Self discovery is the process by which you get to know your inner self in a concrete way. For it to be truly effective, self discovery must result in actionable takeaways that you can apply to your life right away.
By discovering who you are, you are arming yourself with crucial information that you can then use to inform your decisions and actions, ultimately leading you to a more rewarding life.
But for a topic so universal to the human experience, self awareness is a trait exhibited by a surprising few. Not only that, we’re also extremely bad at realizing we’re not self-aware. A Harvard study of nearly 5,000 people found that only about 10-15% were able to demonstrate true self-awareness, despite a remarkable 95% of people self-reporting as self-aware.
Having spent the better part of my adult life trying to discover the truth about myself, I can attest to the complexity of this endeavor. Self-discovery is different for every individual person. But that doesn’t mean you’re in it alone. There might not be a roadmap for self-discovery, but there are strategies that anyone can employ to ensure you’re making progress.
This guide contains the most effective and practical strategies that you can employ right away to set your self-discovery journey on the right track. Ready to find yourself? Let’s get started!
What is self discovery?
As mentioned above, self-discovery is living with the intent to understand your self-concept. But what does that really mean? Let’s break it down:
- Living — engaging with every experience in life, from the mundane to the spectacular
- with the intent — knowing what you want, or what you want to learn, from an experience and acting accordingly
- to understand your self-concept — the collection of beliefs you have about yourself that you learn over the years by living life with the intention to learn
The beliefs that make up our self-concept manifest, ideally, in a set of attitudes, behaviors, and preferences that describe the way in which we engage with life.
In this way, we are deeply engaged in the process of self-discovery from the moment we are born through our entire lives. That we are learning about ourselves is a given for most children, who acknowledge that (usually) they lack the life experience to say that they are “done” learning about who they are.
Then something changes as we enter our adult years. As we gather more life experience, each incremental experience we becomes less and less likely to seem novel or unique. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a groove, unconsciously going through the motions of life under the misguided belief that we are doing “the same thing every day.” But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In fact, every experience we have is unique and therefore carries the potential for learning. It’s how we engage with these experiences that makes the difference.
In this way, there are two types of mindsets you can have as you move through life:
- People have a pacifist mindset when they find themselves going through the motions of life.
- People have an activist mindset when they actively seek to better understand themselves through their experiences in life.
All of us move between these mindsets. To live your entire life in the activist mindset would not only be exhausting but also unrealistic. Our brains manage energy by building up schemas and employing heuristics to streamline decision-making. This allows us to preserve our mental energy for those truly novel or important tasks when it is needed.
But if you want to develop yourself, you need to make the decision to spend more time in the activist mindset.
While in the activist mindset, people spend their time on productive activities rather than consumption activities. They find work on that which is important both to the world at large and to themselves personally. They excel at what they do, and they are deeply grateful for the circumstances that allow them to live such rich and fulfilling lives.
Why is self discovery important?
Self-discovery is at the core of self-improvement. If you seek a life of fulfillment and meaning, you must first discover who it is that is living that life. From self-actualization to Ikigai and every destination in-between, self discovery is the starting point toward unlocking a life that takes advantage of your full potential and enriches the lives of others in the process.
Self-discovery helps you understand whether your decisions and behaviors are moving toward or away from the life you want. Research has consistently shown that the happiest people are those with a deep awareness of who they are and the kinds of people and experiences that bring out the best in them.
This degree of self-awareness is something one can really only attain through self discovery.
How do I start a journey of self discovery?
Self-discovery is inherently a very personal journey, and as a result, it looks different for everyone:
- Elizabeth Gilbert quit her well-paying job and traveled the world. (Read her story: Eat, Pray, Love)
- Cheryl Strayed hiked more than 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone and with no experience. (Read her story: Wild)
- Michael Pollan ingested psychedelic drugs in a therapeutic context. (Read his story: How to Change Your Mind)
These are extreme examples. Self-discovery does not require you to quit your job, go hiking, and drop acid. It can happen right now, within the context of your current life, commitments, and responsibilities. All it takes is the will to get started and the ability to act with intention.
Here are five steps to kickstart your journey of self-discovery.
Step 1: Question your core beliefs
Socrates was famously quoted as having said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Despite being one of the founders of Western Philosophy, there was nothing philosophical about the context in which this statement was made.
Socrates was on trial facing the death penalty for questioning the divinity of the Athenian Pantheon. He was willing to—and, in fact did—die for the simple right to question that which most of us take for granted as true. His system of argumentative questioning became known as the Socratic method and is now the standard for elite graduate education in law, business, and other professions.
