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To understand who you are, first understand the misconceptions that you have probably been taught to believe.

Who ARE You? (Science lied).

But it’s getting better!

I’ve been organizing more of my writing around a new a concept that I call Self Actual Engineering, which is the process of designing yourself, your relationships, your environment, your technology, your career, your life, to realize more of your potential. Most people think of engineering as the concrete, steel, glass, copper, computers, autos, and artifacts of technology that provide for our basic needs like: electricity, fuel, food, water, shelter, comfort, and communication (or even sexbots?),

Self actual engineering could include those things, but not as ends unto themselves. The purpose of self actual engineering is to improve our lives by working higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivation, where we will find self-esteem, a sense of belonging, love, and self-actualization.

The purpose of self actual engineering is to provide those things that are found higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivation, such as self esteem, a sense of belong, and self-fulfillment. It applies the same overall engineering approach to design of our lives, rather than to just our technologies.

That means that we use the same engineering principles that we usually use to create technology, but we apply them to recreate our lives. The overall engineering approach is:

  • Description of a situation that we are not satisfied with.
  • Formulation of a problem statement.
  • Construction of a model about the way the world as it currently exists works.
  • Imagination of a different world, the way we wish it would be.
  • Design of a prototype that realizes that imagined world.
  • Testing, revision. Testing, revision. Testing, revision.
  • Replication at scale (e.g., manufacture).

All these steps are critically important. Nonetheless, focus of this article is “construction of a model”.

Engineering science has such a good understanding of the way the world works that we can now launch a rocket into space, deliver a working satellite, and return the rocket to it’s landing pad (aeronautical and aerospace engineering). We’re very close to robotic cars that drive themselves (mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering). We’re on the verge of being able to mass produce a working artificial pancreas (biomedical engineering). These are extraordinary achievement of engineering, each predicated on a working model of the ways that rockets, automobiles, and insulin work. But they all operate down at the bottom of the Maslow’s hierarchy.

To work at self actual engineering, we need a much better understanding or ourselves, and in this respect, we are only starting to correct some of the serious misconceptions of the last several centuries.

Understanding yourself requires understanding your motives, your instincts, your mindset, and your body.

The new things we need to understand for self actual engineering can be classified as belonging to three categories: our minds, our bodies, and our relationships, and these all work together in ways that science has previously failed to appreciate.

Dismantling the fallacy of mind-body dualism

The Industrial Revolution was founded on Cartesian dualism — i.e., the idea that the mind and body are separate. At the time, this was a powerful contrivance, if only because it helped resolve political conflicts between the authority of the Church and that of secular society. A dualistic mind/body model leaves open the possibility that there is some transcendent spirit we may call the mind that is not reducible to the atomistic workings of the body. Thus the purview of science and the purview of religion may be circumscribed to broker a truce between these two ways of creating and organizing belief.

However, the Enlightenment preoccupation with cognition (“Cogito, ergo sum”) has led to some important misconceptions about the mind, while atomistic physics envy has led to some important misconceptions about the body. What the dualistic model has fails to appreciate is the way that our thoughts (mind) control our bodies (physics) and the ways that our bodies control our minds.

The first of these misconceptions is about the primacy of cognition in relation to affection (feelings and motives) and conation (the instinctive will to act). in this regard, there are two scholars that have been extremely influential on my thinking. The first is Jonathan Haidt (pronounced like “height”) who wrote The Righteous Mind (Haidt 2012) and other influential and insightful books. Haidt draws attention to the affective part of the mind, where emotions reside, and points out that it is impossible to make decisions when the parts of our brains that process emotions are disabled. He reasons that cognition is all-too-often a process of constructing rationalizations for whatever our emotions wanted to do or believe, anyway. So for Haidt, emotions come before thoughts in the sequence of human behavior. Despite the fact that neoclassical economic theories of human motivation suggest otherwise, the experimental evidence supports Haidt.

Going a little deeper, the book The Courage to be Disliked (Kishimi and Koga 2018) contends that human emotions are fabricated to help us achieve our goals. According to Kishimi and Koga, who draw upon Alderian psychology, anger is not a spontaneous, uncontrollable response to some external stimulus, but a willful means to achieve some interpersonal end, such as controlling other’s behavior. While most people don’t experience anger in this way, the idea that emotions can be fabricated is familiar to us when we encounter a toddler who falls down, checks in with Mom or Dad, and “decides” to cry because they recognize that’s the emotion that will help them achieve the goal of being the center of their parent’s attention. If Kishimi and Koga are correct, then there is something even more fundamental that precedes emotion.

Which leads us to Kathy Kolbe’s Striving Zones (Kolbe 2015). According to Kolbe, the conative aspect of the mind is where our instinctive will to strive resides. It is here that we find the volition to act, and it this instinct exists without external stimulus or training. Part of Haidt’s research agrees. He argues that we all have innate characteristics that are structured prior to experience.

Jonathan Haidt claims that we are all biological endowed with innate characteristics that are structured prior to experience, rather than coming into the world as a blank slate.

The worst idea in all of psychology is that the mind is a blank slate 
— Jonathan Haidt, The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.

