By A.J. Drenth
Interest in the topic and practice self-discovery has been growing steadily since the 1960s. Bearing the marks of an age of science and individualism, the premise of self-discovery is to study oneself in order to know oneself. Like the scientist who assumes an objective world that is ripe for discovery, the self-investigator feels confident that, with sufficient effort and diligence, her true self can be unearthed and brought into the light of understanding.
As interest in self-discovery has blossomed, we’ve seen a commensurate expansion of tools and approaches aimed at conceptualizing and identifying individual differences and abilities. This includes instruments designed to assess personality traits / types (e.g., INTP), intelligence, interests, beliefs, values, and the like. I have personally been immersed in personality studies for nearly a decade and have authored four books on the personality types. I’ve long believed that the search for self is not merely a matter of practical import (e.g., finding a good career match), but also carries the promise of a more authentic, meaningful, and purposeful life. In other words, self-discovery can help us fashion a life that better reflects, supports, and enhances our authentic self.
However great the rewards of self-discovery, we must also come to grips with its potential limits and shortcomings. Konrad Lorenz once remarked that “scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” It seems to me that this clever quip is not only applicable to scientists, but also to self-seekers. Namely, there comes a time in the quest for self when amassing more details about ourselves can start to feel counterproductive. What began as a search for a meaningful self-understanding can start feeling more like a pursuit of trivialities or minutia; in attempting to understand “the trees” of the self, we lose sight of “the forest.”
If I may briefly continue the metaphor, the forest of the self is synonymous with what is sometimes called the unified self. And it is really the unified self that intrigues the self-seeker. In asking the question—Who am I?—we are not looking for a laundry list of traits, but for a highly-concentrated, energy-dense image that captures the essence of who we are—our core self. We sense that understanding and tapping into this core has the potential to liberate vast amounts of energy, like a nuclear reaction.
Self-Creation: An Important Complement to Self-Discovery
What we need then, is a process that filters out irrelevant information and synthesizes our most essential characteristics into a meaningful whole. This is a key role of a process we will call self-creation. If self-discovery yields an assortment of clues or pieces about who we are, self-creation restores or brings unity to the self by arranging the pieces in a meaningful way, somewhat similar to a jigsaw puzzle.
However, self-creation differs from jigsaw puzzling in at least one important sense, namely, there is no guarantee that the pieces it’s handling will fit together in a neat or obvious fashion. It thus requires the aid of other faculties, such as intuition and imagination, to fill in the gaps and experiment with different arrangements, with the ultimate goal being the creation of a meaningful and useful self-mosaic.
When used biographically, the process of self-creation plays a central role in weaving a coherent narrative of one’s life. If we were limited solely to self-discovery methods, however, we might accrue huge swaths of data but remain blind to their core themes and over-arching narrative.
I’ve noticed that the notion of self-creation rarely sits well with hardcore empiricists who focus on soundness and comprehensiveness in data collection. For them, discovering the facts is more important than what they all mean in their totality. They may argue, for instance, that self-creation fueled by bad data is like drawing a inaccurate map, one which is bound to be ineffective at best and destructive at worse.
In rebuttal, proponents of self-creation may contend that there are limits to what can be known about the self, especially about its subconscious aspects. Moreover, in light of life’s brevity, the time available for self-discovery is limited. These constraints seem to demand that, at some point, we be willing to draw and embrace a conclusion, even apart from perfect self-knowledge.
Self-creationists may also make a case for the top-down power of belief, asserting that powerful ideals can create downward effects that positively affect other aspects of the mind and body. Research on issues such as optimism and the placebo effect, for instance, has demonstrated that beliefs matter and can significantly impact our health and well-being. This could be interpreting to mean that the human organism, including the self, is actually more malleable than we typically assume. If we believe in something strongly enough and behave in ways that reinforce that ideal, might we eventually come to embody it? Strong proponents of self-creation, perhaps with certain qualifications, would say yes.
Antecedents to the Self-Creation Concept
From time immemorial, human beings have been story-telling creatures. Although this isn’t the place for expositing the history of story-telling in human culture, suffice it to say that stories have served as our preferred medium for acquiring and delivering information, entertainment, guidance, and inspiration. Moreover, we have no reason to believe that the self would ever be excluded as a rightful subject for our stories.
Embracing and heralding the importance of the individual soul, religion has always been in the business of self-stories. Religious stories have long imbued human affairs with a higher sense of value and purpose, thereby rendering an otherwise hard and toilsome life more meaningful.
Generally speaking, religious stories remained largely unopposed until the Enlightenment prompted intellectuals, in particular, to start doubting their value and veracity. What many thinkers failed to foresee, however, is that this would create a vacuum of meaning, one that, despite considerable scientific and technological progress, still persists in large measure today.
Even after the Enlightenment, religion continued to operate as the primary counterforce to the mechanistic worldview of science, but others would arise as well. Among these were the existentialists, who espoused that the meaningful life was not limited to religious believers, as the individual could find ways of cultivating his own meaning. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in particular hoped to create a sense of meaning and purpose of an almost religious nature, but without the trappings of traditional religion.
Another counterforce to the scientific worldview is post-modernism, which is closely allied with social constructionism. Post-modernists are skeptical of our capacity to know things with objective certainty and thus consider all truth claims—be they religious, scientific, or otherwise—to be tenuous constructions of the human mind.
Taken together, story-telling, religion, existentialism, and post-modernism (certainly more could be added to this list) can be seen as paving the way for our notion of self-creation. What is common to them all is:
- An emphasis on stories / narrative
- A concern for human meaning (less so with post-modernism)
- Doubts about our ability to obtain certain / objective knowledge
- A tolerance for ambiguity (less so in religion)
- A potential appreciation of the unknown / mysterious / implicit
- In light of the uncertainty of our predicament, a potential interest in the role of faith in human life
With respect to the last bullet point, it is probably worth highlighting that the decision to embrace any self-story, assuming you’re willing to acknowledge it as such, requires some measure of faith. I say this because our self-conceptions are not merely founded on facts, but also on fictions and ideals. Why? Because we not only care about clarifying who we are—our actual self—but where we are going and who we’d like to become—our ideal self. Envisioning our ideal self requires an act of the imagination—looking beyond what is given—which, as we’ve seen, is integral to the self-creation process.
Self-discovery is undoubtedly a valuable and worthwhile enterprise, which is why I’ve spent nearly a decade researching and writing about it. But as I’ve continued to observe and reflect on our relationship to the self, the importance of self-creation as a complement to self-discovery has become increasingly evident.
That said, there is bound to be disagreement regarding where to draw the line between discovering and creating ourselves. In my view, such disagreements stem largely from personality differences. Those with a more analytic or scientific mindset may favor self-discovery, while those who view the self as more fluid and amenable to interpretation may emphasize self-creation.
Despite the apparent value and necessity of both approaches, it seems that we in the scientific West often fail to give self-creation its proper due and may thus be perpetuating the vacuum of meaning of modern life. Perhaps it’s time for a renaissance of the imagination.