How to make Life Decisions

γνῶθι σεαυτόν (“Know thyself”)

— Inscription at the Delphic Oracle, attributed to the Seven Sages (c. 650 BCE-550BCE)

I had a childhood fascination with the Classics. This Delphic Maxim is one that I reflect upon from time to time. It is believed to be a common aphorism during Greek times, although it is attributed to Apollo, a complex God associated with truth and prophecy, music and art, sun and light. For the ancient Greeks, the Delphic oracle was one of the most sacred places and petitioners would travel far and wide to provide offerings to Pythia, the priestess of the shrine. Pythia, in a trance like state, was said to receive messages from Apollo and communicate them as orders, questions or predictions. I find it interesting that a place where many people thousands of years ago traveled to find answers, welcomed people with the command “Know Thyself” before entering.

Remains of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

“Know thyself” is an aphorism that has been discussed and interpreted by philosophers and thinkers from Plato to Thomas Hobbes, from Alexander Pope to Benjamin Franklin and even in the sci-fi film the Matrix (remember when Neo is waiting to see the Oracle?).

It has lasted the test of time because it is a saying that speaks to how we find meaning in life. For Plato it was cardinal to take the time know oneself so that you could better understand humanity and the world around oneself. It was futile to begin any dialogue or discussion until you have examined oneself.

Like Plato, I believe a continuous practice of self-examination is a sturdy and necessary foundation upon which we stack logic and our decision-making process.

Self-reflection cultivates self-awareness, which enables you to make better decision in life, both personal and professional. Whether you are a startup founder, an executive, a new college grad or a new parent — nurturing self-awareness can enable you to make better, more confident decisions. Each decision is modulated by our perceptions. If you begin to understand how your perception might be flawed (biases etc.) or how your perception is a product of your internal belief system, then you can start to see the world more clearly and match your decision to yourself.

This is starting to sound difficult, but don’t worry, there are a few tricks to begin the path to self-awareness and better decision-making. Below, I’ve distilled 3 ways for you to easily integrate self-reflection into your life.

  1. Self-evaluations and Journaling

I’ve found that in my evolution in work and personal life that reflecting upon who I am — my beliefs, my strengths, and my weaknesses — enables me to make better decisions. When I first started working after graduating college, I started completing self-evaluations semi-annually independent of any work-ordained self-evaluation. My format covered not just professional life but personal habits (drinking, eating, sleeping, exercise, relationships and hobbies like reading). These semi-annual self-evaluations tend to be structured into the areas that take up the most time in my life along with a basic self-reflection of my strengths, weaknesses and areas of improvement. You don’t need to take much time if you decide to take up this habit. Feel free to write the self-reflection in bullet points, or note form. It’s the process itself that’s important rather than the output or how organized the document is.

I think it’s also good to couple an annual or semi-annual self-evaluation with journaling throughout the year. If you perceive that you are making an important decision, putting your thoughts into words can force clarity on the the options.

Recently, I was a mentoring a friend of a friend who was asked to join as one of the first employees at a seed stage start-up. She had mixed feelings and wasn’t sure if it was the right choice. I advised her to journal over the weekend and see how her feelings changed, how she’d fit into the role given the nature of the company/co-founders, and ultimately, what she was passionate about given she wanted to spend 4+ years at the next company. She came out of the experience feeling more assured in her decision.

At points like this, journaling is not only cathartic but can also bring greater understanding to the decision, including illuminating options that may have been initially obscured.

2. Meditation

Yes, this seems to be a trendy buzzword right now, but meditation is not a trend. It is a more than two thousand year old practice with roots in many major religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

That being said, meditation does not need to be a religious experience for participants to partake and benefit. Research has shown that meditation can produce physical and mental benefits including reduction in brain aging, reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety and pain, decrease in heart disease, among many more. There are many types of meditation and meditation is a uniquely personal experience. For me, meditation can bring tranquility, focus, a stronger sense of self, a feeling of seeing the world more clearly, greater confidence, increased energy, and relaxation.

I initially began incorporating meditation into my daily practice through yoga. Last fall, thanks to my friend Andrea’s invitation, I also attended a Zen Buddhist Retreat centered around working in silence, practicing mindfulness, and zazen, or seated meditation for 30 minutes +. This type of experience is something I’d recommend after having some comfort with self-practice. Before diving head first into a retreat, one of the easiest ways to begin practicing meditation is through a meditation app. I’ve used Simple Habit recently and have found it’s ability to customize meditations for the specific length of time I have available and the purpose (energy, de-stressing, anxiety etc) a great way to stay consistent with my practice.

Especially in stressful decision making circumstances, taking time to meditate for even 5 minutes can bring you back to yourself and calm your mind so that you can make more effective, clearer , unemotional decisions. Over years practicing, I’ve developed a better sense of my body and my mind.

3. Experiences

Experience affords us not only the ability to discover our likes and dislikes, but also, the ability to discover our passions and strengths, and uncover our weaknesses. Every experience — ones where you fail and ones where you succeed — is a data point to learn more about yourself. Be open to new experiences and self-reflective on their impact on your identity, value system, and self-knowledge.

Experiences sometimes are even necessary for self-knowledge. Finding your passion is something where I think experience can help. For example, during college I was fortunate to take a class on social entrepreneurship. This class opened my eyes to ways businesses can create sustainable, market-based solutions to the world’s social, environmental, healthcare or other challenges . The class has had a significant impact on my life since. Simultaneous to the class, I applied to work as a marketing intern at USC’s Society and Business Lab to learn even more. Passionate about social entrepreneurship, I moved to South Africa after college and started a dairy farm in a rural village with a woman who is now one of my best friends. When I launched Trifecta Capital, an early stage investment fund based in Silicon Valley, I incorporated a philanthropic component to the fund. A fraction of the carry that Trifecta makes on any individual investment is allocated to a charity of the founders choice. I know that in the future being self-aware of this passion will enable me to make more effective decisions that lead to a happier life.

I hope these three tips can help you make better decisions by “knowing thyself.” If there are tips you’d like to share or add to this list please let me know by tweeting to veronicaosinski.

P.S. An initial draft of this post included asking a trusted, honest friend for feedback on yourself. While this can be useful, I also think that people can be biased to be too nice, or too critical in their feedback and your sense of self becomes marred if you let this skew your self-knowledge. Furthermore, I think it’s paramount to build confidence in the honesty of your self-reflection. As social creatures we are continuously viewing ourselves through comparative lenses and many times put too much weight on social pressure or what others say. Self-awareness means knowing who you are without someone telling you who you are. Only when you have a confident that treats truth as paramount can you take this individuals feedback into your self-assessment.