Clearly Socrates was on the right side of history. But the fact that he was convicted and sentenced to death illustrates an unfortunate truth about humans: We don’t like to question our core beliefs.
It’s a natural tendency: There is safety and security in knowing, and there is risk and uncertainty in not knowing. However if we want to grow, we can’t be afraid to ask ourselves the hard questions.
Here are five critical questions I ask myself every year:
- What are my three greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
- What are the three things I love doing most? Hate doing most?
- In the next 5 years, what do I want out of life that I don’t already have?
- By the time I am 60, what do I want out of life that I don’t already have?
- What is one thing I love and one thing I want to change about each of the following areas of my life?
Here are some pointers to keep in mind when answering these questions:
Write down your answers
It might sound simple, but writing your answers out has myriad benefits:
- It lets to organize, refine, and work through your thoughts, so you can be sure you’re addressing everything completely.
- It gives you the freedom to work on your answers over multiple sessions. Apart from being more convenient, working on something like this over multiple sessions also helps to normalize for any bias that might come from how you’re feeling on a given day.
- It provides a record of your responses that you can revisit over the years to evaluate how your attitudes and perceptions might have changed.
There’s an old adage in business that applies equally well to self-improvement: You can’t improve what you can’t measure.
By writing down your answers, you’re creating data. You’re measuring where you believe you currently stand.
Be (brutally) honest
Initially, you’re bound to feel some pressure in one or both of these ways:
- Pressure to answer the way you think you should answer
- Pressure to answer with something profound or unique when you’re at a loss for what to write
Both of these are perfectly normal responses to have the first time you do this exercise. Writing about your inner truth can make you feel vulnerable and put your defense mechanisms on high alert.
The best advice I have here is to check-in with yourself as you work through the exercise. Remind yourself that these answers are for your eyes only and there is nothing embarrassing or wrong about your truth. If you are unhappy with your truth as it stands today, this exercise his designed to help you highlight the areas on which you want to work.
This won’t be your last time answering these questions, so answer them honestly and next time you’ll see how far you’ve come.
Take your time
Don’t try to tackle them all in one sitting. Prioritize quality over speed. Approach each question as if it were an essay or a project you would eventually want to publish.
Don’t take shortcuts by half-explaining things or using vague references to events that make sense to you now, in the moment. Remember that you are writing to your future self, a person who will have presumably forgotten much of the context you currently have in your head.
Even though this is for you, write it as if you’re writing it for someone whose never met you before. Write it as if you want this person to deeply understand.
It might take you a month or more to get through all five questions—especially the first time you do it. And that’s okay. Create draft versions, proofread, and refine until you have a version that you feel accurately and completely reflects your most honest truth on each question.
The first time I’d answered these questions, three years passed before I thought of sitting back down to revisit the answers I’d written. And when I did, I realized that my view of myself had changed dramatically in that time.
Since then, I’ve adopted an annual and sometimes semi-annual tradition of rewriting my answers so that I can start to see the progression of how my self-belief has changed over the years. With this data, I can correlate major life events that I was dealing with at the time to see the impact those externalities might have on my core beliefs.
I encourage you to figure out a frequency that works for you, set a reminder, and commit to it.
I always write my new answers before re-reading my old ones so that I don’t bias myself with a fresh reminder of how I’d answered before. Doing things in this order also makes comparing this year to prior years a lot more objective and straightforward.
Step 2: Keep a journal
I’ve kept a personal journal since my senior year in high school over 15 years ago, and it’s easily the best thing I’ve ever done for my personal development.
In my experience, journaling is an essential habit for every person to have, especially in today’s world.
Journaling gives you the space to work through difficult thoughts and feelings. It provides a record of the things that happened in your life: the big things, the small things, and the things that seemed big at the time but actually turned out to be quite small in retrospect. It gives you a chance to look back at yourself in the moment and evaluate your reactions and behaviors from a more objective place.
Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years to help me maintain the habit:
I know many of you are completely bought in on analog journaling, and honestly if that works for you, go for it. In my experience, the convenience and portability of digital journaling has been a complete game changer for me.
I currently use the fantastic Day One app, but I’ve cycled through many other digital alternatives in the past. The benefits of keeping a digital journal are almost too numerous to list:
- It’s accessible from any device, wherever you are in the world.
- It allows you to embed rich media (photos, videos, etc.) to bring your memories to life.
- It allows you to quickly search through all of your past entries, to jump back to how you were feeling in specific moments in the past.
- It backs up and encrypts your memories so you’ll never lose them.
Keep it simple
It can be a real challenge for many people to get going with a journaling habit. People tend to struggle with journaling when they blow it up to be a much larger task than it is.