Kolbe’s argument that we are born with certain instinctive, immutable drives is often met with extraordinary resistance from scholars so steeped in the Enlightment ideal of cognition that they consider a theory of innate characteristics a heretical affront to free will. But Kolbe does not argue that we are incapable of choosing our thoughts, because thinking is cognitive. Nor does she argue that we are incapable of choosing, transforming, or managing or emotions. She reserve the innate exception only for the conative aspect of the mind, where we find an instinctive relationship with patterns of problem-solving related to information, structure, novelty, and the sensory experience. The details are fascinating, and I’ve described them further in 4 Instincts That Drive You.

Putting this together, Kolbe and Haidt both agree that we are born with innate characteristics, and Kolbe’s theory says that these include a volition to strive. Kishimi and Koga claim that emotions are constructed to help us achieve pre-existing goals. While Haidt says that cognition is merely a means for rationalizing aspects of our mind that are already made up.

If this sounds like exactly the opposite of everything you’ve been taught about human behavior in your psychology and economics classes, then you’ve been paying good attention. Because it is.

Reconstructing our understanding of our own bodies

That leaves the question of the misconceptions that atomistic physics envy has wrought about the body. Here, an extension of the Enlightenment ideal has given us a overly deterministic model of the human body that is predicated on a Netwonian mythology — the idea that the interactions between some indivisible, irreducible unit of the body operate as some sort of master controller or metaphorical blueprint for construction of all the complex workings of our human selves. According to this misconception, the blueprint is contained within our DNA — the arrangement of nucleic acids contained within our cells that is responsible for coding the construction of all our proteins.

There are several serious problems with this theory, partly outline in The Biology of Belief (Lipton 2005) and explained in greater scientific detail in The Epigenetic Revolution (Carey 2012). The fact is that we are just beginning to understand how the genes coded in our DNA are expressed. Sometimes, a gene is turned on, and other times it might be turned off. Moreover, whether it’s on or off can depend on our experiences and our beliefs about those experience. What’s even stranger? The epigenetic expression of a gene can be passed from one generation to the next, meaning that the expression of your genetic coding can depend upon ideas your grandfather had about whatever happened to him. The discovery of epigenetic phenomena destroys the old theory of mind/body dualism by showing that our thoughts can control our the workings of our bodies. In fact, the reverse is also true, which is something that I touched on in Your Past is Written in Your Body.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Because our bodies require much more than our own genetic information to operate. According to I Contain Multitudes (Yong 2016), we are more than mere multi-cellular organisms. We are multi-organism organisms. We are an entire ecosystem of organisms to such an extent that the vast majority of DNA in the cells that control our essential bodily functions does not even belong to us. It is contained within the nucleus of cells belonging to other microorganisms in our intestines, on our skin, and throughout our bodies, on which our existence co-depends in mutualistic symbiosis. And the communities of these organisms changes much faster than our own epigenetic expression, which changes faster than mutations occur within our DNA.

Our closest relationships change who we are

You may have heard the expression that “You are the average of the five people closest to you,” which was popularized by Jim Rohn. If you’ve missed it, Maarten van Doorn’s recent article in the Polymath Project on Medium will provide you with a good primer. The obvious implication is that, to understand who you are, you have to understand who the people around you are, too.

There’s good science behind this, too. In The Secret of Our Success (Henrich 2016) it is culture that drive human evolution, not genetics. His argument is that we are all hard-wired to learn by imitating the prestigious models in our tribes (or communities, or on social media). By copying aspects of their behavior that we associate with their prestige, we come to learn what sort of actions will succeed for us. In Henrich’s model the burden of working everything out at the scale of the individual would leave the human race in a precarious position that might result in our extinction, because our unique capacity as a species is the ability to create culture, cooperate, and learn from one another.

Haidt (again) has something to add here, too. He tells a story about talking to a friend of his who studies apes, and the friend says, “You never see two chimps carrying a log together,” or something like that to point out that cooperation is a characteristic that is exceptionally strong in humans, compared to other species with similar genetic structures. Frans de Waal’s Age of Empathy (de Waal 2009) shows that animals are capable of cooperation, which he observes in monkey, apes, and elephants. Just not to the extent that humans are capable. As Charles Chu points out, Happiness is For Animals; Meaning is for Humans.

Frans de Waal summarizes his book The Age of Empathy to suggest that animals are biological endowed with the capacity for moral behavior.

The case for human exceptionalism when it comes to matters of cooperation is strengthened in Homo Deus (Harrari 2017), which argues that it is the human capacity for story-telling, and mythology in particular, that allows us to organize in groups greater than the 150 (or so) people that we can hold in our relationship memory. According to this theory, the US dollar is a myth that enables cooperation. Corporations are nothing but mythological belief systems that allow strangers to coordinate cooperative actions (like build a supply chain). At a higher level of abstraction, we call these corporations brands and there is no shortage of advice on Medium about how to construct your own mythology and call it a personal brand.


Self-actual engineering is the process of designing your life to realize more of your potential. Unfortunately, most of what you’ve been taught in school or by society is seriously out of whack with the way your mind and body work. To design (redesign) yourself, you have to acquire a better understanding of who you are and how you work. At minimum, this understanding requires you to know your: