Imagine you have a few pieces of wood and you want to build a chair. Once you have a plan of how to construct the chair, you must gather certain truths about your pieces of wood. So, for example, you measure their sizes. This gives you quantitative facts that will be useful for cutting the pieces properly. Once you’ve built the chair, and it doesn’t wobble, you have no more use for these facts. You can and likely will forget them.
This is how we should handle the truth in general: gather facts for a specific purpose, and forget them when they are no longer useful. We do this automatically with most truths we come across in our lives, sometimes even forgetting them too soon (your school days send their regards). But there is one critical exception, namely, truths about ourselves.
Consider some truths about your body. As a little boy, it was useful to know your height when you needed to qualify for a swell roller coaster ride. As an adolescent, it was useful to know the size of your penis when you needed to buy your first pack of condoms. Lying about these sizes would have been bad for your safety, so the truth was preferable to delusion. Beyond such special occasions, however, there’s little to no use in thinking about these facts, no matter how truthful they are. Still, many young men keep thinking about these sizes, comparing themselves to others, and developing insecurities.
For another example, when you’re deciding on a career path or a city to move to, it will be useful to know certain truths about your physical and cognitive abilities, your personality and social tendencies, and your morality and value hierarchy. You don’t want to become a carpenter when you’ve got two left hands, sell insurances when you’re an introvert, or live in a small Christian town when you’re a satanist. So there definitely are times when self-knowledge is good, when being aware of objective facts about yourself is useful.
Yet often after we’ve learned such facts, we don’t just use them to make a rational decision and then move on. Instead, we start to obsess about them, use them for endless rumination, and upon lavish self-judgment become identified with them, build our egos around them. What I call “self-assessment porn”—taking IQ tests and personality quizzes like the Big Five and Myers-Briggs, measuring numerous physiological attributes without pursuing a well-defined goal, etc.—is a symptom of this.
Let’s say you have three specific numbers in your head, each on a scale from 1 to 10, indicating how beautiful, intelligent, and charming you are, and let’s assume they are accurate truths in spite of their one-dimensional, static simplicity. What’s the use of these numbers, these quantitative facts? If you compulsively rehearse them in your mind, they can only be detrimental, because they will distract you from the specific problem you’re trying to solve or from simply being present in the moment.
Even more, self-knowledge that induces frequent self-judgment becomes self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing over time. Then what started out as a casual fact about a little snapshot of your self turns into an integral part of your increasingly fixed self-image. You become trapped in your own beliefs.
We are taught that knowledge is power, that knowledge is good. But knowledge is good only to the extent that it is useful. If you want to build a chair and you’re incessantly thinking about how the sky is blue, who’s the president of Austria, and E=mc², then you’ll probably build a shitty chair.
In most cases, however, our knowledge of external facts is much less intrusive on our minds than self-knowledge. We can usually store our knowledge away in a metaphorical box, close the lid on it, and not have it infiltrate our minds when we don’t need it.
This is in stark contrast to self-knowledge. Here most people are incapable of closing the lid, so their self-related facts come out of the box to occupy their thoughts even when they don’t need them. Then they start to fret, worry, and ruminate. (The reason, of course, is not the self-referentiality per se, but the emotional involvement; we see something similar happening with facts about justice and politics, which some people cannot shut up about.)
So what we must learn to do is not to “think more positively” or, in the extreme, to delude ourselves, but to treat our inner knowledge in the same way as we treat our outer knowledge: to use it when needed and to free our minds from it otherwise.
Knowledge is better than ignorance, truth is better than delusion and deceit. But knowing the truth is not enough. We must also know when to use it and how to not think about it when there’s no use for it. This is wisdom.
- Who Are You? (this post discusses esoteric self-knowledge rather than the factual self-knowledge discussed above)
- How Do You Use Facts?
- Why Positive Thinking Is Bullshit
- Why Personality Tests Do Not Enhance Self-Knowledge