You Know You Are But Who Am I: The Known Unknowns Start Here

Last week I sat in a meeting with our marketing team and realized I’d just said — helpfully and without thinking, “Don’t tell me how the sausage is made, just tell me if it tastes good.” People nodded and my boss replied, “Exactly.”

Colorful phrases that were weird to me when I started in the industry over a decade ago are mundane idioms now. Occasionally those expressions stick with me beyond what they’re intended to convey, though. One marketing eye-roller comes to mind regularly as I go down metaphysical rabbit holes, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Sounds like nonsense, as does the preferred alternative situation, when we’re dealing with “the known unknowns.” But attribute those to Socrates, translate ‘em into Greek and looky there — we’ve got ourselves an ethos.

To me this is different from the “what you don’t know can hurt you” cliché. Perhaps that’s more about ignorance — just being wantonly oblivious is dangerous. To have no avenues to knowing what’s out there to know in the first place is a step beyond.

Try as we might, we can’t see it coming, can’t anticipate or prepare. Ideally we’ll know what the unknowns are because we can do something about them — learn, understand and address them.

We’ll have limits, of course. Philosophers and scientists both laugh at the idea that we’ll ever know everything, and point to breakthroughs that leave us with more questions. At least, we certainly can’t know it all in this mortal coil. Not even string theory will save us.

In philosophy it’s the absurdity that someone will one day get on stage and cheerfully share what in retrospect was so obviously and simply The Meaning of Life. We accept it’ll never happen. If we know what this is all about or for, then we won’t have any more questions and we’ll all live happily ever after?

Lol. But it won’t stop us from striving to figure it out, to enrich daily life in the process. To know more than we used to is dope and also lit.

I’ve heard several times over the years that if philosophers tell us we’ll never know, scientists insist they just need more time. Everything predicted with any rigor that can be tested is usually validated eventually. Gravitational waves took 100 years, the Higgs boson that completes the standard model a mere 40. And guys in white lab coats are endlessly optimistic they can at least collect enough data and base theories in math so someone with better technology in a few decades can prove what they’d offered up.

Science is most fun when it bleeds into philosophy — the origin of life, nature of time, building blocks of matter, fabric of the universe, etc. The closer we get to the infinite and the infinitesimal, the more we learn that there are brand new things we didn’t know we don’t know.*

Going back to ancient Greece, Apollo’s temple at Delphi had an inscription over its entrance, a credo I wanted tattooed on my forearm in my 20s — “Know thyself.” The irony is not lost on me, because I’m 43 and haven’t gotten around to any tattoos at time of publication.**

Until this week I thought I’d picked up on the phrase at some point as an English major. In fact, it’s a heavy-handed plot-point in that cultural touchstone of pop philosophy, The Matrix.

Whether Delphic- or action movie-based, I don’t wanna lump all these Oracles together with generalizations. But they do seem to consistently preach self-knowledge.

And much as some of us love a band enough today that we seek out their influences and retroactively appreciate Roky Erickson, philosophy has taken a similar tack for me. So here we are looking back 2,500 years for wisdom today, realizing so much since has been a variation on the theme.***

The past year has seen a series of major changes to my life. They’ve all been very positive, even when one or two seemed to be ultra mega bad. It’s no surprise then that a very wise person I know encouraged me to figure out who I am these days. This invitation is within the context of so much change from who I was for so long — on top of a series of major personal overhauls from 2015–17.

I took on the exercise enthusiastically. Problem was, the more I thought about who I am, the more I realized the only way to describe myself is with what I am.

These convenient labels can describe everything from height to diet to location — essentially marketing demographic data. Greater Milwaukee is filled with tall guys who love smoothies. That describes a trait or two but doesn’t say much. I had to figure out what we talk about when we talk about who we are.

That spawned several not-great drafts of this that only live in the cloud. Good news is that the whole journey of self-discovery thing Joseph Campbell might have mentioned in passing at some point fed some fine creative writing projects. And even better news — this is not about that.

