Know Yourself, and Beware of Stories

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Know Yourself
I had a fascinating conversation this afternoon with Seattle artist (and Patti Digh co-conspirator) David Robinson. It was largely focused on the knowing/doing disconnect that I’ve been writing about, but we also talked about stories — as tools for giving rich context and meaning to information, and as traps we can fall into if we mistake them for reality.

David spoke about the work of Alan Seale (it’s about finding your “soul mission” and your “life vision”) and how more and more of us are coming to believe that the key to much of what we seek so fervently — what we should be doing, and where, and with whom, and how we can make the world better, for a start — comes down to knowing ourselves, and to paying attention.

He described a three-stage model of intentionality: the first stage is autonomy (self-knowledge), the second is ‘mastery’ (learning to do something well) and the third is purposefulness (applying that self-knowledge and mastery to something that is needed and useful). I had two responses: I prefer ‘practice’ (“there is no mastery; there is only the practice”) instead of ‘mastery’; and it seemed to me that rather than three sequential stages these three are iterative processes, each of which inform the other two.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that these three processes mapped to some extent to the three components of the Sweet Spot that I describe in my book: Practice maps to Gifts (what we do uniquely well), Intention maps to Passions (what we love doing), and Autonomy (kind of) maps to Purpose (what’s needed in the world that we care about). I sketched out the drawing above as a kind of map of self-knowledge. Here’s what it says:

  1. Practice is doing what we have the capacity and competency to do, what we can do.
  2. Through Practice, we come to know what we can do. This knowledge in turn helps improve our Practice.
  3. Through Practice, and knowing what we can do, we discover our Gifts, those things we are uniquely good at doing.
  1. Intention is doing what we want to do, what we love. The word is from the Latin meaning “stretching toward”. It’s starting to do it, not just resolving to do it.
  2. Through Intention, we come to know what we want to do. This knowledge in turn drives our actions, our Intentions.
  3. Through Intention, and knowing what we want to do, we discover our Passions, those things we love to do, that we expect we would love to make a living doing.
  1. Autonomy is being nobody-but-yourself, as ee cummings so eloquently described it.
  2. Through Autonomy, we come to know who we are. This self-knowledge helps us to be more authentically ourselves, less inclined to be everybody-else.
  3. Through Autonomy, and knowing who we are, we may discover our Purpose, why we are here.
  1. What we are meant to do lies at the intersection of our Gifts, our Passions and our Purpose. 
  2. Our Practice and Intention also inform our Autonomy; they teach us more about who we really are.
  3. Our Practice and Autonomy also inform our Intention; this self-learning teaches us more about what we want to do.
  4. Our Intention and Autonomy also inform our Practice; this self-knowledge teaches us more about what we have the capacity and capability to do.
  5. Likewise, as we discover our Gifts, our Passions and our Purpose, each of these discoveries suggests what might be part of the other two, and possibly what might be in the Sweet Spot.

In my book, I suggest a series of exercises you can use, iteratively, to discover your Gifts, Passions and Purpose. I make the point that many of us go through life doing what we’re expected to do, or told we must do, or told we are good at, so that we never really acquire enough experience at doing other things to know what our true Gifts, Passions and Purpose are. And for many of us, we haven’t the time or in some cases the critical and creative thinking skills to recognize them even if we stumble over them.

The Practice-Intention-Autonomy model suggests what might be a more intuitive and active way towards such discovery. Instead of a conceptual knowing approach to discovering what we’re meant to do, this model provides an experiential doing approach. Instead of doing skills inventory self-tests to think through what your Gifts might be, just start doing things, and you’ll find out what you’re uniquely good at. And at the same you’ll discover what you love doing. And perhaps even what you’re meant to do, and who you really are.

For many years my Sweet Spot was helping entrepreneurs by imagining possibilities that addressed the issues keeping them awake at night. Most of these possibilities were sparked by what I had learned from other entrepreneurs, their stories, which I could re-tell in useful ways to other entrepreneurs facing the same challenges. Other possibilities were sparked by my broad and serendipitous reading and having the time to imagine how the things I learned from this reading might have practical application in other areas. I initially took on this work, this Practice, reluctantly, and without it I probably wouldn’t have discovered my Gifts.

