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Weekly 3: How well do you know yourself?


Idea Journal Weekly 3

March 7 · Issue #181 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Knowing yourself informs all sorts of important decisions: what to work on, who to spend time with, where to live, etc. This issue offers three perspectives to help you see yourself in new ways.
(~5 min read)

#1. The people you envy can teach you about yourself
In an interview on The Knowledge Project podcast, author and lecturer Susan Cain says that you can use an ugly emotion like envy as a guide to identify your genuine interests.
Cain tells the story of how envy helped to illuminate her own career path.
Before she wrote her book Quiet and became a well-known speaker, Cain worked as a corporate lawyer. When she met up with fellow lawyers, they would often talk about some colleague who just got to argue a brief before the Supreme Court, or had received some other legal accolade.
While the other lawyers were clearly envious of their successful colleague, Cain didn’t feel any envy – she was genuinely happy for the person.
At first, she congratulated herself for being so generous and not feeling envious, but she eventually realized that this wasn’t the right interpretation: “It’s just that I don’t want these things myself.”
It’s not that Cain was free of envy. At the time, the people she envied were those who were doing what she herself is doing now: writing and giving lectures about issues that are important to her.
As she puts it, “It’s the things you envy that point you in the direction of what you really want for yourself.”
There’s a useful corollary to the above lesson.
When you find yourself obsessed with a person, that obsession is often coming from the same place: “I think you become obsessed with a person when that person has things that you wish to have in your life and you don’t have.”
#2. What do you do when you're anxious?
Author Steven Pressfield writes in his book The War of Art that individuals define themselves in one of two ways: by their rank within a hierarchy, or by their connection to a familiar territory.
For Pressfield, it’s important to know whether we’re doing our creative work hierarchically or territorially: Are we doing it more for others, or more for ourselves?
Many of us define ourselves hierarchically and don’t even realize it. It’s hard not to. School, advertising, and much of our culture drills us from birth to define ourselves by others’ opinions: “Drink this beer, get this job, look this way and everyone will love you.”
This hierarchical orientation forces us to look outward – it bends our efforts toward the approval of others.
We wonder if what we create will play well with the audience. Or when meeting someone new, we ask ourselves: What can this person do for me? How will they advance my standing?
On the other hand, a territory is like a psychological home turf. It’s the context in which our efforts feel most natural – it represents the work we would do even if no one was watching.
For example, Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. Pressfield’s own territory is the act of him sitting down to write.
One way to tell if your orientation is hierarchical or territorial is to ask yourself: If you were feeling especially anxious, what would you do?
Would you contact six friends, one after the other, aiming to hear their voices and feel reassured that they still love you?
In that case, you’re operating hierarchically – you’re seeking the good opinion of others.
But as Pressfield notes, if your orientation is territorial, your reaction to the anxiety might look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s: “He wouldn’t phone his buddies; he’d head for the gym. He wouldn’t care if the place was empty … He knows that working out, all by itself, is enough to bring him back to his center.“
#3. But, introspection has limits
As author Rolf Dobelli writes in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, the belief that reflection inevitably leads to accuracy or truth is called the “introspection illusion.”
Dobelli references a study conducted by psychologist Petter Johansson. He had each participant glimpse portraits of two random people, and quickly choose which face was more attractive.
Johannson then showed them the portrait of the preferred face up close, and asked each participant to describe the most attractive features.
But Johannson had actually switched the portraits. Most participants didn’t even notice the switch, and proceeded to explain in detail why the person’s face was so attractive.
When we go soul-searching, we often invent the findings. The problem is that nothing is more convincing than our own beliefs — even if they’re wrong.
Dobelli uses the following example to illustrate this point.
A man named Bruce runs a vitamin business. His father founded the company before supplements became the lifestyle product they are today. And when Bruce took over the operation in the 1990s, demand surged.
Now, Bruce is one of the most successful people in the vitamin industry. 
Bruce has been taking multivitamins since he was a kid. A journalist once asked him if multivitamins have any effect. Bruce replied: “I’m sure of it.”
Do you believe Bruce?
You might think: “It’s obviously in his interest to believe that vitamins work. His family, social status, and wealth depend on the success of the company. He’s been taking multivitamins his entire life — he’d never admit that it was a waste of time.”
Now take an idea you’re certain about. For example, that God exists. Or maybe that your doctor is overcharging you.
Do you believe yourself?
You probably consider your conviction more valid than Bruce’s. After all, you have access to your internal rationale, but not his.
For Dobelli, the solution to the introspective illusion is to be your own toughest critic: “Regard your internal observations with the same skepticism as claims from some random person.”
Quote of the week
“Among his various possible beings each man always finds one which is his genuine and authentic being. The voice which calls him to that authentic being is what we call ‘vocation.’ But the majority of men devote themselves to silencing that voice of vocation and refusing to hear it. They manage to make a noise within themselves … to distract their own attention in order not to hear it; and they defraud themselves by substituting for their genuine selves a false course of life.”
- Philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset in his book Man and Crisis
Idea Journal
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