Towards Better Understanding Ourselves

A key difference between my 20s and my 30s is my increased understanding of myself. I have a better sense of what brings me joy, fulfillment, and motivation. I know what my values are and I have experienced how acting against them, even if pleasant in the long term, can lead to long term stress and unhappiness. I have some idea of which foods improve my health and mood and what tools improve my sleep quality. In general, I find it easy to be happier in my 30s as, by knowing myself, I can more easily follow your advice of focussing on the important and eliminating distractions.

I’m still not done in my journey of self-understanding and I hope that in my 40s I’ll be even better equipped to “be me”. In this post, I’d like to take a moment to reflect, though, on the tools I’ve used in the past and to try to systematize them to help myself and others in the future.

1. Learning from others

The design space of “who you are” is truly huge. It encompasses your values, your motivations, your hobbies, your health, your mental models, etc. It helps that you have your whole life to make incremental progress on each of these areas, but how do you even start? How do you put words to some of these concepts? 

I think one of the best ways to explore this design space is to find role models that you can emulate for different aspects of your life. These can be people that are present in your life or people you’ve only learned about through reading. Perhaps you have a friend who you admire as the “kindest person you know”, or someone who always knows what to say at a party. Perhaps you’ve read about Frank Gehry or Justice Ginsberg and have found something you wish to emulate in the trajectory of their life. In either case, the habits and practices of the people you admire can start helping you form templates and hypotheses about yourself. Not all of these will prove to be true to you, but by experimenting and reflecting we can keep what works for us and discard the rest.

2. Design Experiments

Once we have a list of hypotheses about ourselves, sometimes we need to experiment to discover what holds true. It’s never true that your life, values, or motivations will exactly match any of the individuals you admire. To discover what’s uniquely you, you’ll have to be willing to experiment.

The key to successful experimentation, though, is a willingness to fail. It’s far easier to falsify a hypothesis than to prove it, and so it’s often our failures that teach us the most about who we are. This is perhaps easiest to see in the exercise domain. You don’t really know how much you can squat until you’ve tried a weight that’s a little too high and you’ve failed to lift it. Similarly, it may be that, if we’re testing the hypothesis about what motivates us or whether a certain career path is for us, we may have to try and fail before learning our truth. My only caution with this is to set up your experiments in ways that avoid catastrophic failure. Just as you wouldn’t start testing your physical limits by jumping to try to squat 1000 lbs, you may not want to test your values by irreconcilably hurting those closest to you. Experiment with caution, but do accept that failure from time to time is part of the process.

3. Reflect 

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of journaling. As you experiment and discover truths about yourself, it’s important to capture them down in written form. This will prevent you from going in circles with your experiments, might help you see larger patterns in your life, and will also help you build the skill of articulating who you are.

Another good way to reflect and capture your experiences is to tell others who you are. Share your beliefs, habits, and values. Sometimes, this will lead to great opportunities – someone may want to help you test your belief about your next career step. Sometimes, this will lead to arguments as you encounter folks with different values or experiences than your own. As long as you can argue respectfully, it’s an invaluable opportunity to be forced to discuss your differences with others, where your values might differ from there’s, and how you resolve the natural tension between values differently. This, in turn, will help you develop a deeper vocabulary by which to understand yourself.

4. Maintain a growth mindset

I’d like to end with a caveat, which is that, even as you discover more and more about yourself, do not fall into the trap of having a “Fixed Mindset”. Do not believe that your talents and abilities are pre-ordained and avoid statements like “I am not good at X”. Instead, treat experimentation as an opportunity to explore a “Growth Mindset”. If you could learn anything with enough effort, where would you like to spend the effort to be the best version of yourself?

So, NC, what do you think of this little system to learn more about ourselves? How have you gotten to a place in your 30s where you know yourself well? Are there still things about yourself that you’re trying to figure out?

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