On Looking at Yourself Objectively

Beginning with a (great) history lesson on Ignaz Semmelweis, Aaron Swartz crafts an excellent blog post with some tips on looking at yourself objectively:

Looking at ourselves objectively isn’t easy. But it’s essential if we ever want to get better. And if we don’t do it, we leave ourselves open to con artists and ethical compromisers who prey on our desire to believe we’re perfect. There’s no one solution, but here are some tricks I use to get a more accurate sense of myself:

Embrace your failings. Be willing to believe the worst about yourself. Remember: it’s much better to accept that you’re a selfish, racist moron and try to improve, than to continue sleepwalking through life that way as the only one who doesn’t know it.

Studiously avoid euphemism. People try and sugarcoat the tough facts about themselves by putting them in the best light possible. They say “Well, I was going to get to it, but then there was that big news story today” and not “Yeah, I was procrastinating on it and started reading the news instead.” Stating things plainly makes it easier to confront the truth.

Reverse your projections. Every time you see yourself complaining about other groups or other people, stop yourself and think: “is it possible, is there any way, that someone out there might be making the same complaints about me?”

Look up, not down. It’s always easy to make yourself look good by finding people even worse than you. Yes, we agree, you’re not the worst person in the world. That’s not the question. The question is whether you can get better — and to do that you need to look at the people who are even better than you.

Criticize yourself. The main reason people don’t tell you what they really think of you is they’re afraid of your reaction. (If they’re right to be afraid, then you need to start by working on that.) But people will feel more comfortable telling you the truth if you start by criticizing yourself, showing them that it’s OK.

Find honest friends. There are some people who are just congenitally honest. For others, it’s possible to build a relationship of honesty over time. Either way, it’s important to find friends who you can trust to tell to tell you the harsh truths about yourself. This is really hard — most people don’t like telling harsh truths. Some people have had success providing an anonymous feedback form for people to submit their candid reactions.

Listen to the criticism. Since it’s so rare to find friends who will honestly criticize you, you need to listen extra-carefully when they do. It’s tempting to check what they say against your other friends. For example, if one friend says the short story you wrote isn’t very good, you might show it to some other friends and ask them what they think. Wow, they all think it’s great! Guess that one friend was just an outlier. But the fact is that most of your friends are going to say it’s great because they’re your friend; by just taking their word for it, you end up ignoring the one person who’s actually being honest with you.

At this stage in my life, it’s hard to find friends, let alone honest friends…

I am trying to look up, not down in one area of my life at the moment: fitness.

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