Likewise, in my final year of high school (my Unschooling year, when I was freed at last from the classroom and curriculum) I discovered my Passion for writing through sheer Intention, and Practice. I just wanted to write, and I worked hard at writing, long before I realized that this was something I really loved doing. Through Practice I became competent at it, through Intention it became a life goal, something I wanted to do for a living and then came to love.

So I know that Imagining Possibilities, and Writing, are for me both Gifts and Passions. My success as an advisor to entrepreneurs, and more recently as a writer, suggests these things have been in my Sweet Spot. But what has been missing, for me, is the self-knowledge, the Autonomy, to begin to discover my Purpose. Without knowing that, I can’t know what is now, really in my Sweet Spot, what I’m meant to do. I think that is what has me so paralyzed now, when I can afford to ‘retire’ from paid work and do whatever it is I’m really meant to do, because if I am really honest with myself, I have to admit I’m not sure what that is. I feel to some extent I can do almost anything, and at the very least I have a significant number of capacities and competencies that, with Practice, could become Gifts. And I know many things that I love doing, both alone and in collaboration with others; I’ve written about these Passions at length.

Of late I have been focused on discovering my Purpose, and on self-awareness and self-knowledge, as steps perhaps towards Autonomy — self-direction, self-control, independence. But Autonomy is notably different from Practice and Intention, which are about doing what we can and what we want. We all know more or less how to do things. Autonomy is, by contrast, about being. I would argue, now, that it is not about becoming, since while I think we can change what we do, we can’t change who we are. We don’t become something by volition, contrary to all the self-help books out there. Autonomy is about real-ization, about understanding what is, what we are. And then authentically being just and fully that.

Much more difficult than it sounds. Recently I attempted a self-portrait in words, as an exercise in real-izing who I am, or might be, now:

self-portrait in words

I think this is a reasonably accurate portrait. Does it make me “autonomous?”

The term autonomous means independent, self-directed and self-controlled. It doesn’t mean capacity to live alone and it’s not about survival skills. It’s about self-awareness and self-knowledge sufficient to know what you can and cannot do competently, what drives you, how you think and how you feel, and why. It’s about independence from the influence of others, who are, as cummings said, trying their best, day and night, to make you everybody-else.

How does one become autonomous, in this sense? I believe it’s very hard. Cummings puts it this way:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy, but it isn’t. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being
can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed. And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

“To feel and work and fight till you die.” That’s the process to start to achieve Autonomy. To let your heart be broken, and to let the world see your broken heart. To challenge everything, critically and imaginatively. To refuse to let those who would make you everybody-else — a wage slave, a respected citizen, an obedient employee, a faithful adherent to an accepted code of beliefs or behaviours, a ‘nice’ person, a team player, someone dependent on the affection, appreciation, attention and largesse of others — make you what you are not.

And, at the same time, the process of moving towards Autonomy includes an appreciation of your interdependence, your a-part-hood of all-life-on-Earth and of the communities whose members are fighting alongside you. A fearless love of others, while still remaining free of the gunk they (well-meaningly, I think) try to attach to you. An indefatigable love for this terrible, suffering world.

Practice. Intention. Autonomy. Doing what you can. Doing what you want. Being who you are. And letting the knowledge of these three things show you what you are meant to do. Not who you are meant to be — you already are that.

Can you imagine that? This is hard. I’m a lazy bastard, but I’m ready for this. I can’t do anything less. I won’t be anyone else.

.     .     .     .     .

David’s thoughts on stories were similarly inspiring. I’ve been reading and writing a lot about stories — their power to inform and persuade, their memorability, and the damage they can do when you get trapped by them — buried in regret or nostalgia over stories about your past, distracted by grief or false hope about your future, consumed by self-loathing over stories others have told you, or you have told yourself, about yourself, and terrified or traumatized by stories you have come to accept about others and the world as it is today.

So we end up with this love-hate relationship with stories, both of which stem from their power. Stories, it seems to me, are tools — like any tool they can be useful if applied to a problem, or dangerous if misapplied. There has been a lot of writing and preaching, in recent years, about rewriting our own story, but in today’s discussions with David it occurred to me that we can get so caught up in chronicling our lives that we forget to live them. If our lives are, in fact, stories that are like movies unfolding in real time (if there is such a thing as ‘real time’), then we might be led to think metaphorically about whether we are directors and/or actors in our own film, or about who is writing (with daily rewrites) the script. But are we then making ourselves a prisoner of this metaphor, and allowing stories to trap us even more? Are some (heroic) stories beneficial and others (that belittle us) damaging? Are some of these stories ‘true’ and others ‘fiction’? Or are they all fiction, artifacts of an invented past and invented future that merely distract us from living in Now Time, where there are no stories?

