Below is the edited transcript of the video.
The Greeks had the maxim know thyself. How do we come to know ourselves in terms of our personalities and, more importantly, potential?
One of the first ways to come to know yourself is to understand that you don’t.
You can learn to watch yourself, like you are watching a stranger. But you have to adopt a position of radical humility.
Humility in two senses. One sense is humility of recognizing your ignorance. You have to understand that you don’t know who you are. That is not easy to understand, because you think you know.
But then you remember you can’t control yourself very well, you are not very disciplined, you are full of flaws. Maybe you don’t know yourself as well as you think. But it is hard to get low enough to understand how deeply it is the case that you are ignorant about who you are.
Now there is an upside to that, too, which is that you are also ignorant about who you could be. The discovery of that is some reward for the horror of determining who you actually are.
You watch yourself. You watch yourself like you are watching a stranger. You watch what you say and you listen. You think:
Those are all incredibly complicated questions and you don’t know the answers to them. That is a start.
In terms of potential, you will discover a little bit more about your potential as you discover who you are, especially the darker parts of yourself, because then you discover your potential for mayhem.
There is some real utility in that. It is actually something that strengthens you, because the first thing that a realization like that can in fact produce is the ambition to incorporate that dangerousness into a higher order personality.
That can make you implacable. That can make you someone who can say “no” when you need to say “no”. That can make you someone who won’t avoid necessary conflict. That is unbelievably useful. That is one of the potentials that you might discover.
The other thing you do to discover your potential is you challenge yourself. Rule 4 in the book “12 Rules for Life” is “compare yourself to who you were yesterday and not to who someone else is today”, and that is a good way to start this. Take a look at yourself and think about what is not so good, that you could improve, that you should improve, by your own standards, and that you would improve.
Set yourself a little goal. Maybe you are not studying at all at your university. Maybe you are at work and you’ve got this stack of paper there, and you haven’t looked at that damn stack for a month, and you know that you should be, and you are bothering yourself at night because you are avoiding that.
You think “I have avoided that stack of paper completely for one month. I am quite a coward when it comes to whatever snakes might be hidden in that stack of paper. How about tomorrow I just put that stack of paper in front of me, on my desk, and I glance through it for 15 seconds? Let’s see if I can do that.”
Set yourself a goal of improvement. It is a humble goal, because really are you such a coward that the best that you can bloody well manage after a month of avoidance is 15 seconds of exposure to a stack of paper? It could easily be. You have been avoiding it, so you are obviously afraid of it. The situation could be that dismal and dire.
You might think “It is not fostering the strength of my ego to recognize myself, someone who could only withstand 15 seconds of exposure to that thing I’m afraid of.” That is a form of humility, too.
There are things you could do to improve, and you know what they are, and there are small steps that you can take, that you might take, that would put you in that direction.
Are you big enough to take those small steps? Are you capable of grappling with the fact that you are fundamentally flawed to the point where you have to break things down into almost child-like steps in order to manage them?
The answer to that is “yes, you are”.
Most people have things that they avoid, and they are afraid of. To some degree it is the lot of everyone.
People vary in the degree to which they have conquered that, and you do meet people from time to time who are extraordinarily disciplined. But most of the time they’ve got disciplined in exactly this manner, through slow, incremental improvement.
You challenge yourself. “Could I do this? That would be better.” Then you find out. Then you think “is there something slightly larger and more challenging that I can do that would be better?” And you try it and you find out.
And as you try and you find out, generally you get better at it, and you can take on larger and larger challenges.
You take responsibility for yourself. That’s part of standing up straight with your shoulders back. Take on the world, but only at the level that you can manage.
When you are ignorant, and biased, and deeply flawed, and immature – it is where everyone starts – you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t wrestle with part of reality.
Some part that is small enough that you have a good shot at victory. To put yourself together, the first step towards that is to allow yourself to be a fool, because you don’t know what you are doing. You have to admit that.
There is going to be a loss of ego, or destruction of ego, arrogant ego, that necessarily accompanies that. But you need the loss of that arrogant ego because it is precisely what is interfering with your movement forward. It is part of the adversarial process, mythologically speaking, that stops moral progress.
You are too proud of who you think you are to notice what you are like so that you can change properly. You don’t want to sacrifice that part of yourself. It is probably associated with some delusion that helps you maintain a positive, although very fragile, self image, in the absence of genuine effort. It is not to be recommended.
You know yourself by watching and paying attention. Watching like you are a snake. A snake watches cold-bloodedly, with no emotional reaction, just to see what is there. Symbolically speaking, it doesn’t allow what is wanted or desired to interfere with what is observed. You watch yourself like that, as if you don’t know who you are.
That is the beginning.
Then you challenge yourself, continually, to see how far past yesterday you can push, today and tomorrow. And to continually experiment with expanding the domains not only of your competence, but of your ability to increase that competence. The upper limit to that is proportional to the moral effort that you put into it.
The more that is guided by the highest of all possible visions, the alliance with the highest of all possible, conceivable goods, and the more it is accompanied by truth, speech and action, the more you will develop your potential.
You also have to be willing to undertake that as an adventure, because it is a hell of a thing to bear that kind of responsibility. It takes a person out of the ordinary. It takes them out of themselves. And there is an alienation, and an isolation, that goes along with that, and a great sorrow, all of that together. But there is deep meaning to be had in it, and there isn’t anything better that you can do.
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