I know some people who insist that they can only write in their journal when they have a large block of silent, uninterrupted alone time. While this might be a really fantastic setting for a solid and profound journal entry, making this the requirement for any journal energy creates a dynamic where perfect is the enemy of good.
Keep in mind that the primary goal of journaling is to document events in your life and how you reacted to them. In other words: This isn’t your memoir.
My journal, for example, contains epic, 7,000-word entries alongside 3-4 word entries quickly tapped on my iPhone keyboard. Sometimes I’ll post a single image or video with a brief caption, just so I can remember the moment.
As long as you are writing in your journal, you are journaling. Don’t make it more than that.
Sometimes you’ll sit down in front of your journal and realize that you don’t have anything top of mind to write about.
Wrong. Of course you do. You must be thinking about something. So write about that.
Remember, this is for you and there is absolutely no expectation that it be anything profound or even noteworthy.
Even an entry that reads as follows would be sufficient: “I don’t know what to write about today, but I am committed to keeping up with this journaling habit.”
In fact, once you start typing, the odds are high that your mind will start to find things to write about.
In The Artists Way, Julia Cameron writes about the concept of “Morning Pages.” Cameron recommends waking up in the morning and sitting down to draft out three pages over stream of consciousness thought.
Sometimes I sit down and just start typing. I flow from one topic to the next. The mere act of writing has a way of engaging the mind, causing it to call forth unresolved thoughts and ideas for further analysis. When I am journaling, I’ll often bounce between trains of thought, leaving loose ends and even incomplete sentences. There are no rules for your journal. The only rule is to write in it as often as you can.
Review, reflect, repeat
You might be noticing a theme. Like the car belief questions above, you should establish a relatively regular cadence taking time out to look back on your old entries. Reading through what you’d written a year or many years ago might feel awkward or embarrassing, but overall it should be an eye-opening experience.
Our brains are notoriously bad at remembering the specifics. And for those rare memories that actually stick, it’s likely that they have been altered and re-altered by your autobiographical mind over the years into something that’s more palatable to your present-day self.
It is only by looking back on your writing that you can begin to unwind your thought patterns and analyze them objectively. You can’t improve what you can’t measure.
Step 3: Escape your comfort zone
Have you ever wondered what you would do if you saw an old woman fall off a subway platform in front of an oncoming train? Would you jump down and save her? Would you remain on the platform and scream for help? Would you watch in stunned silence as others rush to help?
You will never fully know who you are without knowing how you face uncomfortable and unconventional situations.
Experience is the only way to know who you are in a given situation. That’s what I mean when I say that self-discovery is living, because living is experience. If you never expose yourself to new experiences, you’ll never have a complete grasp on your capabilities and limitations.
But how do you get out of your comfort zone?
The good news is that doing so is as simple as doing things differently than you’ve done them before.
Every day, you’re likely faced with dozens of opportunities to step outside of your comfort zone. In the moment these opportunities can be hard to notice and therefore even hard to act on.
Here are some practical tips to help you start getting outside your comfort zone right away:
Your life is full of “yes” or “no” questions, even if they don’t initially appear that way:
- Q: Do you have the report?
- A1: Yes, I have the report.
- A2: No, I don’t have the report.
It’s pretty clear which of these responses correspond with “yes” and “no,” but consider this example:
- Q: Where are you at with that report?
- A1: It’s almost ready for sharing. Hang tight!
- A2: I’m almost done. Here’s what I have so far if you want to check it out.
In this example, the person asking the question is presumably looking for the information contained in the report you’re working on. In this way, A1 is a “no” response because you are essentially saying, “No, I have no information to share with you right now.” On the other hand, A2 is an affirmative response, “Yes, you can see what I have so far. It’s not done yet but this is what we know now.”
Saying yes will almost always open you up to new opportunities and life experiences. In the example above, people who responded with A2 are more likely to be considered hard-working, honest employees—good candidates for special projects where speed and transparency are important.
Unfortunately we’ve gotten into the habit of constantly saying no to things:
- “Sorry, I’m busy that night.”
- “Let me get back to you in a few days when things settle down.”
- “I would love to, but I’m overcommitted at the moment.”
There’s nothing wrong with saying no if you are being truly honest about your constraints. Maybe you do have too much on your plate and can’t commit to one more thing. I am definitely not recommending that you say yes to things when you can’t actually follow through with them.
But what I am recommending is that you start to pay attention to how often you’re saying yes and no to things. Are you happy with your ratio? Are there things you would like to say yes to but aren’t able to? Are there things you are afraid of saying yes to because you think you’ll do a bad job?
