This is DATA, a monthly column by Angela Chen on numbers, nerdery, and what it means to live an evidence-based life.
“Know thyself” is a powerful goal. Few of us achieve it.
Psychologist Tasha Eurich divides self-knowledge into two types: internal self-awareness, or understanding why we behave the way we do, and external awareness, or accurately judging how others see us. She estimates that 95 percent of people consider themselves self-aware. The more damning number is that only about 10 percent of people actually are self-aware; worse, spending lots of time ruminating over how others see you isn’t linked to greater insight. People deeply want to be self-aware, Eurich explains, and just as deeply want to feel good about themselves. The self-preservation instinct tends to win.
Perhaps because I am so impulsive, I have long prized self-knowledge. There was a practical reason: Understanding myself, I believed, could guide me toward better decisions and a better future. By continually acting in ways even I couldn’t foresee—same-day plane tickets, leaving the country on little notice, contacting people that an hour ago I fully intended to ice out forever—I was running into situations unplanned and unprepared. It was unnerving to be unsure of my own motivations, uncertain what I would do next and where that would take me.
But there was also a more philosophical reason for my pursuit of self-knowledge: I wanted to be correct in my beliefs about that most intimate of subjects, myself.
There are many paths to knowing yourself. Personality tests. Behavior analysis. Sometimes, you can simply ask the people who know you best. I’ve tried them all, gathered ever more data points to paint a picture of who I am. I’ve always known that full self-knowledge is impossible, but it is only recently that I’ve come to view this fact as liberating rather than threatening.
As a child, I was shy and judgmental, afraid to talk to others while simultaneously convinced that no one knew the real me . When I was fifteen, the opportunity to test this belief appeared in the form of an internet survey .
Psychologists developed the Johari window in the 1950s in hopes of helping patients gain self-awareness. In the version I used, you’re presented with a table of adjectives—positive, though a negative version of the test exists—and asked to pick the most important six. You send the link to your friends, who do the same without seeing your answers first. The resulting window shows how much overlap there is between your answers and those of others. What do you believe about yourself that others don’t see? What do others see in you that may come as a surprise?
At fifteen, I completed one of these surveys, sent it around to friends, looked at their answers, then forgot them for a decade. Recently, I filled out the survey again and sent it to the most important people in my life now. The site keeps track of every entry as long as you input the right username, so I resolved to find that much-earlier version. Dozens of tries didn’t work. And then one did, and I was evaluating a previous version of myself, perfectly frozen in time.
In a 1996 commencement address , Nora Ephron described a game she liked to play: Write the five truest things about yourself, repeat over time, see how they change. She says: “ Whatever those five things are for you today, they won’t make the list in ten years—not that you still won’t be some of those things, but they won’t be the five most important things about you.” A decade ago, the words I picked for the Johari window included “introverted,” “dependable,” and “self-conscious.” Then, as now, the people I sent the survey to generally agreed with my self-assessments. I had been introverted then. I had been self-conscious. It’s true, they’re not the most important things about me now, but if I close my eyes, I can slip back into that younger self, so unsure, so shy.
But Nora wasn’t completely right. Two words show up on those past and present surveys: “intelligent” and “reflective.” Consistent across a decade, these were also the words that people today most frequently chose to describe me, creating a sense of continuity. While I have changed, I had known two of the most important things all along.
Some say we’re better off not knowing what others think of us. I am here to tell you that they are wrong. It is truly delightful to discover a post your ex wrote about you—asking strangers for advice, no less!—on the internet.
When the first person I loved and I broke up, we hated each other. By the time I found a post he had written about me—three years after the breakup and two months after he wrote it—our interactions had ossified into an exhausting pattern: a full year of radio silence, then three weeks of agonizing over whether we should get back together. His post had been written shortly before what would turn out to be the final iteration of this pointless game. He laid out the history of our relationship, and said that I was a cruel, sharp, “two-edged” person . These words meant little. I had thought the same of myself so many times.
