September 1, 2009

How much self-knowledge is enough?

On the forecourt of the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo in Delphi, famous for its oracle was imprinted: gnĊthi seauton, know thyself. This aphorism has been attributed to at least six ancient Greek sages: Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Thales of Miletus.

Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, thought of it as one the most important ideas in life. It makes logical sense that it is important to know yourself. How else can you make good decisions, for instance in your career. People have long thought that introspection would be the best way to get to know oneself better.

But Timothy Wilson and other psychologists have shown this to be untrue. They have found that direct access to the vast amount of unconscious processes with your own brain is impossible. Wilson has argued that only indirect methods will help to increase your self knowledge such as monitoring your own behaviors and make inferences from these about your motives, drives, etc and using feedback from others.

A question I would like to raise here is: how much self-knowledge is enough for a person to function well? My feeling is that trying to increase your self knowledge is process which can go on forever and there will be diminishing returns at a certain point. And that point may be sooner than we think. Ideas welcome on this.


  1. When You thinf that in SF, the minor is max, you become more able to know how to change every day after a day, on and on. That´s life happening, dont yoyu think so
    Bill Collier.

  2. On the one hand: yes but on the other, we never know what lies ahead. Things may change so we have to stay open to new situations, circumstances, demands, etc. And we have to keep on focusing on what works there and then.

  3. I saw Bab'Aziz last night and there is a quote I think might be relevant:

    "Everyone in this great world has a task to fulfill. The rest is not so important, as long as you don't forget that.
    But if you remember everything except that, it's as if you didn't know anything."

    You have do discover what makes you alive. Hugh MacLeod put it so nicely: "If you can express your soul, the rest will cease to matter."

  4. Hi Peter, The distinction between understanding or explaining in explicit terms and doing what works seems relevant here too. You can do something of which you notice it works and it has value to you and others without you having to fully what it is and why it happens. As long as you know how to do it

  5. Hi Coert,

    This is very true and the perfect example is smiling. People smiled and knew that this smile will improve the mood of those around without having to know about mirror neurons.

  6. The subconscious plays us like a puppet. The more we know about it, the more we know about and are able to de-mystify the illusions we call boundaries that govern and restrict our lives. The only point at which you should stop trying to learn about yourself is the point you choose.

  7. Hello Dimitri, thanks for your comment. That sounds logical but I am not sure it's true. For the sake of the discussion, I'd like to challenge that a bit. I think the subconscious not only restricts us, it also enables much of what we are and do. I am rather skeptical about 1) the feasibility of uncovering much of what is unconscious, 2) the usefulness of that.

  8. Hi Coert, I'm not advocating the uncovering of details of traumas or bad habits, but building awareness of the boundaries that hold us in patterns of behavior. The first step is recognizing that the boundary exists.

  9. Hi Dimitri, thanks. I think about something Richard Pascale said: "Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting." My guess is that we could expand our self knowledge more effectively by acting in certain ways than by introspecting. What do you think?

  10. Hi Coert, Thanks for that. I agree and that’s the basis for a very effective method and one that I use. I don’t believe thinking is an effective way to build true awareness, as anything cognitive is open to corruption by the ruses and deceptions of our subconscious. The ultimate goal is to erase these deceptions that our subconscious so obligingly bombards us with. It is necessary however in most cases to ‘ignore’ them and in the face of the barrage create new habits which most viable therapies seem to work to achieve.

  11. Just wondering: can we smarten the self-knowledge of our unconsciousness? Could it be that we achieve this through thinking physically which - for me - is another way of describing 'being mindful' allowing your physical intelligence to raise both your subconscious and conscious self-awareness?

  12. Hi ledeberg, thanks. Do you have an example of that?

  13. Hi Coert,

    Here's an example:

    Take basketball. I've a thing with shooting hoops. I know all about how to put your feet, position the ball, release the ball and so on. But knowing this didn't do the trick for me, neither did practising all the consciously applied elements as such.

    I did train my body to listen to my mind, yet in the game, this approach has proven useless because of the speed of the game and the lack of ability to focus on these aspects when needed.

    What was missing from the game was that I hadn't allowed my body to trust itself.

    For instance, I didn't trust my eyes to make an accurate guess about distance and neither did I trust my feet to tell me where I was standing. I consistently intervened in between these two crucial inputs. Things improved a lot when I started sensing instead of thinking. I had to allow my eyes to make guesses and feel where I was when taking the shots. Which meant forgetting about all the other stuff first in order to regain trust in my senses and my capability of what I call my physical thinking (the way your body reads reality without your consciousness intervening). Later on I could focus better on different aspects of shooting. In a way I allowed my unconsciousness to regain its self-esteem in order to connect with my consciousness.

    Kind regards,


  14. Hi Hannes,

    Thanks for this example/ It reminds me a lot of the work by Timothy Gallwey (The Inner Game of Tennis and the Inner Game of Work; here is a review of one of his books:

    I think it is an example of how you can just let your adaptive unconsciousness do lots of work without trying to control or understand all of it.

    I think it supports my idea that we don't need maximal understanding of ourselves.

  15. Hi Coert,

    Funny, that's exactly the author I was thinking about when writing down the example. :)

  16. Hi Hannes, did you know he's got a new book?

  17. Like all knowledge self-knowledge will always be incomplete. But unlike other knowledge it's hard to even know if what you think you know about yourself is even true.

    This is why I think the focus in SF on finding out what you want, then finding the resources within you and outside of you to help you get what you want is so important.

    If my self-knowledge is going to be incomplete, I have to prioritize what I'm going to learn about myself. So I may as well learn the things about myself that will help me get where I want to go. And if I learn other things along the way that's a bonus (hopefully).

  18. I accidentally deleted a comment by Brigitte (I think) on self-knowledge. I am so sorry! Could you please send it again?

  19. Thanks Coert for the quote from Pascale. That concept is echoed in the work of Nightengale, Brian Tracy, and others who write self-help books. They say the way to change an attitude is to change your actions first.

  20. Hi Mike, that is exactly the topic of my latest post:


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