Do you know who you are?  It sounds like an easy question, but if you spend a little bit of time reflecting on that question, the answer might not be so obvious. According to the Ancient Greeks, the source of all wisdom and clarity is to Know Thyself. That Motto Know Thyself was one of the maxims inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. With this inscription, the Oracles at Delphi invited people to gaze inwards and discover that the essence of one’s life is not be searched outside ourselves, but within. To know one’s self is to see clearly, to know the nature of the Universe and part of learning how to love yourself.

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The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, featuring the motto, “γνῶθι σεαυτόν” or “Know Thyself.”

Knowing who we are, and the meaning of existence is at the core of what philosophers spend most of their time thinking about. Socrates declared that “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.”

So, if you listen to the Wise Men of Ancient Greece, starting from a position of humility and accepting the extent of your ignorance you may find the path to wisdom. A lot of us like to think of ourselves as pretty smart, rational individual, and funny too. But what if we’re wrong? Do we overestimate our own abilities and are we completely blind to our own failings?

Socrates, the Wisest Man in Athens

Socrates was once a soldier; his first proper engagement was at Potidaea in 432 BC and was in active service for approximately 11 years experiencing both victory and defeat. Socrates distinguished himself on the battlefield; at a retreat from the Battle of Delium, the Athenian general Laches said: ‘If all the Athenians had fought as bravely as Socrates, the Boeotians would have erected no (victory) statues.’

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Socrates, “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.”

After his service in war, Socrates devoted himself to this favorite pastime: pursuit of the truth.  His reputation as a philosopher, literally meaning a lover of wisdom soon spread across Athens and beyond. When told that the Oracle of Delphi revealed to one of his friends that he was the wisest man in Athens, Socrates responded, not by boasting or celebrating, but by trying to prove the Oracle wrong.

Socrates decided to find out if anyone knew what was truly worthwhile in life, as anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him. He questioned everyone he could find, but no one could give him a satisfactory answer. Instead, they all pretended to know something they clearly did not. Finally, he realized the Oracle might be right after all; he was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not.

What is Self Awareness?

Do you know who you are is a deep question to ask yourself. Asking yourself this type of question is tremendously important to help become more self-aware.

Self-awareness is a conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires; without self-awareness, many of your choices are made unconsciously; who to love or not to love, why you feel sad, why you feel happy, why you stay in your current job?

There are many examples of self-awareness that show improved decision making and avoiding us reacting inappropriately to any moment causing unnecessary suffering and resulting in a spotty experience of happiness and peace.

“Way too many people are going to spend 30–40 years of their life trying to check the boxes of the things that they’re not good at and waste a fuck load of time and lose.”
– Gary Vaynerchuck.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias characterized by inappropriate overconfidence about mastery of a subject. The term was coined by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999 in a study called Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. The study derived from the cognitive bias evident in the criminal case of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks while his face was covered with lemon juice, which he believed would make him invisible to surveillance cameras.

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The Invisible Lemon Man

The Lemon Man is an example of self-awareness, or rather a lack of self-awareness which ended disastrously. Investigations of similar phenomena, such as Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,’ came to similar conclusions, i.e. that people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. Dunning himself stated that “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent,” but also noted the reason for this over-inflation seems to be ignorance, not arrogance.

So, why is this a problem? It’s a problem because if you have a tendency to overestimate your abilities you will end up making sub-optimal decisions until your mis-assumptions catch up with you.

“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are so confident and the intelligent are so full of doubt”,
Bertrand Russell

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can is a film based on the life of Frank Abagnale, who, before his 19th birthday, successfully performed cons worth millions of dollars by posing as a Pan American World Airways pilot. It’s also a catchphrase that has been used by a much less-successful criminal taunting police via Facebook.

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Catch Me If You Can!

Logan Rhys James, a criminal on the run in England was wanted for breaching his prison release terms after serving a sentence for wounding, affray, common assault and being in possession of a knife. He was so confident of his ability to evade the police that he posted a picture of himself on his Facebook account with the caption: “Haha, catch me if you can”. He was caught by the police later that day and sent back to prison.

Driving Skills

Another area where people over-estimate their skills is driving. with most people thinking their skills are above average, not to say exceptional. One study conducted in 2003 in the US found that 673 out of 909 motorists believed they were better than the average driver. This inflated self-perception of their driving performance may contribute to excessive risk-taking behind the wheel.

Overestimate or Underestimate Competence?

As well as showing that less-competent people tend to overestimate their abilities, the Dunning-Kruger effect study also showed that competent people tend to underestimate their own competence. This ability to underestimate our capabilities can also produce sub-optimal decisions, but does have some positive impact by increasing our capacity for humility, curiosity, and a drive to improve ourselves.

That drive to improve ourselves can be deeply rooted in culture; researcher Dr. Steven Hein, a psychologist at the university of British Columbia, did similar studies to Dunning-Kruger but looking at the issue from a different angle by comparing North American and East Asian people. When asked to self-assess their abilities, Hein’s study revealed that East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities, with an aim toward improving the self and getting along with others, whilst the North American tend to overestimate their ability and competence.

