Self Knowledge as the Path to Transformation
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
You Won’t Believe all the Benefits of this One, Simple Practice
The first time I read the great classic, “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill, I was stumped by some of the recommended exercises. Not that they were complicated. On the contrary, they seemed, at first blush, to be very simple.
What were my deepest desires? My greatest passions?
What would I like to spend my life doing if I could do anything at all?
What would my ideal day look like?
How much money (I could name any number) would I like to be making every year? What would I do with that money?
What would be the most meaningful use of my time?
What would make me want to jump out of bed every morning and happily, joyfully, purposefully start my day?
What did I see as my reason for being; my purpose? Or, as Napoleon Hill put it: my “definite chief aim”.
I discovered that I was struggling to answer these questions, to deliberately create the life of my own choosing, because I didn’t, in fact, know exactly what that would look like.
Plato admonished his students to “know thyself,” and this ancient Greek aphorism is apparently so important it remains a commonly-revisited quote to this very day. It may seem strange that we need to remind ourselves to know who we are. After all, shouldn’t it be (pardon the pun) self-evident? But, in fact, we do need the reminder, and it may well be the failure to truly know ourselves that is at the root of some of our deepest discontentment and greatest regrets and failures.
So, if the starting point of the transformation that will allow you to create your ideal life is to “know thyself,” then I am going to tell you that the best way to begin this endeavor is to take up the habit of journaling.
The amount of time you spend doing it does not have to be daunting. In fact, 5 minutes every day (and 30 minutes on the weekends, if you can stand it, just to let yourself go a little deeper) will, over time, be so illuminating and so rewarding you may well look back in 6 months or a year and note that your life has literally changed.
How can this possibly be the case?
In a way, it is very simple. How often do we, in this society, take the time to truly be in touch with our deepest values, our greatest fears, the roots of our insecurities, the meaning behind our discontentment, or the basis of the things we find most rewarding? And yet, to not be aware of these things is to not have the necessary information to create our most fulfilling life.
What do I love? What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What do I want? What is important to me? What am I afraid of? Who am I? And, knowing that, what would it mean for my life?
If changes in your life presuppose changes in you (and, indeed, the external is a mirror of the internal), then it is necessary to develop some self-awareness. How can one change what is unknown? How can one fix what is unacknowledged? How can one understand the value of gratitude when one has never had a forum in which to practice being grateful? How can one change one’s inner dialogue without sitting still for a moment and focusing on what that would sound like?
A journal is the staging ground for all your inner work.
It is the place where you come to make commitments to yourself—or to lament the things you have been unable to stay committed to.
It is the place where you force yourself to be grateful for the beautiful things in your life because you know—intuitively—that gratitude opens a window in the universe that allows more beauty to pour in.
It is your record of successes and failures, whereby you begin to understand the trajectory of your ups and downs and derive from this the faith and courage to persevere through countless obstacles.
It is your chance to work out, on paper, something you are struggling with because the act of writing has the peculiar tendency to yield insights that thinking, alone, does not.
It is a private forum by which you can identify and work through your fears, insecurities, judgments, and troubles.
It is an opportunity to explore your authentic needs and identify your deepest values.
It is the place you question yourself, applaud yourself, and challenge yourself.
It is the revelation of your tenderness, your desire, your vulnerability, and your madness.
It is you saying, “This is me…no…THIS is me….no…THIS IS ME!”
It is truth, and lies, and aggrandizements, and flourishes, and diminishings that eventually add up to revelation, and insight, and decision, and acceptance, and change.
It is all of these things because it is the enabler of your self-discovery. It is the excuse for it. It is the platform for it. And, as is so often the case with self-discovery, sometimes it happens with you scarcely being aware of it. As I said above, the act of journaling—of going through the process of putting thoughts into words on paper—“eventually add[s] up” to a host of benefits, but you have to give it the time to work (much like a fitness program, for example). Thus, a ritual of journaling is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
In order for something to become a ritual, it must first be ingrained as a habit, and habits are formed through consistent repetition. So make a commitment to yourself; journal every day (5 minutes—literally—you can set a timer!) for 60 days. You will know when this habit has become ritualized because you will come to feel that to not perform the practice is more painful than the discipline it takes to perform it.
