Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Self-Awareness Is Not A Character Trait

It’s a cognitive state


“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” — Edward J. Stieglitz

While this quote makes it clear that time is a bad way to assess the quality of a human life, it also begs a question: how do we best measure our lives?

When you think back, do you recount how much you did? How much you made? How happy you felt on average? Me, I’m turning inward this year. The more external a measure, the lower my chances of living up to the standard I set. There’s no perfect tool, but I like this question for year-end reflection:

How much have I learned about myself?

It acknowledges outcomes as side effects and zones in on the parts you control about your character, identity, and behavior. Living in sync with your natural tendencies while adjusting to your life’s context is a good way to be happy and content, at least most of the time. You don’t stress about externals. You know you’ll get there by getting better. And syncing is how you’ll do it.

But when I tried to answer this question, I realized I was about to give not just a bad, but a completely wrong answer. Does that make it a bad question?

I think it’s something else. I think we have the wrong idea of self-awareness.

Woke Is Always The Wrong Word

I don’t like the word ‘woke.’ Used to create or point out a lack of awareness around societal and racial issues, it does much for the marketing of an important movement, but little to actually build the understanding this movement seeks to create. Because what it does is split the world in two.

You’re either awake or you’re asleep. It’s a binary state and so, for the people using words like ‘woke’ to identify with or isolate from others, it’s very easy to fall into a worldview that’s binary too. In reality, all of life happens on spectra.

I might be well-aware of some racial issues and completely oblivious to others. What’s more, I only have a chance of recognizing each one in its own context. Unless my mind is in the right place at the right time, I can mistake the cashier’s being unfriendly for being racist or vice versa. I’m not big on politics, but it’s easy to see this how this debate could get very ugly, very fast.

But it needn’t be. Maybe, we just have to reconsider our chosen language. What if we used words like ‘responsive’ or ‘sensitive?’ Words that live on spectra already. It’d make our efforts so much more productive.

When it comes to self-awareness, we have the exact same problem.

There Are Two Kinds Of Dictionaries…

I’m not an etymologist, but I don’t think it’s foolish to assume the words ‘aware’ and ‘awake’ being in close relation. The German ‘gewahr’ means roughly as much as the former, ‘wahren’ equals ‘to protect,’ to keep in its current state, and ‘wachen’ literally means to stay awake and potentially guard something.

Clearly, some connection to our state of consciousness exists. But that’s not what we think of when we talk about self-awareness, is it? We see it as a character trait. A quality. And a rather permanent one at that.

Just like an aggressive social revolutionary, we want our world to be binary. To split neatly into two categories. We talk about “self-aware people” as if that call was as easy to make as “he talks loudly” or “her hair is curly.” It’s not.

And yet, even most dictionaries focus on self-knowledge as a feature:

The quality or state of being aware; knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.

But if you find a good one, like Wiktionary, they’ll include another definition:

The state or level of consciousness where sense data can be confirmed by an observer.

It might seem like I’m nitpicking, but when you try to better understand how you live and move in this world, the distinction between these two definitions makes all the difference. One describes self-knowledge as static, the other as a state of observation. Mere presence is enough. You’re self-aware long before you draw conclusions and file them away. Just observe and you’re there.

Self-awareness is not a characteristic. It’s a cognitive state.

Closing The Archive

When I try to judge my year by how much I’ve learned about myself, I’m making two false assumptions in one go:

  1. There is a fixed set of equally fixed elements to discover.
  2. Knowledge about those elements will serve me permanently.

The truth is that, besides my physical features and abilities, there’s very little about myself that won’t change. That I can’t change. I have no interest in learning to play the guitar, but if I did it anyway, maybe I’d enjoy it after a certain amount of practice. Accepting the status quo is only useful if I’m not looking to change it.

Instead of considering self-awareness to be this internal archive of facts about who we are, we should dedicate ourselves to mastering the cognitive state. To build the thought habit of being conscious of our actions and feelings.

Being self-aware is like being alert or attentive or quick-witted. Sometimes you are, sometimes you’re not. But the degree to which is measurable. We can design tests to measure how quickly you respond to stimuli or count how many puns you drop in an hour. In theory, self-awareness is the same.

Except there’s no device for this yet. Imagine you had a written list of all your thoughts for one day. You could scan it for observations about your actions and emotions, then calculate how much of the time you were self-aware. How much would it be? 1%? 3%? 0.1%?

In any case, it changes the nature of the big, year-end question.

A Simple Behavior Instead Of An Elusive Quality

Having external goals can be useful. They’ll spur you on in a certain direction and, to some extent, reaching them can make you happy. But if they’re all you measure your years by, you’ll likely have a bad time.

Measuring your inner progress and drawing satisfaction from how much you did for what you actually control feels relieving and adds balance. Problems arise when we impose the same standards of false permanence of external goals on our development as humans.

The difference between self-awareness as a steady set of ideas about yourself and a cognitive state you can practice is the same as the difference between knowledge and intelligence: one leads to a never-ending struggle for more, the other provides a daily standard that’s possible to live up to.

It’s not how much self-knowledge we’ve accumulated, but whether we assessed our thoughts and feelings at the right times that matters. Don’t ask how much more you know about yourself now than you did a year ago. Ask:

How much time have I spent observing myself?

Of course, this is only one aspect of the grand puzzle, but self-perception as your default cognitive state — or at least for a large chunk of the time you spend awake — seems, to me, a battle worth fighting.

It’s not bent on perfection or pinning down what can’t be fixed in place. Instead, it allows adaptation and encourages deliberate change. It’s a simple if hard to attain behavior, not an elusive quality. And it can start small.

Oh, and I have this feeling that, at the end of next year, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself when you look back.