There are cultural, social and individual motives that explain these tendencies. As Western society becomes more individualistic, a successful life is equated with confidence, self-assurance, and high self-esteem (often to the verge of arrogance). Conversely, East Asians tend to adopt a self-improving or self-critical self-view, the downside effect of this being they tend not to feel so good about themselves.

Believe to Succeed

Knowing Thyself, knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important so that you can exploit your strengths and seek help in areas where you are weak. To know who you are is important, but, in addition, belief and commitment are as big a part of the equation too.

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Believe to Succeed

There is a robust body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that suggests that people who believe they will become successful at something are most likely to succeed. Similarly, there are countless stories of cancer patients who credit their survival to a positive mindset and their determination to survive this terrible illness. Inspirational quotes such as your thoughts determine your future are popular in the self-help sphere.

So, in your Quest for self-awareness, is it better to overestimate yourself or underestimate your abilities? I think Mark Manson nailed it by advising us to overestimate your future and underestimate your past; acknowledge the fact that you know nothing, this will give you the benefit of humility, but overestimate the future, these positive expectations will give you the benefit of higher performance.

And this Is Your Quest!


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36 Comments »

  1. Knowing yourself is a good start. In my view that start begins with acknowledging what we are as human beings. Our purpose as is the ‘purpose’ of all life is to survive, and take advantage of opportunities to pass on our genetic heritage (reproduction) From an evolutionary perspective the brain learned from the beginning that the potential for survival and reproduction is enhanced when it gives up a modicum of individual security in deference to the group. This ability to cooperate and collaborate (technology) with others enabled the unprecedented success we have experienced over the millennia. Reproductive success. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here to have a discussion.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect is a way to describe how the brain responds on a moment to moment basis as it processes sensory information from the environment including other brains in the ongoing trade off between individual security (threat) and the perceived (learned) advantage of submitting to the needs of the group to obtain a greater sense of security (strength in numbers) We have also given this constant process a label called trust. In other words my brain is prepared to let my guard down to an extent to which I believe another will do the same to our mutual advantage (risk uncertainty)

    A perceived over confidence, or lack thereof is just how individual brains manage the security trade off with others. Clinical psychologists and social anthropologists have studied this for years. The brain is very capable of deception as a survival mechanism. The purpose of deception is to fool others not yourself. All in an effort to secure an advantage in situations where a mutual advantage is not available.

    Of course none of these actions or behaviours are a matter of agency, as the notion of free will is an illusion manufactured by our imagination to facilitate the learned ability to interact with other individuals as social animals.

    So getting back to the first statement (knowing yourself) The first step is to acknowledge the fact we are social animals just trying to survive and reproduce. Once we resign ourselves to this reality all of our potential actions and behaviours make sense, and we can accept who we are nothing more, nothing less. This realization in turn frees us up from all the contradictions reflected in our imagination. From their we can relax and enjoy the ride !

  2. Thank you, Joanne, for sharing. The invisible lemon man? Now, that gave me a good laugh when I thought about it. I also agree with you : knowing who we are will give meaning to our existence.

    Definitely worth reading. Keep writing your heart out. Blessings ❤️.

  3. I came out with my own little saying… “Know what you know and know what you don’t know” that I believe is a good starting point to put yourself goals, realistic goals.

  4. Took me 42 years to really know myself, it took 2 failed marriages, a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt that very nearly succeeded. But finally coming to terms with who I am saved me. Of course I still have had days, ups and downs, I’m a human being. But finding myself truly saved me.

    • Thank you for stopping by and for sharing your story! Being in a state of despair is not a good place to be. So glad to hear that you managed to pull yourself out of this dark places. Well done! Feel free to check out my latest article ‘The Art of Being Still’. If you liked reading ‘Do you Know Who You Are’, you may like this one!

  5. That’s the first step. Is too know thyself!! Thank you Joanne, I’m going to follow you as what you say is what I’ve been battling with for a long time. And I feel I know myself but I want to know more about myself if that makes any sense. But again. Thank you. First you need to know yourself. Then you need to know where your going. Well that’s how I’m living and I feel better for it so thank you again!!

    • Jamie. I am so glad to hear that this article resonates with you 😊🙏 and if it gave you a little bit more Clarity then, it makes me really happy. My book “This Is Your Quest” is full of similar insight and wisdom gathered from various philosophers and thinkers. You may want to check it out. Best of luck on your self-awareness journey!

  6. Thank you Joanne I’ll definitely get it as your right I do want more clarity. Because once I do I can also help more people. Thank you

  7. Know Thyself! The process of knowing oneself is never finished as we are ever expanding and each experience grows us into a more complex personality. With every person we meet, we get to see ourselves in a new light, creating a unique dynamic and feeling. Great words!

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