Know thyself


Inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi are the famous words “Know Thyself.” It is often associated with the titan of Greek philosophy, Socrates, who emphasized the importance of self-awareness and self-examination.

I remember being invited to speak at a conference, and a speaker/trainer was seated beside me, waiting for our turn to speak. I asked him what he would talk about, and he said, “Strategic Business Planning.”

In other conferences, he spoke on marketing, leadership, communications, talent development, etc. I have always wondered how some “Subject Matter Experts” can be “experts” in many subjects and be experts in all of them. I would not discount the possibility that these communicators may be geniuses blessed with multi-skills and gifts, but it is rare for me to find one who is.

Simon Sinek would stick to leadership. Dr. Adam Grant would stay with organizational psychology. Seth Godin would not depart from his core, which is Marketing, and all these three modern-day “titans” of the speaking industry stick to their expertise and do not deviate from it. I should know because I interviewed and conversed with all three of them some years ago in New York. Even when I throw them some off-topic questions, they skillfully steer their answers back to their field of expertise. These experts surely “know themselves.” They have self-knowledge and self-awareness.

Self-knowledge is about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. You must know what you can do and what you can’t, as well as your powers and limitations, strengths and vulnerabilities. It involves understanding our capabilities and limitations, as well as our areas of control and those beyond our influence. It’s about being aware of what we know and acknowledging what we don’t know, including blind spots in our understanding. One way to understand self-knowledge is to ask ourselves how many times a day we utter the phrase, “I don’t know.”

If you never say “I don’t know,” you’re probably dismissing things that surprise you or explaining away outcomes instead of understanding them. Understanding what you know and don’t know is the key to playing games you can win.

A famous story says that at a dinner, Charlie Munger said, “You will lose when you play games where other people have the aptitude and you don’t. You must figure out where you have an edge and stick to it. You need to know where you have an edge. You also have to know when you are operating outside of it. You’re outside your boundaries if you don’t. It’s not the size of your knowledge but how you use it. The size of what you know is less important than having a sense of your knowledge and your boundaries.”

Understanding oneself goes beyond just mastering hard skills. It also involves recognizing moments of vulnerability, where external circumstances tend to dictate our actions. You might easily succumb to emotions like sadness, anger, or intrusive, self-defeating thoughts. Social pressure and the fear of judgment may deeply affect you.

Recognizing these vulnerabilities and your strengths and weaknesses is crucial for overcoming default reactions. Without awareness of your vulnerabilities, they can easily be exploited, allowing external factors to control your life.

Having self-awareness leads to having self-control. Self-control is about creating space for reason instead of just mindlessly following instincts. It’s about being able to view and manage your emotions as if they were inanimate objects, things that don’t have the power to determine what you do unless you let them. You can react when they prompt you or instead think clearly and consider whether they’re worth following.

The default response to emotions seeks to eliminate the separation between you and your feelings, prompting immediate reactions without thoughtful consideration. It prioritizes winning the current moment, even at the expense of future consequences. However, self-control enables you to regulate your emotions.

Observing a child throwing a tantrum vividly illustrates the consequences of lacking self-control. It’s surprising and concerning to witness managers and adults who struggle to manage their emotions, resembling only slight improvements over toddlers. These individuals often succumb to their emotions without restraint. Even more alarming is the prevalence of emotional volatility among members of Generation Z, who frequently respond with temper tantrums to disagreements.

Success hinges largely on self-discipline to fulfill necessary tasks, irrespective of personal inclinations. Long-term success relies more on discipline and steadfastness than on fleeting emotional fervor. While excitement may wane, those who maintain self-control continue to advance. The most accomplished individuals are characterized by their ability to persevere even when faced with monotony or challenges.

All these start with self-knowledge, leading to self-awareness and eventually equipping us with self-control. Socrates says, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” He may be referring to the need to “Know Thyself.”

(Francis Kong’s podcast “Inspiring Excellence” is now available on Spotify, Apple, Google, or other podcast streaming platforms).

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