The importance of knowing thyself

The modern workplace allows little time for self-reflection, but it remains essential, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 15 Aug 2017

My father often talks about an imaginary film reel. It is the private film of his day, only to be watched at bedtime, for his eyes only. He describes a projector that casts a cinema size screening of his entire day on the wall, showcasing his every action from the moment his eyes open, till his final yawn.

Luckily, he has a remote that allows him to rewind, pause, and fast-forward. With this magical remote, he can zone in on moments he may have zipped past in reality, and pause when certain parts need further reflection. He confesses – no easy feat for a man with great pride – that this fictional movie makes him a better person, as he learns more about himself, and brings to light what he’d like to change. The next day, he wakes up an improved version of himself. Marginally, that is. But compounded over many years and decades, he is truly superior to his former self. 

Many of us are away for August (or ‘AFA’ as my wife likes to say), so this may not be a bad time to create a film reel of our own. As I head off to Los Angeles for the summer holiday and take my family around the Hollywood studios, the movie I’ll be dwelling on is my own internal motion picture. Where have I come from? Where am I going? Where do I want to end up?

Socrates often told his pupils to ‘know thyself’. In today’s always-switched-on world where many of us have become addicted to social media (think about how often you’ve refreshed your email inbox and Facebook feed while reading this), we just don’t invest the time to think about who we are. We take it for granted that we know our own selves. But do we know why there is tension in our family or team? Or why one of our deals fell over? Or why a friend is keeping his or her distance?

It is not only the things not going well that deserve reflection. We need to know what family, friends, clients, and partners really cherish in us. Inner reflection provides us with great insights and intelligence about ourselves, and this self-knowledge brings with it great powers. 

Thinking before Doing

Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps the most successful young CEO of our time, is known to be a big fan of the Socratic philosophy of self-awareness. He is admirable for setting himself, and sticking to, yearly goals that allow him to develop as a person. These goals include things such as learning Mandarin and coding software every day. His goals are precise and are also focused on working different parts of his brain. He somehow miraculously manages to stick to them all, which requires foresight and discipline.

I’m quite a goal setter myself, almost obsessively so. My goals start with a ‘film reel’ moment where I reflect on my past actions and decisions, think about where I want to be heading, and then build out my goal list from there. My morning commute starts with a healthy dose of self-reflection and goal tracking. Am I on the right track? What needs to be recalibrated? This is all key to my ‘think before do’ approach. 

My self-reflection permeates into the weekends. I am quite religious about going on ‘reflective runs’. By stressing my body, I de-stress my mind. Once my mind reaches what athletes refer to as the ‘flow’, I’m able to reach a higher zone of self-analysis.  Some of my best business ideas have come to me as an epiphany while running through Richmond Park, dodging kids on scooters and herds of deer.     

Final Thoughts

This whole self-improvement thing can get tiresome. There appears to be a seemingly infinite number of books, audiobooks, vlogs, and podcasts on the subject, and that’s before you include the wisdom of ancient philosophers (more my cup of tea). Everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject; it’s hard to block out the noise and know who to listen to and where to start.

As I head off to enjoy the warm Californian sun and reflect on my own ‘film reel’, I must confess that I by no means intended to write a definitive account on the subject. In fact, this is the shortest column I’ve ever written, because I need to catch a flight and get down to some quiet, airborne meditation. What I will leave you with as I go AFA this summer is one of my favorite quotes from Ernest Hemingway: ‘there is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self’.

Faisal Butt is CEO of Spire Ventures and Chairman of Pi Labs

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