Here are some tips to get you started:
-Buy a blank notebook and some pens that allow you to write very quickly. My favorites are Paper Mate Profile, billed as the “World’s Smoothest Pen.” I buy a packet of 15 for about 10 bucks at Sam’s Club. You can buy them in two-packs for about $3 at Staples, Target, etc. My favorite notebooks are also among the cheapest: Mead College Ruled, 1 subject, 90 sheets at Target. They are $1.50. The paper is soft, so the pen glides quickly. I am serious about that 5 minutes…
-(Alternately, some folks may want to buy a very beautiful journal and pen. That is a great idea, as well, as long as the beauty of the book itself does not stifle your creativity. If you feel that you must fill a beautiful book with only perfect, beautiful thoughts, you may be “afraid” to even start, and that would be terribly counterproductive).
-Pick a day to start…and START! I make the routine as ritualized as possible so that it is pleasurable. For me, this means that I start with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning while I read for about 15 minutes from something that inspires me (this would vary from person to person). Then I immediately grab my journal, note the date and time, and write for 5 minutes (sometimes it’s only 4—don’t get hung up on that—and on week-ends, sometimes 20 minutes or more). If it works better for you to grab 5 minutes before you go to bed at night, then do that. Or do it on your lunch break, if you have a lunch break that is conducive to that sort of thing. I do strongly, suggest, however, that whatever time you pick, once you’ve worked out the quirks, stick with that time. This consistency will help you ingrain the habit.
-Don’t think too hard about what you’re going to write. If that means that you write nonsense at first, then write nonsense.
-Write whatever is on your mind. If nothing is on your mind, spend those 4 or 5 minutes writing about any of the following:
Everything you can think of that you are grateful for.
Something you are struggling with.
What you would like your life to look like 5 years from now.
What you think of as your greatest assets.
What you think of as your greatest faults/weaknesses.
Something that has been bothering you (about your job, a relationship, a set of circumstances, or an incident).
An event that was very meaningful to you.
Something you are looking forward to.
3 things you can focus on doing better today (on your job, with your kids, at school, etc.).
-Write whatever is on your mind. Yes, I just said that. I’m saying it again because it’s important. You are not writing an obituary here, or the great American novel, or the President’s inauguration speech. If you spend too much time and mental capacity worrying about what to write, you are missing the point. You will probably only realize in retrospect how much you have accomplished and learned by just doing this writing every day, so just do the writing and worry about the meaning later.
One word of warning: it is not necessary (nor even advisable) to go back frequently and review what you have written. Keep moving forward. Once you have filled up an entire notebook (and started on your next one, of course), then go back and read what you have written. As you do so, keep a sheet of paper handy (or you can use this exercise as the start of your next journal) and write down some of the things that stand out for you: aha moments, changes you’ve made, observations that proved helpful, commitments you’ve kept (or failed to keep), key moments, key decisions, key people that have shown up in your life, and so on. This list can be quite revealing, and you will probably be surprised at how much you’ve been through and accomplished that you may have entirely forgotten. Reminders are good because they can add to your sense of self-efficacy and give you the fuel to keep chugging along down your path.
Resist the urge to prematurely judge the benefits or relevance of this practice. There is a reason why life coaches and success gurus like Tony Robbins, Hal Elrod, Brendon Burchard, Robin Sharma, and a host of others advise their clients to journal. It is one of the simplest and most powerful tools available. The years I have spent journaling have been the most productive, transformative, and enlightening years of my life—but I spent the first year just putting my head down and faithfully doing the work, having no idea whatsoever of the results it would yield.
Over time, you will begin to think more deeply about the things you are writing about. You will begin to think more deeply about yourself and your life. This new awareness will blossom into new pathways, new possibilities, and new potentials. You will see things about yourself you never saw before, and these things will help shape the direction of your life—in a good way, because these things represent true self-knowledge.
Best wishes, and happy journaling!