On Self-Knowledge

Three Questions Everyone Needs To Answer

Self-examination and understanding are essential pieces of a happy life. A writer does not publish their life’s work without countless hours of rethinking, refining, and removing. The writer repeatedly evaluates each sentence that was written in hopes of finding weaknesses that can be dispelled. And why should we as the authors of our own lives do any different? To avoid the repetition of folly, we must take a hard look at ourselves as often as possible. And to do this, we must start by asking ourselves the right questions.

What is important?

This is the foundation that the answers to other questions will be built upon. Take some time and try to drill into the most essential aspects of your life. What are you currently treating as most important? Then try to understand why these things are important to you. Do they deserve an elevated status in your life? What would the consequence be of discarding or lowering this priority? Be as ruthless as you can bear in your evaluation. It can make all the difference.

What is in my control?

The more you think about this question, the more you’ll realize how little you can control. Health is too complicated to really control. You can eat all the greens and run all you’d like, and cancer may still come knocking at your door. You can invest in all the right stocks, and still, lose your fortune because of a global pandemic. The examples go on. If you can internalize this lack of certainty and come to terms with it, you gain a rare kind of freedom. Instead, aspire to aim at the right things by working at the things that are in your control. Massimo Pigliucci invokes the image of an archer as a metaphor for control:

“Consider carefully what is and is not under the archer’s control. She is in complete charge of selecting and taking care of the bow and the arrows; of practicing shooting at a target; of selecting the precise moment in which to let the arrow go. After that, however, nothing is under her control: the target, an enemy soldier, say, may become aware of the arrow and move out of range; or a sudden gust of wind may ruin the most perfect shot.”1

Now apply this to yourself. Are you adequately preparing before your next big interview? Are you rehearsing as much as necessary before your next presentation? Are you aiming well? If the answer is yes, then you have done all you can. So what if a gust of wind blows your shot off target? You attended to all that was in your control. If the answer is no, then there seems to be some work to do.

What is the price of my integrity?

This can be a rather painful question to answer. At the heart of this inquiry, we find the things that we really want. Things that we want no matter the means. Here we may find material wealth. We may find a desire to be respected. We may find a desire to be powerful. But nested in each of these things is insecurity. We find one or many things that we think will solve these feelings of insecurity despite the countless examples of equally unhappy and fragile billionaires, celebrities, and political leaders. Implicit in this question is the importance of integrity. For now, it will remain a smuggled in assumption, but just remember Epictetus’ words of caution:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.”2


  1. Massimo Pigliucci, A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living
  2. Epictetus, Discourses

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