I am coming to believe that all stories, from the unactionable dumbed-down crap that we’re fed by the mainstream media, to the preposterous ‘history’ they pass off as ‘fact’ in so-called institutions of learning, to the regurgitated tripe from Hollywood, to the mountains of lies of corporatists in their greenwashing and advertising, to the formulaic and emotionally manipulative fiction to which we escape from our brutal and mind-numbing lives — are propaganda. They are meant to keep us in our place and distract us from discovering what is really going on in this world. Stories, I am beginning to think, are just more of civilization’s gunk that gets layered on us (some of it self-inflicted) from the moment we acquire the dreadful skill of human language, stuff that prevents us from being nobody-but-ourselves, and from understanding what is really needed, now, what we have to do, with all of our hearts and our minds and our senses and our instincts.

So: damn stories. If one is inclined to “rewrite one’s own story”, perhaps it’s time to give up fiction, turn off the projector, get out of the theatre and improvise living in the real world, where there are no scripts, just work that needs to be done and actions that need to be taken, if only we can readjust our eyes to the light. The director, it turns out, is a mannequin with a pre-recorded playback device in his megaphone, and the script was written by a machine using lines selected with a random-number generator.

And the part that each of us has been playing was actually written for someone else. The set is empty, the props are all falling down and blowing away in the wind. All that is left is Now.

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5 Responses to Know Yourself, and Beware of Stories

  1. Jon Husband says:

    in today’s discussions with David it occurred to me that we can get so caught up in chronicling our lives that we forget to live them.Is it right to assume, or think, that you have gotten to this realization more than once ?

  2. Steve Bean says:

    I’ve learned a new way to look at my stories from Byron Katie. If my story is stress-free, I keep it and enjoy it. If it’s at all stressful, I examine the thoughts that created it and find what’s true for me and leave the stress behind.Still loving reality.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Sme interesting comments on this post have popped up on its Facebook transcript:

  4. Paul says:

    Wow, Dave, you shifted 180 degrees! Stories are evil now, eh?I don’t agree that all stories “are meant to keep us in our place and distract us from discovering what is really going on in this world.” Sure, a lot are, esecially those desseminated by various institutions. And our own personal stories that we tell ourselves are usually just defenses that our minds set up to explain our apparent separation from the rest of reality.On the other hand, without stories I don’t think we could imagine and share new possibilities. What a shame that would be! And just try to argue against stories with indigenous peoples–their entire cultures, all their transfer of knowledge, revolve around stories!Aren’t you painting with too broad a brush? Can’t we learn to discern truth from hogwash?

  5. Indigo Ocean says:

    Instead of triads, I would frame the process as built upon a boolean choice. You either open your heart and mind to embrace this moment as perfect just as it is, including yourself as perfect just as you are, or you refuse to. If you choose to accept “being” everything else pretty much takes care of itself.<br/><br/>You do whatever is put right in front of you needing doing. You fully apply yourself to doing it as best you can, out of the sheer joy of being of use. Over time some pattern is revealed, and then it is time to start applying intellect’s conscious intent to shape what is emerging according to your uniqueness, deciding which aspects you want to grow and which allow to fade away. <br/><br/>If you choose to reject what is here and now, including who you are just as you are even lacking a describable self-story, then you go it alone against a vast ocean. You are the current, seeking to discover itself as something distinct within the ever changing sea, as if you actually were a solid thing instead of a being that is constantly involved in the dance of becoming.<br/><br/>Holding these apparent incongruities at once, being and becoming, is the stuff of the poet within you. So don’t give the assignment to your theoretician. Attend the blossoming rose within you with all the passion of your heart. What greater poetry is there than the whole of creation? We are living breathing poetry, and yet we cannot accept this as the awesome miracle it is and call it enough. Let creation reveal itself to itself in its own miraculous way. Let us leave off trying to confine the ocean within a vessel of even the finest crystal. The full poetry of you cannot be conveyed even by the greatest poet, and so all the new ones are still needed. And you, you do your work of writing it with your living.

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