Know Thyself (If You Can)

Summer 2015

By Richard Barbieri

There’s something about the topic of self-knowledge that begs for quotations — everything from Socrates’s “The unexamined life is not worth living” right down to Oscar Wilde’s “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” But as enjoyable as it would be to run a “quoticle” for a column, it seems evasive. So I’ve narrowed the topic to four main areas of interest, prompted by quotations, that I think encourage us to reflect on our sense of self. 

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” — Benjamin Franklin

St. Augustine, perhaps the first to write extensively to explain himself to himself and others, lamented, “Men travel from afar to climb the mountain tops, but are content to tread only the slopes of their own souls.” In other words, the risks of mountain climbing are less frightening than those of interior exploration. Goethe put it another way: “Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run away.”

In fact, modern research confirms what common sense has always told us: Very few of us have an accurate view of our own strengths and weaknesses. Most of us overestimate our ability to multitask, our driving skills, our intelligence, and, most of all, our sense of humor. On the other hand, an unfortunate few, even after the pangs of adolescence, assume the worst about themselves and their future prospects.

Of course, you can always plunge into the world of available self-tests, from the Myers-Briggs to tests determining whether you are a psychopath, a racist, somewhat autistic, or more like Pinocchio than Goofy. But as psychologist Rob Evans points out in Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader, most of these tests are unproven and also cause to endorse whatever they propose, such as horoscopes or fortune-telling. (Interestingly, 87 percent of the “What Disney Character Are You Most Like?” testers turn out to be like Mickey: cheerful, thoughtful, etc.)

One step toward self-knowledge is accepting that you share the common blinders of humanity. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (discussed in my Independent Reading column, Winter 2013), Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and a suite of behavioral studies from both psychologists and economists can help with this phase of self-exploration. After reading them, you may, among other insights, realize that a free offer is a dangerous seduction and that, as Montaigne said of himself, our lives are “full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” 

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” — Rumi

In striving to know ourselves, we can make the assumption that there’s a core of some sort waiting to be discovered, like Michelangelo’s chipping away at the marble to let the statue out. Yet there is extensive evidence that what we now refer to as a “fixed mindset” stands in the way of effective change, and therefore of success. So finding a core may be less important than being willing to evolve. Carol Dweck’s research, particularly on middle-school students, first brought the value of a growth mindset to general attention. Unfortunately, her effort to popularize the distinction, Mindset, which bears the ominous subtitle “The New Psychology of Success,” plunges rapidly into anecdotes and exhortations, including many that seem to point to successful people and observe that they must have had a growth mindset. Maybe. Maybe not. Time has not been particularly good to some of Dweck’s examples, especially in sports. Who now admires Roger Clemens’s composure and professionalism, or Tiger Woods’s focus and self-control? Better to take the central message without the examples.

Many other psychologists and neurologists have also told us that we do not have immutable selves and that even with both genes and environment tending one way, we can choose a different course. A few commentators on the work of psychologist Walter Mischel, author of The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, note that, while pointing out the predictive value of early childhood tests, Mischel repeatedly showed that individuals can both grow and decline in self-control, and that control in one area is not necessarily transferred to other areas (see Tiger Woods, above). Likewise, neurological research is proving not only that people can change behavior, but that they can change their own brain functioning by effort and action. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley’s The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force demonstrates that even individuals affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder can perform such feats, while Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself describes how individuals, from those labeled developmentally challenged to stroke victims, can achieve similar results. 

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman

But do I really have a single self? I’m not talking about neuroscientists (Marvin Minsky, Gary Marcus) who say our brains are messy evolutionary aggregates that give us the illusion of selfhood. Rather that we display — and therefore are — different selves in different circumstances. If Mother Teresa could say she started her work “on the day I discovered I had a Hitler inside me,” none of us should presume that we are free of — or only — dark selves.

