How well do you know yourself? Self-knowledge is surprisingly difficult.
In doing my happiness project, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how hard it is to follow the first of my Personal Commandments, to “Be Gretchen.” Why is it so difficult just to accept my own nature?
Two of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood remind me to Be Gretchen: “Just because something is fun for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s fun for you—and vice versa” and, “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.”
I’ve noticed that people often assume that everyone enjoys the same activities that they enjoy, because they believe those activities are inherently enjoyable. For example, when I commented on how well a friend had arranged some flowers, she explained, “I needed a part-time job during college, so of course I tried to get a job at a flower shop.”
“Why did you try to work at a flower shop?” I asked, puzzled.
“Well, everyone loves working with flowers,” she answered matter-of-factly.
Well, actually, nope. I would never try to get a job in a flower shop. In college, I always got temping jobs, because I could work on my own writing projects while looking productive. (Speaking of not recognizing your true nature, I missed this obvious clue that I wanted to be a writer.)
People also assume that they in fact do enjoy what they think they should enjoy—e.g., they enjoy going to the theater, because going to the theater is a fun thing to do. Nope! Not true. There are so many “fun” things that I don’t enjoy one bit, like skiing, drinking wine, going to concerts, eating pasta, shopping. And I love to do many things that other people dread doing—cleaning out closets, for example. I beg my friends to let me help them clean out their closets.
My friend Michael Melcher wrote an outstanding (and quite funny) book called The Creative Lawyer. The book is aimed at helping lawyers find more job satisfaction—whether within law or outside of law—but it’s also a valuable resource for anyone trying to understand himself or herself better.
Here’s a quiz, lightly adapted from The Creative Lawyer, to help you figure out your interests. Not what you wish interested you, but what actually interests you.
1. What part of the newspaper do you read first?
2. What are three books you’ve read in the past year?
3. As a child, what did you do in your free time?
4. What’s a goal that has been on your list for a few years?
5. What do you actually do with your free time? [This is perhaps the most helpful question. I finally switched careers from law to writing when it dawned on me that I was always writing books in my free time.]
6. What types of activities energize you?
7. What famous people intrigue you?
You need to pay close attention to yourself. The better you understand your true likes and dislikes, the better able you are to make decisions—in work and leisure—that will make you happy. It’s not possible to build a happy life, filled with enthusiasm and engagement, based on the way that you wish you were. For better or worse, we’re all stuck with ourselves.
As Thomas Merton noted in his diary, “Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.”
Have you found any good ways to understand yourself better?
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