tons!  I'll give another example or two.


We tend to think that we notice what is going on around us and see what is really there.  But it turns out that we are only focused on part of the whole.  Our brains then "fill in the blanks" of what we think we saw.  One study I read about in the great book Stumbling on Happiness went like this...  A researcher stops to asks for directions to a campus building and hands a map to a subject.  As the subject looks over the map, construction workers walk between the researcher and the subject with a large piece of wood.  The researcher hides behind the wood and walks away and a second researcher jumps in his place.  The two researchers look completely different.  It sounds like a slapstick comedy but most subjects do not notice.  With their minds focused on the map they forgot what the researcher looked like and just accepted the second researcher's appearance!

Or how about our ability to imagine the future without regard to the here and now?  From the same book...  People at a fitness center are asked "if you were lost in the woods, would you rather have food or water?"  Those who just arrive answered 61%-39% in favor of water.  But those who just stepped off the treadmill answered 91%-9% in favor of water.

So this is all very depressing.  Didn't I promise an answer albeit a difficult one?  Building an ever-more complete picture of ourselves is a lifelong endeavor and takes conscious effort. It does not just happen with age.

Here are things I do to improve my knowledge

  • read philosophy and psychology, compare what I learn with what I know of myself

  • look for insights into why I do what I do; and others too (observation)
  • strive to be aware of pitfalls of irrationality, an easy one to look at is pet peeves: why do I get so worked up about x
  • look for like-minded others and ask them what they have learned


And here is some good news.  We can train ourselves to be more introspective.

Undertaking this challenge will help you change yourself into who you want to be, give you a better understanding of why others act the way they do, increase your ability to be more self-reliant, and give you a better understanding of what you really want out of life. Now the only question is, will you be one of the few that pursues it?