Know yourself!

Know yourself! 6 ways to implement

Sun Tzu is arguably the most well known eastern strategist. His famous book “The art of war” has almost become a part of pop culture. The book holds thirteen chapters full of advice on warfare. But Sun Tzu’s most important instruction in my opinion is: know yourself!

Lost in translation

I noticed I have not been delivering well on my promise lately: to draw connections between my martial experience and management. What a better (or maybe worse) place to start than Sun Tzu. At least you cannot reach much further back: The Art of War is about 2500 years old. As part of the Seven Military Classics in China it had (and still has) a huge impact on education about tactics world wide.

The book is so important that many attempts have been made to apply it to current challenges. You can find Sun Tzu for managers as well as for stock brokers. The most important pearl of wisdom contained in that book is usually badly translated however:

Know the enemy like yourself!

What this phrase seems to point out is that you should invest time and effort to get to know your enemy. Fair enough. But that’s not all!

Let me give you a more literal translation of that passage of the book:

Hence the saying: 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.

Now it becomes clear that knowing the enemy is only half the story. Maybe even more importantly you have to know yourself!

Know yourself!

This phrase is also known from an entirely different historical source: “Gnothi seauton”, “Know thyself” is one of the Delphic maxims. These 147 aphorisms were inscribed in the temple of Apollo in Delphi. The temple was built roughly around the same time the art of war was written. So let’s assume it was both, a message widely spread and considered fairly important. Is it just me or has that changed since then?

“No wonder”, you might counter. “It is trivial advice. We have spent most of our life with ourselves. So we know ourselves pretty well!” Or so it seems…

The scary truth is that we tend to be extremely biased when it comes to our opinion about ourselves. Due to a variety of reasons we have developed a self-image that is sometimes far from reality.

This self-image is usually quite handy: it allows us to feel good about ourselves in spite of all our flaws (after all a divorce from ourselves is usually not an option). It also preserves energy: imagine all the things we would have to correct if we saw all our issues clearly.

Not knowing oneself can lead to drastically bad decisions however. Many young drivers and drinkers have made that experience. Some casting show guests seem not to have learned even much later.

sun tzu photo
Photo by Celestine Chua

The science: Illusory superiority

Sun Tzu could not know but modern scientific results support his instructions. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes that the less competent a person the more she overestimates her competence. At the same time high-ability individuals undervalue their feats because they seem easy to them. A less competent person also has difficulties recognizing competence in others. It is not hard to imagine how this effect leads to distortions of the self-image.

The above average phenomenon describes that in the absence of data about our performance we tend to assume it is above average. In a survey of faculty at the University of Nebraska for example more than 90% rated themselves as above average regarding their teaching ability. This illusory superiority is a cognitive bias directed to self observation. We all have it in us and need to work hard to overcome it.

Peter Drucker

The founder of modern management, Peter Drucker, wrote about the topic in 1999. His article managing oneself  puts emphasize on discovering ones strengths, working style, values and finally where one belongs.

Now what?

So how do you get to know yourself better?

Don’t believe yourself!

Accept the fact that probably a lot of what you think about yourself is wrong. Naturally this is a scary thought. But don’t take it too hard: most of what you think about the rest of the world ist wrong too and still you are able to function. Maybe it helps to dissociate a bit: This “me”, what kind of person is it?

Here’s a practical approach: Make a list of things you believe about yourself. Select the item that seems most interesting to you and make a plan how to find out the truth. Add more items to the list whenever you discover them.

Observe yourself!

Try to learn mindfulness in order to observe yourself. There are loads of techniques. For example try to learn to observe your breathing. Being able to observe your own behavior will be a good tool to check assumptions about yourself. Am a really kind to strangers? Do I really keep cool when presented bad news?

Make experiments

Think about what you would be able to achieve if you really were as good at this one thing as you think. Then try it out. Example: Assume you are convinced you are good at predicting share price development. Maybe you define for yourself: a person good at predicting share prices should be able to predict the weekly development of any given share within 5%. Well, nothing easier than to give that a try…

Listen to your friends!

I have friends whom I would not tell observations about themselves. Why? Because they are so caught in their self-image that they either won’t listen or they will react badly. Just don’t be such a person and you will get loads of input. But you can go even further and invite friends to tell you about yourself. Just be aware that your friends will consider it risky in the beginning (the wrong answer could end a friendship after all). So start with something easy and work your way up building trust. Do you like this tie?

Do a personality test!

There are several interesting personality tests out there. The ones I know are flawed. So don’t interpret them religiously. Still, learning about how you compare to the rest of the world is not only fun. It also tells you things about yourself.

Use a coach!

A good coach will lure you into answering questions you have always avoided. A lot of these question usually concern yourself. “What do you think others think about your way to talk?”

Establish a feedback culture!

There are many good reasons for establishing a feedback culture. One is that you will get much more information about what others think about your actions. Again, feedback is all about trust.

In summary

Knowing oneself is at least as important as knowing one’s enemy. And it may be even harder to do. Using the tips mentioned here can be a first step to meet that goal.


Photo by kainet

Photo by Abode of Chaos


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