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To “Know Thyself” or not to “Know Thyself”

“Know Thyself” was written on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It is believed that the concept predates Ancient Greece with its roots in Ancient Egypt. Since then this maxim has been used by many philosophers, spiritual teachers, and modern thinkers.

If we take “Know Thyself” in terms of defining your personality and making judgments about what kind of a person you are, I find it problematic. Human beings change all the time. Our belief about constancy is more of an illusion than the reality of things.

Trying to define who we are as if it’s constant will limit our options and growth as our brain will try to keep us in bounds of how we define ourselves. It will also make us blind to reality through cognitive dissonance. I find having an open mind and curiosity to witness unfolding self allows flexibility and acceptance. It also gives us more choices and the ability to become more in line with our values.

But if we take this maxim as understanding how a human being operates, I find it very beneficial. Understanding the unique abilities of human species together with its limitations will allow us to leverage the former, and navigate the latter. Knowledge is power. If I understand how the system works, I have an ability to influence the outcomes for the better. Knowing our limitations is especially important. If we don't understand our limitations and behave as if they don’t exist, we don’t have a chance to transcend that limitation. Once we know and accept, then we have the ability to navigate or design ways to overcome our limitations.

I think “know thyself” is more important now than in ancient times. We have more tools to leverage our strengths but at the same time more limitations than before. As humans, we evolved to adapt to a hunter-gatherer environment. However, we have changed our environment dramatically in the last 10,000 years. Our physiology, including our nervous system and the brain, is still functioning as if we are hunter-gatherers. The demands of this new world we created are very different from a hunter-gatherer world. We are like an exotic bird from Amazons trying to make it in New York City. There are many consequences of this mismatch. Look at the numbers of anxiety and depressive disorders…

Look at the burnout rates among knowledge workers…

Look at our limited and ineffective responses to complex and long-term issues…

And as the pace of progress and change is ever-increasing, the cost of the mismatch will increase drastically. It is crucial that we understand how our hardware and software as human beings misfits to our current environment and design ways to navigate them.

Now going through a pandemic, we had another major shift in our environment. I think it’s useful to analyze the fit/misfit of this new condition and the wiring of human beings.


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