“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
Been doing a lot of thinking about life recently (what’s new???). At the beginning of the year, all these people were choosing a word to describe what they want to focus on for the year. I didn’t really have a word in mind, but now AUTHENTICITY stands out to me. I think in all of life, perhaps that’s what’s been missing the most – the courage and desire to stand true for what i believe and who i am. In terms of who i am, i won’t get caught up in labels and descriptions, but i guess in some way we do need to know who we are in order to somewhat gauge what we want, where we want to go, what we want to achieve in life.
That brings me to metrics. How do we judge a life well lived? What is the best way to orient ourselves in facing the future? What are the metrics we use? Mark Manson (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck) talks about it in his book. I will reproduce a section here that i found wonderfully enlightening.
The Self -Awareness Onion
Self-awareness is like an onion. There are multiple layers to it, and the more you peel them back, the more likely you’re going to start crying at inappropriate times.
Let’s say the first layer of the self-awareness onion is a simple understanding of one’s emotions. “This is when i feel happy.” “This makes me sad.” “This gives me hope.”
Unfortunately, there are many people who suck at even this most basic level of self-awareness.
We all have emotional blind spots. Often they have to do with the emotions that we were taught were inappropriate growing up. It takes years of practice and effort to get good at identifying blind spots in ourselves and then expressing the affected emotions appropriately. But this task is hugely important, and worth the effort.
The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions.
These why questions are difficult and often take months or even years to answer consistently and accurately. Such questions are important because they illuminate what we consider success or failure. Why do you feel angry? Is it because you failed to achieve some goal? What do you feel lethargic and uninspired? Is it because you don’t think you’re good enough?
This layer of questioning helps us understand the root cause of the emotions that overwhelm us. Once we understand that root cause, we can ideally do something to change it.
But there’s another, even deeper level of the self-awareness onion. And that one is full of fucking tears. The third level is our personal values. Why do i consider this to be success/failure? How am i choosing to measure myself? By what standard am i judging myself and everyone around me?
This level, which takes constant questioning and effort, is incredibly difficult to reach. But it’s the most important, because our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determines the quality of our lives.
Values underlie everything we are and do. If what we value is unhelpful, if what we consider success/failure is poorly chosen, then everything based upon those values – the thoughts, the emotions, the day-to-day feelings – will all be out of whack. Everything we think and feel about a situation ultimately comes back to how valuable we perceive it to be.
Most self-help gurus ignore this deeper level of self-awareness as well. They take people who are miserable because they want to be rich, and then give them all sorts of advice on how to make more money, all the while ignoring value-based questions: Why do they feel such a need to be rich in the first place? How are they choosing to measure success/failure for themselves? Is it not perhaps some particular value that’s the root cause of their unhappiness, and not the fact that they don’t drive a Bentley yet?
(Cue: Charles Eisenstein excerpt from the chapter on Climate: “It is here where the root of our collective illness lies, of which global warming is but a symptomatic fever. Let us be wary of measures that address only the most proximate cause of that symptom and leave the deeper causes untouched.)
Honest self-questioning is difficult. It requires asking yourself simple questions that are uncomfortable to answer.
So the example Mark uses is about his relationship with his brother. It bothers him that his brother doesn’t return his texts/emails, and it makes him feel that he doesn’t give a shit, and doesn’t want a relationship, and it feels like a failure because we’re supposed to have a good relationship with our brother.
This example really highlighted for me how important our metrics are.
“Two things are operating here: a value that i hold dear, and a metric that i use to assess progress toward that value. My value: brothers are supposed to have a good relationship with one another. My metric: being in contact by phone or email – this is how i measure my success as a brother. By holding on to this metric, i make myself feel like a failure.
He goes deeper in the example, showing how we can change the name we give the metric, such as “closeness”, but the metric hasn’t really changed. “I’m still judging myself as a brother based on frequency of contact – and comparing myself, using that metric, against other people i know. Everyone else (or so it seems) has a close relationship with their family memebers, and i don’t. So obviously there must be something wrong with me.
But what if i’m choosing a poor metric for myself and my life? What else could be true that i’m not considering? Well, perhaps i don’t need to be close to my borther to have that good relationship i value. Perhaps there just needs to be some mutual respect (which there is). Or maybe mutual trust is what to look for (and it’s there). Perhaps these metrics would be better assessments of brotherhood than how many text messages he and i exchange.
What is objectively true about your situation is not as important as how you come to see the situation, how you choose to measure it and value it. Problems may be inevitable, but the meaning of each problem is not. We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.
Values are about prioritization. Everybody would love a good cannoli or a house in the Bahamas. The question is your priorities. What are the values that you prioritize above everything else, and that therefore influence your decision-making more than anything else?
When we have poor values – that is, poor standards we set for ourselves and others – we are essentially giving fucks about the things that don’t matter, things that in fact make our life worse. But when we choose better values, we are able to divert our fucks to something better – toward things that matter, things that improve the state of our well-being and that generate happiness, pleasure, and success as side effects.
This, in a nutshell, is what “self improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.