Once you have this insight, you can be more deliberate about what you do and don’t say yes to. Ideally, you start to say yes to one or two things that you otherwise wouldn’t, things that challenge you. Because we can’t grow without saying yes to things that challenge us.
Make a bucket list
Creating a bucket list is perhaps one of the most practical things you can do to help yourself get out of the rut that is your comfort zone.
The concept of a Bucket List was made famous by the eponymous 2007 film that still makes me laugh (and cry) to this day. The idea is that you create a list of everything you want to do before you “kick the bucket,” and then you go do those things. In the film, this is positioned as a kind of retirement activity for two men who find themselves depressed with late-stage life. But what is the point in waiting until you’re old and retired to start doing the things you’ve always wanted to do in life?
You’re life is happening right now. What are you waiting for?
Creating a bucket list can be a daunting task, but here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when building yours:
- Find inspiration online. Starting with a blank page is always a challenge. A quick Google search for “bucket list ideas” should get the gears turning and provide some good starting points for your curated list.
- Don’t limit yourself to things you want to do. Select a few ideas that don’t necessarily sound appealing to you (as long as they’re safe, of course) and add those to your list. As long as you approach them with an open mind, you’re likely to learn more about yourself doing these activities than anything else.
- Treat it like a “living document.” Don’t write your list once and work off it forever. As you go about your journey of self discovery, you’ll learn about new things you want to do that you’d never even heard of. On the flip side, you might also learn that a few of the things your younger self wanted to do maybe aren’t such a good idea after all.
- Commit to making progress. Set goals on the number of activities you want to cross off your list every year, and hold yourself accountable. Consider these goals when you’re making plans so that you are sure to accomplish them. Just remember, the list isn’t going to cross itself off; you need to engage with it. You need to take responsibility and do it.
Working through a bucket list is a simply outstanding way to discover new things about yourself. Almost by definition, bucket list activities are activities that take you out of your day-to-day routine and expose you to things you wouldn’t otherwise experience had you not gone out of your way to do them.
Step 4: Be mindful
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focused attention on the present moment. Meditation is the most common method of practicing mindfulness, but the state of mindfulness is something that can (and does) exist no matter what you’re doing, if you allow it to.
To be in a mindful state is to have a heightened sense of awareness of your thoughts and feelings as sensations that are separate from you.
Mindfulness has had a monumentally positive impact on the way that I experience life, but apart from its inherent benefits, being mindful is an essential component of self discovery. The more you can understand how you relate to your thoughts and feelings, the stronger the grasp you’ll have on your identity.
The best way to understand mindfulness is to experience it, and the best way to experience it is to practice it. The internet and electronic communications in general have clouded our minds more than ever before.
As mentioned above, meditation is one of the best ways to practice mindfulness, because it creates the conditions for mindfulness by eliminating distractions.
For people who are new to meditation, I highly recommend Headspace. The app’s creator, Andy Puddicombe, also wrote a solid introductory-level book called The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness. The book is a little basic for anyone with experience in meditation, but it provides a very accessible foundation for beginners.
This said, there are dozens of meditation apps and resources available out there. Try out a few and pick what works for you.
The important thing is that you turn meditation into a daily habit. Just like physical exercise, regular (and ideally daily) meditation will gradually improve your mind’s ability to transition into a mindful state over time. In fact, there is evidence that shows meditation actually causes observable changes to the chemistry of your brain, much like physical exercise results in visible changes to your body.
Over time with your mindfulness practice in place, you’ll gradually begin to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings throughout the day. This awareness provides numerous benefits—among them is the ability to understand the things happening in your brain.
A stronger awareness of your thoughts and feelings gives you the perspective to answer questions like:
- What time of day am I most productive?
- Am I an early bird or a night owl?
- Under what conditions am I most relaxed?
- Am I more extroverted or introverted?
- What gets me out of bed in the morning?
- What keeps me up at night?
- What qualities do I like and dislike in others?
- And so on
In this way, mindfulness gives you the space to better study your own attitudes, behaviors, and preferences. It helps you better understand who you are so you can begin to put the changes in place that you need to unlock your fullest potential.
Keep a record
Unless you’re really paying attention, it can be easy to take for granted the tremendous influence people and places have on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Together, people and places make up our environment—which along with our mindset—defines the way we experience life.
While mindset is ultimately more important in defining our experience, the role played by our environment is massive. This is especially true of people who don’t keep up a regular mindfulness practice.
So start paying attention to the way changes in your environment affect your mood and your behaviors. Do certain people cause you more anxiety than others? Are there certain places where you feel particularly creative and at ease?
