Over the last week, I’ve been sharing lessons on thinking of motivation as a system . One which, if you master it, can allow you to make more progress on your goals with less struggle.
Key to all of this, of course, is self-awareness. You can’t diagnose a problem if you don’t even know you have one. Similarly, unless you have a good sense of who you are, your strengths, weaknesses, personality and proficiencies, you’ll always struggle to make progress.
Yet no bookstore sells a book about “you”, so how do you develop this kind of insight into yourself?
Inside and Outside Views
There are two perspectives worth cultivating for self-knowledge. They dovetail nicely, but tend to come from very different sources.
The first is what I’ll call the “inside” view. This is the kind of self-awareness you get from going through a major breakup, finally figuring out what you want in life or going on a meditation retreat. It’s the kind of wisdom you gain from life experience.
Inside-view self-knowledge is highly personal. It’s experience that tells you how to interpret yourself that only you know. This kind of knowledge also tends to be hard to write down. In fact, its often the tacit self-knowledge that underpins much of our motivation. Our self-efficacy  determines our motivation, as it subtly encodes our expectations for success when we strive hard.
The second perspective is the “outside” view. This is the perspective you gain from reading psychology, economics, neuroscience and religion. It’s the kind (I hope) you gain a little of when reading my blog.
The outside view isn’t personal—it’s generic. It doesn’t explain your situation, but it offers ideas to help you see all situations. The value of the outside view is that it, indirectly, aggregates the experience of millions of people. Ultimately, science itself is nothing but a systematized accumulation of experience. This can be evidenced by the root word for “experiment” being the same as experience.
Improving the Inside View
The road to wisdom is experience. Unfortunately it’s a road that is often quite narrow. Our personal experience, at best, captures a minuscule fragment of the possible lives we could have lived.
Sometimes, with experience, we get a good accounting of who we are. Years of schooling, for instance, often give us a pretty good idea of how well we do on exams, or how much we like sitting and listening to lectures.
However, this experience can also be deceiving. Just because you failed high-school Spanish doesn’t mean you’re “bad” with languages. You might do just fine if you instead lived in Madrid and used the language as part of your everyday life.
This narrowness of personal experience can be reduced somewhat:
- Having a wider range of experiences. Simply trying more stuff is an important ingredient in success since it widens the inside view of self-knowledge you have to build off of. While it can sound somewhat trite to say “try a bunch of things” to someone who is struggling, it very often is the right answer.
- Document and measure your experiences. We often don’t even take full advantages of the limited experiences we do have. We needlessly repeat past mistakes because we don’t bother to document what went wrong. We fail to build on past successes because we don’t take a careful accounting of what foundation was laid beforehand.
- Talk to more people. Other people can offer an outside perspective on your inside view. There are studies which show that good friends often understand us much better than we do ourselves . This can be valuable information when making decisions, even if we don’t always want to hear it.
Improving the Outside View
While the inside view is rich, yet narrow, the outside view is broad, but often lacking details. The solution to problems of the outside view is to educate yourself more deeply. Learn about motivation, memory and willpower. Read broadly and widely to get a better picture of the human condition.
Science, of course, plays an important role in this self-discovery. Psychology, however flawed, has revealed an enormous amount of truth about human nature. Economics has given me more tools for thinking than I can count. Neuroscience provides mechanism to theory, showing how our personalities function.
But I don’t think limiting the outside view to hard sciences is best. Religion, philosophy and literature all have important contributions to make. Many people have been contributing to the conversation of how best to live for millennia, so it makes sense to read what they have to say.
Merging the Two Views
Self-awareness comes from building a richer, more accurate model of yourself. This combines not only theory, but experience.
Having more self-awareness leads, straightforwardly to more success. If you understand how you operate, both as an individual and as a human being generally, you can be more successful with your ambitions.
But the benefit of self-awareness is much deeper than this. Understanding yourself transcends just trying to make more money or have a better job, because it helps you realize why you want to pursue those things in the first place. In some places, this will strengthen your ambitions, as you recognize a deeper purpose to your goals, in other cases it may change what you pursue entirely, leaving some pursuits that you recognize won’t actually make you fulfilled.
The process of cultivating self-knowledge is long, and I would be lying if I said I had figured it all out. But, I think it’s a process worth pursuing deliberately, even if it takes a lifetime.
On Monday, I’ll be reopening my course, Make it Happen! for a new session. Delivered via daily lessons over six weeks, this course offers insights to help you make more progress towards the goals you care about.