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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
For more on this subject you can purchase my book This is Your Quest online at BookLocker, from Amazon or from Barnes & Noble. The Ebook version is available on Amazon (Kindle), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Apple (iBooks) & Kobo. Check out my Amazon Author Page here or my listing on Booksradar.com.