Act like a social scientist collecting data about yourself. As much as you can, you want to record record the impact that certain scenarios have on your overall attitude. I personally recommend using Daylio, a mood tracking app for iOS and Android that lets you tag your logged mood with custom “activities”—like “argument” or “grocery store.”
Over time, you’ll build an extremely rich dataset over how environmental factors impact your mood and behavior. Then, you can review that data to inform your how you approach these situations in the future—as well as decide whether you try to have more or fewer of them.
Pro Tip (Daylio): At first, the desire to create “activities” for every possible situation and scenario you can think of can be enticing. I recommend resisting that urge as best you can and only creating activities in the moment when you are logging them. Over time, you’ll likely delete some that you originally thought were important but turned out not to be. Eventually you will land on an activity list that provides the level of detail you need without being too cumbersome.
If you’re in need of inspiration, the app has an extremely active Subreddit whose users share examples of their moods, activities, and mood charts as inspiration.
Step 5: Take action
All of this work in self discovery is really only useful if you can put it to productive use. Generally speaking, the goal of engaging in self-discovery is self-actualization—the state of having achieved the fullest extent of one’s own potential.
To have achieved self-actualization is to have reached the very peak of human psychological development. It is to be in a state of complete knowing of one’s self and one’s place in the broader world. It is to know one’s self so intimately that engaging with life becomes effortless. There is no doubt. No regret. Only the quiet knowledge of one’s own character and the confidence to live up to it.
Write a personal manifesto
A personal manifesto is an essential tool in achieving self-actualization. It’s a short, written statement that affirms—in concrete, motivating terms—your core values, the guiding principles for how to live your life.
Conceptually it might not sound like that impactful of an idea, but in practice, writing a personal manifesto is the most effective step you can take in the direction of realizing your full potential. Writing and repeating these words will keep you grounded in your values. Per the availability heuristic, the more top of mind something is, the easier it is to access and act upon. That’s why you need to work to keep your values fresh in your mind. You can’t allow the depressing nature of the world be the last thing you’re thinking about when the pressure starts to build.
I’ve written a complete guide on how to write a personal manifesto. Here are the key steps to help you get started:
- Step 1: Create a list of 3-5 core values
- Step 2: Find motivational statements that speak to your values
- Step 3: Rewrite them into concrete, declarative statements
- Step 4: Make reviewing it a daily habit
- Step 5: Live mindfully and revise often
Keep an open mind
Each of us are constantly being exposed to opportunities in life. Some are admittedly larger than others, but regardless there is an undeniable compound effect of saying yes to opportunities in life.
Open mindedness is not a subjective quality. It is a way of thinking that prioritizes a perspective broader than your own. Open mindedness is the ability to see situations from different angles.
Closed mindedness, by comparison, is simply the inability to do so. Closed minded people don’t see things from perspectives other then their own. In this way, they are limited by their own perspectives.
Having an open mind is not natural to us because of cognitive biases. Mental shortcuts, called heuristics, reduce mental fatigue by automating certain cognitive tasks. Here are some examples:
- Confirmation bias. Placing more importance on information that confirms or reinforces your beliefs and less importance on information that runs contrary.
- Endowment effect. The tendency to require higher payment for giving something up than one would be willing to pay to acquire that thing in the first place.
- Dunning-Kruger effect. The tendency for unskilled people to overestimate their ability in a certain area and skilled people to underestimate their abilities.
These are just a few of an extensive library of cognitive biases that psychologists have been able to isolate and document. It’s worth becoming familiar with them so you can better identify them in yourself and attempt to resist when necessary.
To enter into something with an open mind is to resist biases and behave in a way that welcomes alternative perspectives, that is open to the idea of being wrong.
The more often you’re able to keep an open mind, the more likely you are to learn about yourself and begin to accept the truth about the inner you.
Prioritize the journey, not the destination
As you move through this journey of self discovery, the most important thing to keep in mind is to focus on the journey itself, not the destination. Put simply, there is no destination. As mentioned earlier, self discovery is an unending process, and you’ll get more out of it if you go into it with that mindset.
But what you should do as you embark upon your journey, is move toward the people, places, and activities that inspire and delight you. At the same time, move away from those things that detract from your happiness.
In this way, your journey becomes the path through which you navigate life itself. Each decision to you make in alignment with your self concept is a movement in the right direction.
At the end of the day, self discovery is simply living. And it is living with intention that teaches you the lessons about yourself that, when applied, will move you in the direction of self-actualization. The roadmap to your life, in other words, is already available to you. You just need to pay attention when it shows itself.