The Mirage Of Self-Knowledge

Andrew Carnegie once said, “As I get older, I pay less attention to what men say, I watch what they do.” Today, people use a shorter version of it. If you want to know about the intentions of others, don’t listen to their words, but pay attention to their actions. Authors such as Jordan Peterson and Robert Greene have passed on this piece of advice.

The problem with this statement, is that it presupposes that your behavior is a direct result of what you value. But your behaviors and values are not necessarily in alignment? You can value free speech, and yet, refuse to speak freely. You can value bravery, and yet act in a cowardly way.

If you want to understand how someone behaves, it is not only important to observe how they behave, rather than listen to what they say, but to observe them over a long span of time. And there are times when what one says is a better expression of who they are, than what they act out. But, even if we consider that the sentiment to pay attention to actions rather than words is wise, how can we apply it to the problem of self-knowledge? How do you know what your values are?

If you can plot your values on a scale, then some activities must be on the lower end of the scale while others are on the higher end. But the mistaken presumption, and the problem with using language when trying to express something that is deeply personal, is that it is expected to accurately represent exactly which position on the scale your value is in (first, second, third?)

This gives credence to the idea that you should watch your behavior. Your values are too complex to verbalize, it is better to observe yourself. But the key point is time. In a given day, or week, there is very little you can discover about yourself. But if you think about your behavior over the course of many years, you get a more accurate picture of what your values are.

But values are dynamic, they change with time. So, even if you can pin your behavior to some kind of average between the different values you have had over time, it is still difficult to uncover any fixed values.

We expect ourselves to be able to know what our values are. But If you ask someone what their values are on a different day, or a different week, you may not get the same answer. Why we have this expectation of discovering something that is fixed within us, has much to do with how we were educated.

The trouble with an education is that it comes with a trade-off. In exchange for gaining valuable skills and knowledge, it also deludes you into thinking of the world as a caricature, where everything works in a clean and organized way. And you, of course, are expected to get to the bottom of things, if only you invest enough effort. When you are in school, you are never given a problem you cannot solve, so you graduate, assuming that all problems can be solved. And perhaps they can. But you have no idea how long it will take; you simply do not have an appropriate standard to relate to.

If you wanted to discover what your own values were, or what were the repressed contents of your unconscious, or what you are supposed to be passionate about, you expect to find the answer in a short amount of time. It is because your brain is primed to approach all problems this way.

But whatever you do happen to discover is only be a temporary approximation of the truth. Self-knowledge is a process that does not happen through a personality test, or an exercise, it is something that unfolds itself over a long span of time.

And if assume that neuroscience is correct about the mind, that it is plastic, this makes your task even more difficult. Not only are you trying to look for answers that are incredible in their difficulty, but these same answers are constantly changing, as your behaviors do. What can be said about a fixed set of values to be discovered, when you know that you are neither fixed, nor transparent?

Perhaps some core values do exist in each individual, but as they slowly change with time, they produce effects which we can hardly notice at first, until suddenly, we realize that we have transformed into someone completely different than we once were.

The incremental changes that occurred with time were sufficient to change our identity. If you have ever written anything in your life, then you have had this experience of thinking that what you have written before might as well have been written by another person. The contents of the thoughts on the page become so alien to you, that you cannot help but wonder, what will you be thinking in a few months? A few years?

The point is, there is no trick. There is no way to “hack” your consciousness. Anything you do to discover truths about yourself will take a long time, and there is no way to short-circuit this process.

Yet, a preliminary investigation into one’s values is necessary, if only to move slightly. Without an anchor, even minimal movement is impossible. The issue is in trying to search for an anchor that is deeply submerged, that it is unmovable. The search for that illusory object is the cause of much despair, anxiety, and exhaustion.

To know who you truly are is not freeing, it is addictive. And yet, we should not simply abandon the pursuit of self-knowledge. But we should be realistic about what we expect to find, and what information, once we have found it, is sufficient to act as a temporary anchor, to signal the end of one journey, and the beginning of another. And once that journey has come to an end, and we require a new pit stop, it would be time to find a new anchor.

And it is the constant process of renewal, of not just knowledge structures, but value systems, that transforms us into what we ought to become: a character who sees value in everything but permanence in nothing. A person who accepts that complexity is not an arithmetic equation to be solved, but a reality one must learn to contend with.

Originally published at