One of the hardest and most important skills to learn in life is learning how to think. Usually learning how to think is associated with critical thinking, and people assume that it is for the pursuit of intellectual truth, that it is important to learn how to determine falsehoods or cognitive biases in society.
But what is less lauded and talked about, is learning how to think when it comes to perceiving ourselves, our potential and how we can relate to the world. It is one thing to see the world as it is, and another thing to see ourselves as who we truly are. I realised I either gave up too much power in terms of determining who I am, or I was over-confident in the knowledge of myself.
I think what makes a huge difference in the quality of one’s life is to develop the capacity to continually break internalised moulds of ourselves. That requires acute divergent thinking. It’s the ability to suddenly shift the mirror to a completely new radical angle to see a different side of ourselves, to reimagine new versions of who we can be. Or to nudge ourselves into realisations that we don’t have to do things the same old ways, or follow any conformist behaviour.
For example, I used to think of myself as a designer and I felt like that was the only thing I could ever do. Or I cannot count the countless times people tell me they can’t cook/draw/read/change careers/etc because they assume to know themselves and their limitations. But plenty of times it is either a societal conditioning or a limit we put on ourselves (okay this is aside from having the economic privilege of choice). I think it’s important to ask ourselves why we have that perception, and to think deeply and critically about it, not just the standard “I know myself”.
On a more meta level, that so many of us regularly repeat “I know myself” in itself is a critical reason why we should learn more widely about how to think. One of the ways to learn how to think is to input more and wider sources to better develop our streams of thought. Having only one answer to questions is an obvious sign that our stream is narrow because there’s almost always multiple sides and dimensions to every question (having just read a book on quantum physics, I was surprised to learn that even the reality of atoms is not absolute). We only need to pick up a few neuroscience and psychology books to know that “I know myself” is probably a fallacy.
The moment we learn that we don’t really know ourselves that well, everything falls apart. We start to doubt ourselves, our pasts, our constructed narratives. But that can be liberating — if we don’t know ourselves that well, then what do we actually know, and does that mean there’s also multiple dimensions of ourselves we have yet to discover or develop? What can we really contain?
These days I am bothered with a question: how much of my chronic depression is due to my inability to think myself out of my own rabbit holes? I grapple with my own definition of my feelings, the ways I see the world. Sometimes I feel like the world looks depressing to me because I have not learned to look at it in a different light. Sometimes I wonder if my brain chemistry is limiting my spectrum of thought or if my spectrum of thought is impacting my brain chemistry (well the science says it’s a complex system — the truth is nobody really knows). Even the capacity to notice beauty, I realised, has to be learned for me. An old couple making conversation can be annoying, a delay on the road can be tiring, an old building can look ugly. But they all can be experienced so beautifully.
I look at myself in the mirror. I see ugliness. I think of myself in my mind, I become impatient with my flaws. I don’t think I can do a lot of things, because I have become accustomed to what I believe I can do. I don’t trust myself to handle difficult situations, because I believe I can’t.
The capacity to think divergently makes a critical difference here. Many times it is just the ability to write a different storyline for ourselves. I was a designer but now I want to do something else. I am not sure what is that something else, but what is wrong with not knowing? What makes us try to define ourselves so narrowly? When I look into my perceived beliefs deeply, all I see were societal constructs. Why do we need to have careers? Why do we have to explain ourselves? Why do we have to try so hard to be validated? Can I co-exist with my sadness instead of trying to get rid of it? Is happiness really important? Must life be precious to everybody? Why is existence important? If the point of life lies in the meaning, what is the point of meaning?
There are some questions I don’t have answers to, and once again I want to have the humility to acknowledge that I probably don’t possess the capacity to see the world as widely as possible. It is only recent that I have become aware of how narrow my view is, and that is astounding as well as liberating.
I just need to develop the skill to remember this: that my world view is narrow, the view of myself is narrow too, and ahead lies the potential of the unknown. Even the ability to intervene with our own line of thinking and interject new lines is a developed skill, and I classify it as one of the micro-skills under the umbrella of learning how to think.
I think the secret of life is to always have a question at every point we think we have static answers to