2. GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF BY RECALLING ‘MOMENTS OF INSIGHT’
Developing a strategy for life (philosophy) has to begin somewhere and, in my view, this is by achieving a reliable understanding of yourself. After all, a strategy which is in line with your own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, is bound to be more durable and therefore a better basis for building towards a successful future.
Learning to understand yourself would seem, on the surface, to require less effort than getting to know those others who are influential in your environment. Whilst this is probably true, and doesn’t mean you should ignore those in your personal environment, it does not mean it can be achieved without considerable effort or without a method.
The route which I follow, and which I recommend, is to analyse how you have reacted to circumstances in the past, by searching into your memories of these reactions to see what these may reveal. I choose to do this by recalling ‘moments of insights’. These are events which have happened to you which tell you something pertinent or important about yourself, your values, beliefs or behaviour. These discoveries, when established, may well be difficult to change even if you would like to, and they are, therefore, something which you need to take into account.
Moments of insight
When I work with people who are trying to get know themselves better, I ask them to try to recall five moments which were important for them and which gave them a seemingly new insight into themselves. If you are not used to this sort of reflection then finding five ‘stories’ can be quite difficult.
Why is this? Well, firstly, it is not that the incidents can’t be found, this is not the problem, but realising what they reveal takes more investigation and selection. Secondly, the process not only takes time but cannot be programmed. The memories, sometimes concerning things from way in the past which haven’t been thought about in ages, emerge at unplanned moments but require immediate attention. They need to be described and analysed. It is not then so much the question if the memory is reliable or not, it mostly isn’t. It is the fact that the reconstruction of the situation helps to explain an aspect of behaviour enabling temporary conclusions to be drawn. This then gets stacked away awaiting the next piece of the puzzle, never in a chronological order and never with the same message.
An example: clearly on my own
Perhaps some examples from my own past will help to illustrate what I am getting at.
When I first attended Oxford University I was nineteen years old, from a working-class background and from a family which had never experienced university education before.
The Oxford system in those days provided an individual link with a tutor in the subject which was being studied, and indeed one of my first obligations was to meet my tutor. Well mine had a room at the top of a dark staircase. He was an old man with a long beard which was highlighted by a single lamp on his desk in an otherwise invisible room. The light was also focused on a pile of white paper which was positioned ready to record my thoughts or to be used to support answers from my tutor to the penetrating questions I was going to ask!
It was not long before my tutor chose to get his message across. ‘You must remember you are no longer at school where your teachers told you what to do. (If I am reliably informed then we are tending to return to this situation where we wait to be given direction). How you study now is your business. I’m only here to answer your questions’. At the time this was devastating clarity. I was clearly on my own. This took time to sink in, but now when I look back, I am eternally grateful to him. I decided to design a system of self-organisation which would convince me that I was being productive. Secondly, I documented my learning so that I could ask intelligent questions, demonstrating also that I had done my best to find out the answers for myself. Both of these have proved invaluable supports to my way of working since then.
A second example: becoming the best no. 2 in the world
At a later stage in my career, now in the Netherlands, my boss confronted me with the remark that, in my next appraisal interview, I must not expect a further promotion which I had become used to. ‘You see’, he said, ‘you are no.2 now and I am no.1 and I am not intending to leave.’ I think I must have been expecting this because I took little time in replying. I suggested that ‘becoming the best no.2 in the world must also be a pretty good job.’
After this I realised that no.2 was probably my role in the many aspects of my life, being there for continuity and support but also to develop strategy. In my experience, no.2’s who leave to become no. 1 are not no.2’s. And no.1’s without no.2’s are often less successful. I continue to find this very useful guideline and discipline when ambition breaks unrealistic bounds as it sometimes did and does. If you are not a natural no. 1 (leader) then it does not mean that you can’t carry out this function, because sometimes you have to. It just helps you to focus on the best use of your energies.
More on moments of insight
These ‘moments of insight’ are typical of what you may also wish to look for. They emerged into full consciousness years after they had first been experienced. They proved useful in pinpointing and explaining a part of my philosophy which was constructed to solve an immediate problem. They were also retained, not only as a result of my belief in their usefulness but because they apparently fitted with how I liked to work. These are then a basis for further study and refinement. Once they have demonstrated their value the rest is down to self-discipline as they are included in a more permanent platform, my approach to the matters which I will meet along the way.
What is further amazing is to realise that there is no end to these revealing anecdotes. Just when you think you couldn’t possibly find anymore, another one pops up to explain a part of your subsequent views on life. And if it can’t, then it has to be dispensed with. There are, of course, also many incidents which, on first recall, seem important but either subsequently prove not to be, or have been replaced by a better justification.
I hope these examples will inspire you to start digging deeper to discover how you normally behave or like to work. In fact, you will almost be writing your autobiography. But remember, this one is never ending, and mostly a very satisfying hobby.
Action: putting this into practice
Find five ‘moments of insight’ describing why these, on reflection, proved to be important. Try also to draw some initial conclusions as to your strengths and weaknesses.
What are the next steps?
So what can you do as a result of this study of your past. Well you are now in a position to clarify your strengths and weaknesses so that the future use of your energy can be better directed. This will help you to concentrate your focus on your strengths, only working on weaknesses when they become obstacles. The platform is starting to be formed for building the strategy for your future life.