But I couldn’t stop reading the paragraphs in which he explained why he had loved me—not simply because they were complimentary, but because one particular phrase pointed to something I had never recognized in myself. “Passionate and proud,” he’d written—a silly, overdramatic wording that nevertheless was the opposite of who I thought I was.
All my life, I had seen myself as a wallflower, and berated myself for it. I didn’t drink and I didn’t go out. Nervous about approaching others, I became a journalist to have a legitimate reason to talk. Type-A to a fault, even friends teased me by calling me robotic. I had loved my ex in part because I thought he was the exciting one and could lend me some of his color, never imagining I had any of my own.
I showed the post to others. Was it accurate? Not just the critical parts, but also the parts I didn’t believe? Yes, they told me.
Before, when I had asked for feedback, I expected to be told only the negative: that I was ruder than I thought, less generous than I hoped. I well knew the worst of myself, but never considered that neuroses could cloud my judgment of the best. Never had I realized that insight goes both ways; that lacking self-awareness doesn’t just mean thinking you’re witty when you’re not. It can also mean overlooking what you have to offer, and seeing yourself as a supplicant when you’re actually an equal.
When words aren’t insightful enough, we can turn to behavior to learn more about who we are. The concept of “ revealed preferences ” comes from economics, where it’s often applied to consumer behavior. Simply put, it claims that what you actually choose is the best indication of what you actually want. Instead of over-relying on abstract mathematical models of consumer preference, take a look at sales receipts. Instead of spending hours soul-searching over what genre of movie you should watch tonight, look at your “recently watched” list. It’s the academic version of “actions speak louder than words.”
“Revealed preferences” shouldn’t be applied too broadly. It’s not an absolute truth, as evidenced by the plenty of people who “really” want to get straight As but haven’t developed the right study skills. Still, it’s true that the tangible, quantifiable things—the websites visited, the books read, the people we make plans with—can tell us at a glance what we’re like. Descriptive words, even those of a consensus, are subjective in ways that a Seamless order history is not. It’s one thing to claim that Italian is your favorite cuisine, but such a claim is easily trumped by an order history that consists almost entirely of Mexican restaurants.
Social pressure encourages us to say certain things; revealed preferences help us to look past that. This quantitative data is a rough blueprint of who we are, and can add some clarity when we get bogged down in hypotheticals. They’re a signal amidst all the noise. Revealed preferences were at work when I told my friend that I wanted to cover science instead of business. To me, this was a professional epiphany hard-won after months of analysis and theorizing. My friend merely rolled her eyes, pointing out that in all the years she’d known me, I had never talked business, but was “always emailing her links to articles about brain-machine interfaces.”
The tattoo on the inside of my left wrist is a graph: vertical asymptotes, two lines extending closer and closer to the x and y axes, never touching. I got it at the age of twenty, a reminder to be humble because complete certainty is impossible.
And so it is when it comes to knowing ourselves: We can keep logs and ask friends, go to therapy, and poke around where we shouldn’t. We can gain more self-awareness and it can improve our lives. But it is impossible to fully know who we are; we can get close, but the asymptotes will never touch. Once, this frightened me. Now I find it exciting.
Incessantly gathering information about my own traits was a manifestation of my insecurity. I couldn’t believe something about myself unless other people agreed—or until my own behavior provided the evidence I craved. By focusing on these external means of confirmation, I gave away my own power to create my identity and overlooked my prerogative to say who I was.
The curiosity remains. I still ask for feedback and want to know how I come off. But I no longer believe that these accounts are the very truest things. There is power in believing things about yourself that aren’t immediately apparent to everyone else. There is opportunity in forcibly rewriting a story, in trying out different identities that might not feel true at first.
This lack of complete understanding is part of what keeps the future open. So long as I don’t understand myself completely, I’ll continue surprising myself. This I had known before, but I was so afraid of the surprise itself that I didn’t see how often it could lead to good things. Ten years on, with less fear and more optimism, I see that my life will go—has already gone—in unexpected directions; directions that an introverted, self-conscious fifteen-year-old could never have imagined.