There is no spoon, after all. Or, in marketing, “There’s no ‘there’ there.” In literary parlance it’s a McGuffin. In meme culture it’s the friends we made along the way. Forget about figuring out what “who we are” means and figure out who we are. Otherwise we get caught up in a swirl of meta-descriptors, how the sausage is made instead of if it tastes good.

I’m not a guy who goes to Summerfest anymore, and I know that. So I don’t try to force it just because other people have fun there and think I will, too. As much as I love Lizzo, that crowd of 10,000 drunk people half my age would’ve been a miserable experience — for me. I know that’s who I’m not anymore. A lot of this exercise is eliminating possibilities of whoness.

Then there’s the who that we weren’t previously. Last year I started going to the gym for the first time since high school. That’s because working out just wasn’t me in the ensuing years. Happy to report it’s who I am now. After years of bad health, being healthy feels incredible. Hashtag plot twist.

The gym in question is upstairs at my terrific full-time job, where I’ve happily been for a year after a couple not full-time years. It’s free, open 24/7, unintimidating. I go almost every day.

A couple weeks ago, an intern I’d never met approached me to ask if I have a routine I follow. This was a shock, as I’m not exactly Chris Evans, much less Chris Pine.**** But apparently I looked like I knew what I was doing? So I winged it, and this post is basically my answer.

What it comes down to is, we gotta figure things out for ourselves because everybody’s different. What works for me might not work for others. Everybody’s body is different, goals are different, commitment is different. And I made plenty of mistakes on the weight machines when I was positive I knew myself, knew what my capacity and abilities were.

Every time I went up to the gym for the first few months, I increased the weights and reps and distance and speed — until my body broke in October. I got caught up in the numbers, in being able to measure and demonstrate progress.

And I didn’t see results. And I was in pain all the time. And I ate whatever I wanted because, I mean, I work out three or four times a week for an hour so all that weight I put on was probably muscle?

It’s about knowing what we can take on, what works and what hurts. What will get us where we need or want to be, and being extremely patient.

Self-control is something I’m good at now. But I only thought about discipline as depriving, staying away from bad. Really it also means not overindulging in what’s supposedly good for us.

From the outset last June I didn’t think about form, time between sets, days between exercising the same muscle groups, diet. Like any other undertaking, working out only works if we find out what doesn’t work, then take it to heart and make positive changes.

I had to take October and November off from the gym because I injured myself overdoing it. Without exercise I formed better eating habits, went back to square one in December, and proceeded with an abundance of caution. I’m much better now in every sense.

We were the only guys in the gym that day when the intern asked me about my routine, and I told him basically those last few paragraphs — though not as articulately because I hadn’t really thought it through. Remember how in The Princess Bride, Fred Savage is all excited to get a sick day off from school to play video games until Peter Falk comes over to read him a romance novel set in medieval times? That was the same look this kid had on his face as I told him about how fortunate I am to have a bad hip, that numbers are essentially meaningless, why above all thou must knoweth thyselfeth, et cetera, ad infinitum and so forth.

He hasn’t once asked me to spot him when we’ve crossed paths up there. We’re both better off for that. Then earlier this week, I was talking to that aforementioned wise person who‘d told me I gotta figure out who I am. I was feeling down because — whatever, everybody’s going through something. Mine was and is enough to make me realize I haven’t figured out who I am yet, and might never at this rate. Bummer.

Her response was not unexpected when we put it in the same Medium post as Neo and Socrates because — spoiler — anybody who thinks they know themselves doesn’t know themselves at all. Life is a series of unknowns. All we know is that we don’t know.

Like everything and everyone, we’re always changing. At least, we better be. I think “you haven’t changed a bit” is an insult. Just knowing who we are right now is critical, though. Honest self-awareness helps us make positive changes that benefit whoever’s in our lives today and everyone involved later on.

