“Know thyself” – Greek aphorism
“This above all: to thine own self be true” – Shakespeare
Before you can succeed, you need to know what success looks like for you. What makes you come alive? What are your skills, tendencies, and goals? What do you need to overcome and what should you avoid? Only you can answer these questions. It requires both deep self-knowledge and brutal self-honesty.
Most people agree that there’s a value to self-discovery, but for some reason they treat it as a kind of game, or a consumption good. It’s something you do for fun when you’re young, and it’s done by basically just having a good time and drinking with friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. Getting to know yourself is incredibly hard work, and being honest with yourself about what you discover is even harder.
Self-discovery tends to come through hardship. The hardship of persisting through mentally, physically and emotionally taxing work; the difficulty of new experiences that are a little out of your comfort zone; the difficulty of focused, self-guided study and processing ideas foreign to your own. It doesn’t tend to come through the easy, short-term gratifications we so comfortably slip into. Nor does it come by meeting somebody else’s standards or passing somebody else’s tests.
Many people assume college is where they’ll get to know themselves. To the extent that it’s really hard or really new, you can. But that kind of challenge usually plateaus after the first semester or two. Then you slide into a comfortable groove. You’ve got to push yourself to continual self-discovery.
The things a lot of young people do are a kind of avoidance of self-discovery. I think many are afraid of what they might find, so they delay the tough work and drown it in a good time as long as possible. By the time they’re ready to figure out what they want out of life, they’re also feeling a lot of practical pressures and realizing a pretty large human capital deficit. They despair that what they want and what they’ll be able to get are far apart. That’s not a recipe for fulfillment.
The sooner you get to know who you are at your core, and the sooner you’re honest and unashamed of what you find there, the sooner you can begin creating the life you want. You may spend a lot of hours alone reading, or working, or gaining news skills while it seems your peers are having a good time. But you’ll gain more than a short-term good time. You’ll gain the knowledge of what a good life is for you, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving it. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, it just means you shouldn’t mistake the path of least resistance for the one most likely to bring a full life.