The work of self-understanding

| drawing, learning, life, reflection, writing

I’ve been taking advantage of the company’s free e-counseling service to pick a counselor’s brain about marriage. When I told the counselor (Sue) about how I thought my way through tough situations by mindmapping, writing, and drawing, she asked me how I learned how to do that.

I don't know. I remember reading books about mindmapping and note-taking when I was a grade-schooler raiding my mom's books on productivity and learning. I found it to be a useful way of getting ideas out without having to put them in order first. Writing became my way of thinking through things I wanted to understand more, like my options for university or how I felt about a crush. Although this occasionally led to some embarrassment (like when my mom stumbled across my notes for the latter), it was a useful practice, and I’m glad I got into it.

I looked for interesting techniques, and I experimented with them. One of the classes in my mechanical and industrial engineering master's degree turned out to have great insights into the limitations of the human brain and some tools for making better decisions, like decision tables. In Built to Last, I learned about the genius of the “and” – that even when it seems to be a choice between A or B, you may be able to find an option that combines the best of both. Books like Problem Solving 101 reinforced the value of making decision trees, examining your assumptions, and exploring your alternatives.

Diagrams, journal entries, drawings, and blog posts helped me think whenever I needed to understand something. When W- hinted that he liked me, I was so nervous, I prattled. It was only when I stayed up late to mindmap my thoughts and figure out what I felt that I could write my response in a letter. When my parents raged and wept with disapproval, I filled pages with mindmaps and lists of possible outcomes and ways to move forward. I use these tools for good stuff, too, drawing what an even better life might be like and writing about how I can help make it happen.

It’s not about driving emotion out of the picture. In fact, the logical structures of decision-making diagrams and tools can help you understand and harness emotions. By themselves, emotions can be overwhelming – a jumble of inchoate thoughts and inarticulate sensations. When you slow down and focus on a single thread, it becomes easier to untangle your thoughts. Even the seemingly logic-oriented process of listing pros and cons reveals your preferences and emotions, if you listen carefully to yourself. It’s not about the numbers of advantages or disadvantages you can list, or the objective factors you consider – in fact, you get even more valuable information when your instinctive reaction goes against what you think you should feel.

This is the work of self-understanding – of identifying and examining your assumptions, developing and articulating your intuition, and broadening your alternatives. Diagrams, journal entries, blog posts, and drawings are tools that you can use to externalize your thoughts, getting them out of your head and into a form that you can review and understand. They’re also useful when you need help remembering your reasons and sticking to a decision, or re-evaluating a decision when the situation changes.

Investing time and energy into learning how to make better decisions pays off, because you will make so many decisions in your lifetime. Reflection helps you separate external influences from what you really think and feel. If you ignore your intuition or bury your emotions under the pressure of external influences, it will be harder and harder to use those tools to make decisions in the future, and then you’ll wake up one day and wonder where your life went. On the other hand, the more you trust yourself, the easier it becomes to know yourself. Although making your own decisions means making mistakes along the way, those mistakes are invaluable because they help you learn more about your path.

Here’s where I like taking that one step further: I sometimes post these in-between thoughts and reflections (and mistakes!) to get more insights and to share what I’ve learned. This is scary. We don’t want to be vulnerable, and we don’t want to bore people with the details of our lives. But as it turns out, thinking out loud helps inspire other people. Like the way I learned to recognize assumptions, situations, and alternatives by reading books and blog posts about other people’s lives, people peeking into my life can use whatever insights they pick up to make their own lives better. It also helps other people see the value of reflection and self-understanding, and who knows what I’ll be able to learn from them if they build on that?

Good stuff. Try it out.

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