This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Dear Charlotte, which tells the winding story of the triumph and folly of forever trying to better yourself. This letter is from the chapter on "Unifying Theories".
It gets strangely cold here in Texas. My morning walks to work have been chilly and backdropped with somber skys. But despite the glum setting, I've been surprisingly free from neurosis. I've had very few bouts of over-thinking these past couple weeks. And you know what, I owe it all to this one self-improvement initiative: Know Thyself.
I have often returned back to the motto "Know Thyself". This motto is one of two that the Ancient Greeks inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (the other being "Everything in Moderation"). I usually think about this motto when I find myself in the dumps. When I'm deep in an introspective session, lying on the floor, over-thinking about thinking, I'll say the words "Know Thyself" and it will calm me down.
A similar moment happened a month ago, when I found myself apathetically staring at my email inbox. Every message could be sorted into three categories: They were either from caigslist, and therefore had to do with my adventures in online dating. Or they were art-related, having to do with my adventures in trying to be an art critic. Or they were related to my job as a video game designer. When I scanned this list, I just wanted to chuck my monitor out the window. I didn't give a rat's ass about any of these things. And when I realized this, I got sacked with depressing thoughts. I spent hours on my futon, alternating between playing video games and thinking about what to do about my unhappiness. Finally I came back around to Know Thyself, which calmed me down some.
But then I thought of Sisyphus, the Ancient Greek king who was doomed to pushing a boulder up the same hill for eternity. Wasn't I going through the same loop? Step 1: Get depressed. Step 2: Over-think for a couple hours. Step 3: Find relief through some motto?
So I decided this time would be different. I decided that instead of just saying the words, "Know Thyself", I would turn it into a month-long project. What if I created a one-pager that described who I was with the most precise, meaningful words possible? What if I kept iterating on it, refining this picture of myself? How can you ever really be depressed if you truly know yourself?
And so far, it's been pretty phenomenal. This document is like a sponge really. Every time I'm about to launch into some marathon of over-thinking, I open up this file and figure out what it is I don't know about myself. It doesn't necessarily solve my problems, but it mutates them instead, giving me a sense of understanding or self-acceptance.
For example, I found myself exhausted at the end of last week, trying to go to all these art openings in Austin. And then I wrote down one word to describe myself: "auto-correlative". It's a statistics term which means that what happens next highly correlates to what has already happened recently (hence "auto"). In other words, if I watch a movie about Malcolm X, I'll then want to read a book about Martin Luther King Jr., then I'll want to talk to someone about the Civil Rights Movement, and then I'll branch out into some related topic, and so on and so forth. In other words I'm obsessive. But the specific word-choice of "auto-correlative" turned a switch on inside my head. All of a sudden, I realized my interest in the art world had more to do with momentum than with actual passion, and that set me at ease.
Another example is when I was wrestling with work. I found myself, yet again, unhappy with my job as a video game designer. On top of that, I was even more unhappy with my unhappiness. I thought I had found the perfect job here, since it blends both art and technology, pays decently, and I'm good at it. And yet, why am I filled with doubt? Every thirty minutes at work, I come up for air and think to myself, "What am I doing here?" And it's the scariest thought in the world. Because if I can't enjoy this job, what job will ever suit me??
But instead of spending the whole weekend rolling these thoughts around in my head, I just wrote this one line down:
"Nothing but from my will itself".
I'm the kind of person who has to create every aspect of his reality, which contradicts with the nature of my job. I don't determine when I get into work. I don't determine when I leave. I don't determine what tasks I do. Yes, I enjoy the programming. Yes, I love chatting about what constitutes fun, but at the end of the day, hardly any of what I do is truly the product of my own will. And as I typed that self-description out, it gave me a feeling like, "Ah-hah, yes, that's it, that's who I am."
Now, building this dossier on myself doesn't fix my work-problems or any problem for that matter. For exampele, I still don't know what I want to "do with my life". However, I do "get it" now. I get why I'm upset. I get why I'm dissatisfied. And knowing that, I believe, is half the battle.
If anything, I think the bigger lesson here is the value of focus. It reminds me of when I focused that whole summer in Japan on contextual intelligence, or when I spent my last quarter at Stanford focusing on relaxation techniques. Both were some of the happiest periods of my life.
So rather that just reading a few lines in a self-improvement book, getting excited about it for a day, and then forgetting about it the next, what if you spent the next 30 days on just one self-improvement idea?