I had to take out my earbuds when the intern asked me about my routine. The stereo system blasts classic rock up there so I dial up books and podcasts while sweating. The other day I listened to Tara Brach speak at length about the importance of hope, and of recognizing where you are right here and now — and knowing where you want to be.

She cited several examples, the simplest of which is the little acorn that knows from the start it was born to be a mighty oak tree, and does everything to eventually be exactly that.

Brach also quotes the author Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote this in Animal Dreams —

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.

It’s important to be present, to be patient, to not have one foot out the door on our way to where else we could be right then. In learning about myself I’ve figured out that this slows days down for me. “Be in the moment?” Who knew! But it’s also crucial to know where we’re going. That’s how we know who we are. And it’s how we stop ourselves from taking a wrong turn.

My working theory is that who we are is defined by our actions. It’s how we spend our precious time and with whom — how we prioritize life. And it’s about not getting distracted by who we think we are and where we think others expect us to be or go.

That means being honest with ourselves. It means knowing our own limits and knowing what works best for us. And it also means not projecting that onto others.

Working out is great for me, and it’s something I physically couldn’t do for a good long while, so I know it’s not a panacea for all of us.

I think a lot about this tweet from Chris Porterfield via his band Field Report’s account. If we have favorite tweets I guess that’s mine. Since it went up — I believe the same week I started going to the gym last year — I’ve mentioned it in conversation at least a few times.

my favorite record narrative is “person wrote some songs with their accumulated skills and experiences, and you can listen to it and you might find it interesting/entertaining/useful/valuable”

To me that refers to artists who record albums that say, Hey, here’s something that worked for me and that’s exciting. And I’ll just put it out there and you can take it or leave it. Might be worth a try if you’re in a similar place in life, and I’d be remiss to keep it under wraps.

If that’s not what it means, no harm done. Like Chris’s lyrics or these posts or any other creative endeavor, whatever someone takes away is what it means. For me, I put it out there with the hope it creates conditions for better things to happen.

I heard someone say recently that when things seem insurmountable, we can try to make what looks improbable more possible. Pick our battles, know our limits, understand where and how we’re best suited to help — then support those who can do good on other fronts. People will appreciate if we play to our own strengths. A little better is still better. Like Hawking said, “It matters that you try.

Beyond that we can seek to find meaning wherever we can for ourselves. Because myself is often all each of us can really know for sure in a world of fluid situations and uncertainty. Let’s know ourselves better and present ourselves accordingly so others can get a little more consistency in life.

Knowing ourselves means we can act decisively, have true confidence. It’s important that it’s not self-centered, though — self-exploration means getting outside our own brains and seeing things the way they really are and how we exist as part of everything else.

Finally, it means letting go of what we desire and being willing to accept who we really are, and to become someone better. Things and people here today won’t be forever, as we’re constantly reminded of but too often forget.

That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the best parts of life for fear it’ll hurt more when they’re gone. Nobody’s figured out what life is all about in 2,500 years, but most smart people since seem to agree that love for each other — and food — is essential to get anything out of it.

Even if we can’t know what it’s all about, let’s not let it get in our way of figuring out what will make today and tomorrow better. Let’s get to know the unknowns, starting right here, now.

* The awesome and brilliant particle physicists at Fermilab like to wryly joke that eventually “we’ll know everything about nothing.” Milwaukee’s IfIHadAHiFi wrote an incredible song about it.

** In retrospect, the other phrase that the Delphic temple is known for, “Nothing to excess” should’ve been the one I pondered more.

*** See also: The Bible, Koran, Tao Te Ching, Epic of Gilgamesh, etc.

**** “Chris Hemsworth” is of course a make-believe computer generated actor with what is clearly an impossible, unattainable physique — is what I tell myself over a pint of frozen gelato.

Adventures in reading and writing. Making sense of what’s new in science, sci-fi, philosophy, culture, and creativity. And basketball.