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Practice Self-Awareness: Play the Prosecutor and Judge

“The force that can save the amateur,” said Steven Pressfield in his concise guide to Turning Pro, “is awareness, particuarly self-awareness.” Self-awareness is defined as conscious knowledge of oneself. Lao Tzu once said, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.”

Being self-aware is the first step to any kind of change. But to complete this thought, let me finish with the remainder of Steven Pressfield’s wisdom on why self-awareness is essentially the force that can save you:

“But the amateur understands, however dimly, that if she truly achieved this knowledge, she would be compelled to act upon it. To act upon this self-awareness would mean defining herself, i.e., differentiating herself from the tribe and thus making herself vulnerable to rejection, expulsion, and all the other fears that self-defitinion elicits. Fear of self-definition is what keeps an amateur an amateur and what keeps an addict an addict.”

Think of self-awareness as driving. How many people do you know that are quick to say it was their fault, not the other person?

I don’t know any.

Nine times out of ten, it’s always the other person that should be retested for their license, that should get their car impounded. But to admit to your own shortcomings is seemingly difficult, even for something like driving. It entails accepting further responsibility and admitting that you were at fault.

Self-awareness is being able to see yourself for who you truly are, what you do, and how you think. A couple years ago, before all of this was here, self-awareness was my greatest pursuit because I had realized that everything I knew or believed in wasn’t what I truly wanted; I had realized that what I was doing wasn’t working. My way of self-awareness was to write down all the things that I wanted to change about myself, all the bad habits that delayed me, like a journal: watching too much television, not reading enough books, not organizing my tasks and time wisely, getting mad too easily, being unaware of my fears and insecurities, etc.

Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, shares his advice on self-awareness that deeply resonates with Pressfield and Lao Tzu’s thinking, and why we must play the role of both prosecutor and judge [emphasis by me]:

“‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure? So—to the best of your ability—demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the first part of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself as times.”

The lesson is simple: You can’t expect to live the good life that you so vehemently desire by staying how you are. You are in a constant state of change, adaptation, and improvement—or if you let it, decay. Personalities play a role because it’s our longstanding behaviors—it is essentially who we are due to our parents and environment. But personalities do change with desire and self-awareness; you can learn to be more acceptable, open-minded, etc.

But during this practice, what I thought was going to be simple was actually overwhelming: there was a lot wrong with me than I had imagined. Where do I start? It’s like in sports where your mind moves faster than your body—I wanted to change today, be a different, better person right now, rather than embrace the conscious effort required to facilitate gradual change.

That’s what I would recommend: start now, start small. Everyday, usually at the end of the day, I reflect on my day. Did I finish my tasks today without procrastination? If not, what could I do next time to improve my efforts? Was I a good person? Was I attentive when someone was speaking to me? Were my thoughts positive? If not, why? What was the cause? Did I exercise my mind? Did I criticize someone today without realizing it?

After much reflection and making self-awareness a priority, you start to see yourself for who you truly are—not through your desirous eyes, but more objectively. You start to change because you reflect on your behaviors often. You become aware of the cues that normally lead you to self-defeating conduct and you stop, realizing that this hasn’t worked before, so why continue to do it?

The quality of your life, I believe, has a deep correlation with how self-aware you are. In the words of Henry David Thoreau:

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”