The 4 Questions that Define You: Aristotle and a Deeper Dive into Self-Awareness

How the “Four Causes” of an ancient philosopher can be used as an exercise to help you live with more purpose and focus.

Mike Sturm
Dec 22, 2017 · 6 min read

We all get stuck from time to time. We all fall into a rut, where it seems like we can’t move forward and make progress — at least not in the way we’d like to. While tips and tricks abound for trying to get around the problem and keep moving, any of them are going to be short-lived if they don’t address the root cause of most procrastination and stagnation: a disconnect from who you are.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle dealt extensively with understanding the essences of things — whether people, animals, plants, or stones. He defined 4 different ways to answer the question of what makes something what it is. They are:

  • The Material Cause
  • The Formal Cause
  • The Efficient Cause
  • The Final Cause

These 4 causes are extremely valuable as a way to get a better understanding of yourself — who you are, and where you are going. And when you remember who you are, you can get going where you’re going. You can overcome the stagnation, and drive forward.

The Material Cause

Aristotle defined the material cause of a thing as the physical stuff that made it up. For a human, it’s flesh and blood, but if we stretch the concept a bit, its also your thoughts and feelings — the mental building blocks of a person. For our purposes, that’s what is most important to get in touch with. The way to get a grasp on the material you is through introspection and simple self-awareness.

Simply being aware of what is on your mind right now is so valuable, and yet so overlooked. At any moment, you have way more on your mind than you are initially aware of. And all that stuff on your mind has weight to it — it impacts your mood and your energy. It also takes up space. It keeps other thoughts and feelings out of your mind, or relegates them to the background, when perhaps they should be in the foreground — pushing your activity in a positive direction.

Getting to know the material causes of yourself is as easy as journaling. Simply writing down the things that come to your mind, and doing a bit of exploration about them on paper can clear up that space in your mind, and take a weight off of you. With that done, it becomes easier to do more constructive things.

The Formal Causes

For Aristotle, the formal cause of a thing is what makes it the particular kind of thing that it is. Another way to put this, and a way that some medieval philosophers took it, is that the formal cause captures the essence of something.

For us, it’s first and foremost about what makes us human, but if we push it further, we can ask what type of person I am. Am I a writer? Well, what is it that makes me a writer? What makes anyone a writer? To me, it seems that what makes someone a writer is that they think and write above all else. Activities and thoughts flow into words on the page, into paragraphs, and into essays of wisdom worth sharing. But for each of us, there is a thing that we are above all else, and at times, we lose touch with what kinds of thoughts and activities constitute being that thing.

In so many cases, we procrastinate by doing something other than what our thing is. Asking the question of what makes you a writer, an artist, a leader, a founder, etc., can quickly get your thoughts and actions aligned once again with that formal cause of whatever it is that you are — and back on the path you’d like to be walking.

The Efficient Cause

The simplest way to understand the situation you’re in is to ask yourself what led you there. Trace the events back to a tipping point. Trace your thoughts back to what event or experience set them off. This is the efficient cause — the concrete events that put things where they are now. Part of journaling should be reflecting on these events, and understanding how they fit in the chain of events in your day, week, month, year, and life.

George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And it’s not just remembering the past, but also being willing to take a hard look at it now, when you may be ashamed of it or made uncomfortable by it. We cannot know who we are unless we fully come to grips with where we have been and what we have done. Without doing that, any progress we make is borrowed, and the debt will be due before we know it.

The Final Cause

The final cause of a thing is its purpose — it is the why to end all whys. For us, it is the one thing that we are most often unclear about, and that is what most contributes to periods of stagnation and frustration. But we cannot beat ourselves up about forgetting our purpose, because purpose is a complex thing, and I believe that it goes through changes.

Though we can use the term “purpose” in the singular form, purpose is rarely felt as a singular force. There are multiple pulls and pushes on us at any given time — we are different people to each person in our lives. But that should not deter us from defining ourselves and our work in a singular fashion. The difference is in the nature of those forces, which are either a pull or a push.

The various things we are to others — a parent, a friend, a sibling, a partner, etc. — are pulls. Though we can genuinely come to define ourselves through the lens of being those things, they are dependent on the demands of others, and so not wholly ours, and they don’t come from within. This is not to say that those pulls are not worth devoting time and attention to — they surely are. But they are incomplete without an examination of the final cause that comes from within you — regardless of the demands and needs of others.

The final cause for you is a push — and it comes from within. It is what you are to become, and what — in your best moments — you care most about. It may express itself in what you do with and for others, but it comes from within, and through inward energy it is sustained. You may be a mother or father as an expression of your final cause, but your true inward push is caring, serving, and teaching. Whoever you happen to care for, serve, or teach is simply happenstance.

When we lose touch with our final cause, we can feel lost. Many of us can go through most of life without understanding what it is — without a clear knowledge of what we’re driving toward.


When we lose touch with what makes us who we are, we lose direction and energy. That’s why things like meditation and journaling are so vital to living well. They help us get in touch with the 4 causes that make us who we are. When we understand why we are, we can know who we are, and we can do the daunting work of being that person.

Existence is a given. You exist, and you are what you are. But only when you really knuckle down can you take that given existence and make it into a life. Only by understanding who you are, and who you need to be, can you do the rewarding work of living a life.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Mike Sturm

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Working tirelessly to help you think like no one else. Author: “Be, Think, Do” https://amzn.to/2Hnrdvk. Also Subscribe to my newsletter: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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