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The Best Thing to Learn is Yourself

An argument for self-discovery, from the mundane to the existential

An illustrative image for this article
Original photo by Marc Olivier

Learning is always worthwhile. The accumulation of insights, experience, lessons makes itself a multiplier: you accumulate ideas and skills which improve whatever you channel your energy towards later on.

And because of that, the highest ROI in learning you can achieve is to learn about yourself.

“I think a life properly lived is just learn, learn, learn all the time.”

Charlie Munger

Recently, I've been trying to observe, meditate, consult with people who know me well to discover the answers to questions like this:

  • What are your real values? What do you truly care about? Discern between things you know are important and ones which you're expected to – be it by family, friends, colleagues, your industry, culture, country, religion.
  • What do you truly enjoy doing? What types of activities do you find yourself not looking forward to? What brings you to a state of flow and what causes you anxiety? Break down complex sets of activities – "work" into the many tasks which your job entails, "exercise" into the myriad ways you can get your body moving, etc.
  • Who brings out your best self? What are the types of people who make you betray your values? Separate between those who praise you or make you laugh or reward you and the ones who elevate your core identity, who add to your energy levels.
  • What types of challenges engage you? What problems feel draining? Discern between what's easy/relaxing but emptying and what's hard/effortful and fulfilling.

And a lot more:

  • What are the habits that make you thrive, feel balanced, feel fulfilled?
  • What are the physical objects which make a positive difference in your happiness?
  • What makes you feel like you're living a life which is true to your values?
  • What makes you mad? Mad and ready to walk away, but also mad and ready to fight?

These questions may seem big and expect big answers, but they don't always do. I can give you some of my very pedestrian answers:

  • I learned that if I go for too many days without going up hills, I feel caged. So (because I can), I moved somewhere hilly and accessible, and make the time to do this often, reducing conflict in my relationships and helping my concentration abilities.
Photo of a sunset over hills
I need these often.
  • I learned that I abhor waste above most things, and that the only type of purchase I never regret is books. So I spend money on them freely, but I'm frugal with almost everything else, which avoids such feelings of wastefulness.
  • I learned that I need to understand a problem in detail before trying to solve it. So I prioritize work with people who value openness and thoroughness over assertiveness and confidence, which gives me the space to do understand and explore.
  • I learned that putting time into thinking about clothes makes me feel drained and that owning lots of clothes makes me feel wasteful. So I pretty much wear the same outfit every day (which I do wash, mind you), allowing me to focus energy on more valuable things.
  • I leaned that I like to talk more than the average person. So I watch myself and make a deliberate effort to keep my mouth shut at times, to ensure others have the room to express themselves.
  • I learned that I really love to spend time at home and enjoy it. So I spend a somewhat disproportional amount of time arranging bookshelves and wall art in my home, which grounds and inspires me.

And the list goes on.

Such focus on self-discovery may seem outright narcissistic. The dozens of instances of "I" and "me" in this text so far do make it seem self-centered. But believe, well, me: it can be quite utilitarian. Borderline altruistic.

When you're well informed about yourself, you know who to surround yourself with. You find work which brings out the best of you (if that's within your control). You collaborate with others who complement yourself – and whom you can complement.

And when you're aware of how you perceive the world, you're better equipped to handle what it throws at you. Every little thing you experience, you do so through the eyeglasses of your experience and state of mind. By knowing what you value, how you process information, what affects your state of mind leads to precision, honesty and empowerment.

By associating yourself with the ones who get the most out of you, by aligning yourself with causes best aligned to your values, by working in ways which best fit with your personality, you get the most out of yourself. And then you bring the most out of others.

In the end, you increase your impact.

This is a never-ending quest. Like any worthwhile discipline, there's no end to how much you can learn about yourself – more so when considering you're always changing. Not only most of your cells get replaced every few years, but your thoughts evolve, your values react and adapt to your environment, the people who surround around you provide influence in countless ways.

And it requires significant effort, an almost constant level of self-analysis. For some, meditation unlocks this type of self-learning. For me, it's walking on my own, having long conversations with my wife and getting feedback from work colleagues. But discovering what works for you is step one of the journey.

If you're not already dedicated to that quest, the start of a new year may be a great time to begin.

May you know yourself well.