The Difficult Art of Knowing Yourself

Hey friends,

This quote has been on my mind for the past week. It goes:

It can be easier to master the dynamics of another planet than to grasp what is at play in the folds of our own brains.

Point being, self-knowledge is hard.

The past week, I’ve been reflecting and using LucidChart to map my strengths, weaknesses, interests, and above all, my mind. It turns out that I’m doing such a thing for the first time ever. This was surprising. Thinking about it, I realized that most of us tend to live our lives on autopilot. We’re told to “go with the flow” and “things will fall into place.” Etcetera etcetera.

But what we really do when we “go with the flow” is we intentionally avoid the incredibly painful process of figuring ourselves out. Which brings me again to the quote above: It can be easier to master the dynamics of another planet than to grasp what is at play in the folds of our own brains.

And this is not our fault; the problem is intrinsic to the brain, a device evolutionarily trained for making quick decisions, not the slow, introspective ones. On the savannah, you were bound to be eaten by a bear if you started wondering about the purpose of life or your skillsets or your employability. All you really had to think was how to escape any threat whatsoever. And you were quite good at it. The problem is, today, that doesn’t help us.

We continue living as strangers to ourselves precisely because we’re unable to articulate our raison d'être, our foundation, our reason for existence, on a blank slate. And we do this precisely because articulating it is an incredibly hard and intractable problem.

So, what next?

As life moves on, I’m coming to realize the depth of Socrates’s Know Yourself. Self-knowledge is difficult, but investing 10 minutes a day to get to know yourself will reap huge long-term rewards. It pays off… Or else, you’re just making progress on the wrong track.

Direction matters more than pace. Velocity matters more than speed. Choosing ‘what to work on’ matters more than ‘how hard you work.’

To start off the journey of self-knowledge, then, the basic question I’d ask is this: What do I want from life?

Until next time,



Benjamin Keep, J.D., Ph.D., is interested in how science and learning works to answer three questions: How we learn, how we teach, and how we engage with science. Ben and I had a one-hour chat after I read Ben’s posts on deliberate practice (here). In this episode, expect to learn about deliberate practice in knowledge work, training like an athlete, learning something anything new, understanding things ground-up, and becoming a better-equipped learner for the 21st century. Listen to the latest episode on Spotify, Google, Apple, or our website.

Our Commonplace Book

  • Consider subscribing to this Substack: Lessons from the crisis. It talks of the things we can learn from last year and this year.
  • I really liked reading this list from Patrick Collison, about “people quickly accomplishing ambitious things together.”
  • This piece by Paul Graham will help you decide what to work on.