Know Thyself: Three Steps to Understanding

Inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple at Delphi is the Greek maxim, Gnothi Seauton. In English, that maxim means, ‘Know Thyself.’ It’s an aphorism used numerous times in the dialogues of Socrates by Plato.

Gnothi Seauton

I’ve encountered the phrase in other places. Years ago, as I was working my way through a master’s program in International Relations, I encountered the phrase in an academic text examining the intricacies of world governments, nations, and cultures. That maxim, ‘Know Thyself’ was a call to action by the author. He posited that before we can really understand others, we must first know ourselves.

So, what does it mean to know thyself? Sounds simple enough. At first thought, I’m sure most people think, ‘I know myself well–I’ve been living with myself for years!’

But on an existential level, do we really know ourselves? And is it fact that, as an end, it really justifies the means? Is there actual benefit in knowing myself or is it philosophical gas? And to what degree must I know myself before it’s determined that I’m eligible to understand others?

Those are all questions that became the foundation for my looking more closely at the issue. It’s my nature to question everything. Some of my questions, I’m certain, kept me out of Yale. But, I admit I must know the why’s, and how’s before I accept most conclusions even on matters that others may find simple.

And some questions I began asking at a very young age–like how did mankind settle on drinking cow’s milk rather than milk from other mammals? Why not elk, moose, or whale milk? The concept of ‘ease of access’ was not familiar to me then. I surmised that cows have not always been domesticated. There’s always a first for everything. So, who was the first man or woman to give it a try and suggest their findings to neighbors? That question began titillating my mental synapses at about age four when milk became my favorite beverage.

Another perplexing mystery had to do with shopping. People who load their shopping carts as they meander through the grocery store do not actually own those goods until they pay for them at check-out. The goods in their carts are just on loan until they become purchased property at the final stage of shopping. So, aside from the brutal social ramifications, I concluded theoretically, one could pluck desirable goods out of another’s shopping cart at any point before check-out without the cops being called for theft! I constructed that complex syllogism at about age six.

As I grew and matured, the questions became more complex as my horizons broadened. Wisdom gained from experience will do that. You know your philosophical acumen has ‘arrived’ when you hypothesize on things broader than food and grocery shopping. It was in that formative stage when I began to analyze people and cultures. And ever since, it’s been a hobby of mine to try to understand the nature of individuals, groups, and nations.

But in that end, I’m always driven back to the original question, ‘how does one actually come to know himself or herself?’ What is the process? Does it happen quickly or does one have to labor through harrowing steps to reach that final stage of enlightenment?

In a general sense, I think the answer lies with the individual. We all process information differently and we see the world and our individual environments differently. So, it would follow that the process of coming to know oneself would depend on individual learning styles and understanding.

I’ve listed three things you could use to enhance the process. They worked for me and I think they will work for you–moving closer to that final goal encompassed in the phrase, ‘Know Thyself.’

Write Your Memoir

Years ago, I embarked on a project of story writing. The stories I wrote were true stories of my life written to my kids. I wanted them to know what life was like growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. I wanted them to catch a glimpse of life growing up in Idaho. I had many mysterious and adventurous tales rattling around in my mind that needed life. So, I started the project, one story at a time. Soon, I had a large number of tales, so I set about connecting them in a logical, time-oriented format.

I found the process delightful as I discovered common themes throughout the story. My story project soon took shape as a mystery novel, an adventure novel, and a love story combined into one. And there were even elements of a ‘How-to’ story appearing here and there to add flavor and intrigue. All those genres were represented in a book that, as I wrote the final paragraph, had become a 130,000-word anthology of the first 20 years of my life.

I encourage you to do the same–write your story! Mention every important detail that molded you into what you are today. Discuss relationships, adventures, failures, quirky behaviors, goals, and anything that delves into your inner self. One way to do this is to start like I did. Write some stories. And then connect those stories into chapters. Transition them using simple techniques of ‘time and place’ descriptions. Get creative!

I’ve had some folks say, ‘I have a hard time remembering the details of my life. There’s no way I could write a memoir. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning, let alone what I did last year or twenty years ago!’

Memory is an interesting thing and sometimes, it is hard to recall the minutia of our lives. But often those are the very details that are most interesting. Here’s a method you might try in order to recall things more clearly. It’s a method I developed and used for my own memoir. It’s a simple game I call, ‘General-to-Specific.’ Here’s how it works.

Get a pen and paper and find a comfortable place to sit where it’s quiet and peaceful. After you get comfortable, close your eyes and mentally transport your mind back in time to a place and time you want to recall. In your mind, find the largest object in that time and place that had meaning to you. It might be a house you lived in, a car you drove, your favorite building, store, business, or amusement park.

After you mentally picture that large object in your mind, imagine yourself standing or sitting in or near that object. For example, if you chose a house you lived in, imagine yourself standing on the porch of that house. Then mentally look around and try to recall every detail that touched or related to that object. It might be people, trees, roads, cars, or other buildings. Then recall every single thing you experienced with that object in relation to the other things around it.

You might remember people’s faces, names, experiences you had, or things you witnessed. As soon as your memory files open-up, start writing down the things you recall. I found it easier to write single words or short phrases that described those memories. You just want to be able to jog your memory when you come back to those notes later.

The final step in the process is to write those memories into coherent strings of thought and form them into stories. Using this process, you might find the details of your life were more interesting than you thought. As you read and ponder on your finished memoir, you will notice general themes that define the real you.

Take a Personality Test

We’ve all seen numerous tests on social media that identify personality traits. Typically, those tests ask a barrage of questions, and based on the answers you give to those questions, a profile is identified describing your personality.

My favorite test is found using the URL www.16personalities.com. There, you will find a secured website where you can take a short test made up of general questions regarding psychological preferences of the world around you and how you make decisions.

The test and results are based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) developed primarily by Kathrine Cook Briggs and her daughter. MBTI is established from the conceptual theory proposed by Carl Jung who speculated there are four principle psychological functions through which human beings experience the world. They are ‘sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking.’ Typically, one of the four functions is dominant for most people most of the time.

Of course, no test can completely measure or define a person’s personality with all its depth and intricacies. But it’s a reliable guide.

After you discover your personality profile, peruse the related literature describing your profile. Doing that, you may identify interesting tidbits of new understanding about your thoughts, feelings, and actions related to your personality.

Construct Your Guiding Principles Statement

The last step in this exercise of coming to ‘know thyself’ is to formulate your own guiding principles statement. The benefits from this simple activity are huge. A personal guiding principles statement is a concise, descriptive statement containing your core values defining your purpose and existence.

Some basic questions you might ask yourself when you construct your guiding principles statement are: How do I view myself in relation to others? What key words would I use to describe my business dealings? Do I believe in a being or power higher than myself? How do I view the ethics of work, recreation, finances, economy, and patriotism?

As you ponder those questions, view yourself as you are now and then how you wish to become. Define yourself. Once you have done that, write a single sentence containing all the descriptive words that define who you are. And then memorize that statement.

Your guiding principles statement is important because it helps remind you in explicit terms the values most important to you. Those core values guide your life’s decisions and broadly determine who you are and what you will become.

Coming to ‘know thyself’ is a process of discovery. It can’t be done overnight. It takes time. It may take days or weeks of self-reflection and introspection using the three steps listed in this essay.

Once you truly come to ‘know thyself’ you can, according to the Greek philosophers, more productively address the greater good in your community by understanding others.

Jeff Hicks

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