In Your Twenties? A Life Lesson in Deep Self-Awareness
Self-awareness…The idea that there is such a thing as your ‘true self’ is an odd one. It’s odd because if you think about it, you are you. How could you be anything other than your true self? Who could possibly be better at playing you, then you?
“There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.”- William James
But the fact that we all know too well the advice “just be yourself” or as Janis Joplin says “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got” tells us that often people live a life outside of their true self. The very presence of this advice, that is common to us all, points that people aren’t living their ‘true selves’ and instead are spend time being someone else.
But why do we need this advice and is it good advice?
A Lesson in Being Yourself and Self-Awareness
For me, I’ve never found it too difficult to be myself. I always thought I had good self-awareness, that was until I got to University and entered the world of work. When you’re faced with a new situation or place, often that is the biggest test of whether you know yourself. You might think you know yourself but when you are thrust into a new situation, where you’re coming across decisions you’ve never had to make before, you might find you are a little at odds with yourself.
But as I’ve navigated both University and work so far and feel I’m more myself than ever, I thought I’d share my learnings.
For me, a few things have helped. First, it’s about remembering that a good life, a well-lived life is one that is unapologetically yours. You don’t want to live life on someone else’s terms. As Aristotle says, wisdom is knowing yourself.
Secondly, it’s about realising that different is good. As Caroline McHugh says the commonality is that they all had nothing in common. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of trying to replicate each other because we think that’s what it means to be successful but often the sole reason people are so successful is they’ve found who they are.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, I’ve taken a leaf out of my 3-year-old self’s book. Back then I wouldn’t care what anyone would think and now I’m embracing that.
What Aristotle Had to Say About Oneself (Self-Awareness)
Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle had a lot to say about a lot of things. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls him ‘one of the greatest philosophers of all time’. He is said to have written nearly 200 pieces of written work, of which about 31 pieces have survived. Much of his work helped form philosophy for centuries to come. He has some wise words to say about being yourself:
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” — Aristotle
In her research, Jessica Schlegel mentions Aristotle’s conception of ‘eudaimonia’ which refers to a life that is lived in truth with one’s “daimon” (essentially one’s spirit). In other words, living a ‘true life’ and maybe even a ‘good life’ is about staying close to who you are and what you believe in.
Finnish philosopher Juha Sihvola wrote a masterpiece ‘Ancient Philosophy of the Self’, in which he describes Aristotle’s thoughts on who we are as people and the importance of knowing yourself.
“A human being can be ignorant of who she is, what she is doing, what or whom she is acting on, as well as with what instrument, to what end and how she is doing it.”
But yet being all of those things is, at least for Aristotle would be considered madness.
“However, Aristotle thought that only mad people can be ignorant of all of these things, and he does also not seem to allow the possibility of being ignorant of the agent (agno¯esei ton prattonta), for how could it happen that a human being does not know oneself?”
And it’s a good question. How does a human being come to the point that they do not know the person staring back at them in the mirror?
The Thing We All Have in Common is That We Have Nothing in Common That’s Self-Awareness
Caroline McHugh, the former CEO of IDOLOGY, helps people be themselves for a living. In her TEDTalk, she says that the people that are best at being themselves are those that have managed to work out what their ‘gift’ is. Another word for this could be talent or passion, these people have managed to work out what they are good at. No small feat in itself.
“In fact, what they have in common is they have nothing in common” — Caroline McHugh
There are many people roaming around the Earth as we speak scratching their heads trying to work out what they are good at. One of the problems haunting that question is that we tend to contextualise the word ‘good’. In other words, what I consider good might be completely rubbish when I compare it to what you think is good. The key though is to not focus on what others consider good, instead consider what you know and what you think is good.
McHugh goes on to say that once these people have identified what they are good at, they ‘put that at the surface of their goals’. But of course, in order to put something at the surface of your goals, you need to be fairly confident that this is you ‘gift’, that this is your ‘one true thing’. So with that being said, she asks one simple question:
“Who do you think you are?”
And well, what a question. How do you know who you are? Is it:
Who you surround yourself with?
What you wear?
What you eat?
Or is it:
McHugh says that you are already different, your job is to find out how and year after year work on being more different, work on being you.
And For the 3-Year Olds?
Look at a 3-year old. They have no trouble being who they are. They run around a playground laughing and playing. They never stop to figure out whether the way they just ran was really them. They don’t question their every action or stop themselves from doing something because of what others think. They just do what they do.
If you ask a 3-year-old their thoughts they’ll tell you willingly. It might be a little incoherent but they’re not afraid. They don’t hold back. They play, laugh, they are inquisitive and tenacious. Most admirably, they are unapologetic about themselves.
And our elder relatives are the same.
Often we look to our grandparents and admire their originality. We laugh at how abrupt or straight down the line they are. We wish we could be that honest and forth-right. The truth is, they’ve got to a point in their life where they couldn’t care less what others think, they’ve resulted in one small conclusion: life is too short to care too closely of what others think.
Maybe we should take a leaf out of their book. Maybe we should work on our self-awareness.
Self-awareness remains the focus. The question we should remain close to is as simple as the one McHugh asks. That question is:
‘who do you think you are?’
Maybe in constantly asking that, we start to find who we are in this world and once we do that we can find greater joy in life. Perhaps the greatest joy is to work out who you actually are and work tirelessly to become completely that.
One of the most wonderful things in life is that the one thing we all have in common is that we have nothing in common and there is a real beauty to be found in the differences.
If only you have the courage to be your different.