For decades, research has shown that we often fall into what has been called the fundamental attribution error. Originally described by researchers Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross in The Person and the Situation, the error is actually twofold. First, we think our personalities determine behavior, but the truth is that situations actually have far more impact than we acknowledge. In an experiment described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, 90 percent of divinity students, told to hasten to a practice sermon on the Good Samaritan, passed by a person in apparent need. But nearly two-thirds of those who were told they had plenty of time stopped to help. Second, we explain our negative behaviors by external circumstances (I was tired; he rubbed me the wrong way; my workload was just overwhelming), while seeing others’ actions as proof of their flaws (she’s always out partying; he’s hypersensitive; they’re disorganized). 

Finally, even at one time, we are different selves, as explained by another school of thought called the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. Unfortunately, this model doesn’t have a great popularizer, existing in dense textbooks and in various practical models, such as Richard C. Schwartz’s You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, another self-help manual — this time for couples. In fact, I was introduced to IFS by a brilliant essay on conflict resolution: David Hoffman’s “Mediation, Multiple Minds, and Managing the Negotiation Within” (Harvard Negotiation Law Review 297, and available online). Briefly, the theory draws on family psychology to argue that we all have parts within us, which influence our behavior. Various metaphors have been used for these parts. But it’s simplest to say we have immature parts, defensive parts, and other parts and that there is indeed a self that can, if we seek it, help us to recognize when one or another part is reacting detrimentally, as when we realize some minor offense has caused a regressive, temper-tantruming self to rise to the surface.

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us!” — Robert Burns

The last pitfall in self-knowledge is seeking it alone. As Burns says, others know us better than we do ourselves. The African concept of Ubuntu, sometimes translated as “I am because we are,” concisely suggests that our selves are built through interaction. Many earlier thinkers knew this. Even Aristotle said, “Man is a creature made to live in a society.” 

Two recent books from the field of conflict resolution are aimed directly at self-knowledge through interaction with others. Sheila Heen and Doug Stone, whose book Difficult Conversations, with Bruce Patton, was recently named one of the top five books in the field (just after the groundbreaking Getting to Yes), have followed with Thanks for the Feedback. In this latter book, they ask us to consider what keeps us from taking in feedback and how we can learn to use the observations of others for our own good. Starting with the distinction among appreciation, coaching, and evaluation, they explore our common reactions to others’ views and describe how to dismantle our harmful defenses. Did you know, for example, that neuroscience shows that we cannot accurately hear our own tone of voice, while others can? So next time someone tells you that you frequently appear defensive or sarcastic, don’t dismiss the person.

From the same school of thought, William Ury, coauthor of Getting to Yes, offers us Getting to Yes With Yourself and Other Worthy Opponents, in which he pithily observes, “In the morning when I look at myself in the mirror, I like to remind myself that I am seeing the person who is probably going to give me the most trouble that day.” The book is almost as littered with aphorisms as this column. One of my favorites is translated from the Chinese: “That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, that you cannot change, but that they nest in your hair, that you can prevent.” Of all the “self-help” books I know, these are at the top.

But there’s a way to self-knowledge that depends on others we will never meet. This is the way of great literature. When Rainer Maria Rilke says, “You must change your life,” or John Donne asserts that “No man is an island,” I listen. Novels, poetry, memoirs, and many other forms, never intended as guides for the perplexed, help us to discover the depths, complexities, and possibilities within ourselves.

Suggested Reading

Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader, Rob Evans
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely
The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck
The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, Walter Mischel
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley
The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge
The Person and the Situation, Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross
You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Richard C. Schwartz
Thanks for the Feedback, Sheila Heen and Doug Stone
Getting to Yes With Yourself and Other Worthy Opponents, William Ury
Richard Barbieri

Richard Barbieri spent 40 years as teacher and administrator in independent schools. He is currently the editor of AC Resolution, the quarterly publication of the Association for Conflict Resolution. He also facilitates East-West dialogue among college students from North America, Europe, and the Islamic world through the Soliya program. He can be reached at