Know Thyself: An Ancient Maxim at Risk

One of the skills you pick up quite quickly riding a motorcycle is how to be alone with your own thoughts. There really isn’t anything else to do. Sure, you can listen to music or an audiobook, but when you’re riding 6 to 10 hours a day, there are going to be some long stretches in there where you’re doing nothing but burning down miles and entertaining yourself with your thoughts and imagination. 

However, I read a recent article that indicated the majority of men actually prefer physical pain over simply sitting and thinking. The sample size was small, but I imagine similar findings would hold as those samples increased given how quickly most of us reach for our phones or other distractions during any moment of silence. I’ve quickly picked this habit back up after spending only three or four days in Washington, DC, and I see it with my friends, peers and nearly everyone on the street.

We do this because the age we live in doesn’t seem to value the once openly professed maxim “know thyself,” perhaps most famously inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by the Ancient Greeks.

Sun Tzu describes the importance of knowing thyself in battle:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Peter Drucker explains why knowing thyself is critical in the modern workplace:

[Y]ou’ll need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself—not only what your strengths and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution. Because only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence.

Knowing yourself and being alone with your thoughts are inextricably linked. Command over your thoughts leads to command over your body. Many of our actions are driven by habits ingrained in our subconscious brain, but learning to control these thoughts requires a deep understanding of yourself, how you operate, and how you think.

If modern society leads us to feel less and less comfortable in our own heads, this has dire consequences for our ability to innovate and solve difficult problems. 

When Albert Einstein first began his work as a physicist, he learned that his preferred method was not at all experimental. He didn’t enjoy academic life, but was drawn to theory and preferred using thought experiments and metaphors to think through difficult problems. 

When he made his first breakthrough and developed the special theory of relativity, and later the general theory of relativity, these conclusions were the culmination of countless hours spent alone at his desk deep in thought. 

Einstein is an extreme example, but his process shows that mastery of any skill or field requires intense concentration. Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat criticized 10,000 hours is the classic benchmark for time required to become an expert, but regardless of validity, focus and attention over significantly long periods of time is necessary for learning. 

In fact, our brains have evolved in such a way that this deep focus and concentration will in fact lead to mastery in any who choose to pursue it. Robert Greene writes in Mastery:

All of us have access to a higher form of intelligence, one that can allow us to see more of the world, to anticipate trends, to respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance. This intelligence is cultivated by deply immersing ourselves in a field of study and staying true to our inclinations, no matter how unconventional our approach might seem to other. Through such intense immersion over many years we come to internalize and gain an intuitive feel with the rational processes, we expand our minds to the outer limits of our potential and are able to see into the secret core of life itself.

If our society does not regain an understanding of the importance of knowing oneself, there will be fewer and fewer people who can truly become masters of their fields. These masters are critical for the progression of human existence, because they push the boundaries of our knowledge past its limits and into the unknown.

So go outside. Take a long walk. Meditate. Spend time alone with your thoughts. We seem to be forgetting that being comfortable in our own heads is critical for human learning and innovation.

  • Jens Husted

    This adventure your on is doing what you hoped for ,it seems. Learning to “know thyself”. This is a VERY insightful piece that you have written.

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