The Power of Understanding Yourself: The Key to Self-Discovery, Personal Development, and Being the Best You - Dave Mitchell 2019
Metacognition: The Process of Evaluating “The Juice”
In vino veritas — In wine, there is truth.
— Pliny the Elder
I miss libraries. Oh, I know that they’re still around, but I don’t visit them. I am hopeful that some people still do, because I love the concept of a library. It is a magical place, a place to go where you have access to information old and new to broaden your knowledge. You can do research in a quiet comfortable location. There is always that worn, leather chair in the corner that only you know about. It is there that you settle in to embark on a journey. The library offers an environment that is precious in today’s world. It allows for the solitary pursuit of information. You sit among the product of the efforts of the greatest minds of our time with tangible evidence of their efforts in every direction. With more motivation than plan, you start looking for wisdom. Your research may take hours, even days. You will have to return repeatedly to this wonderful, quiet place full of resources to expand your understanding of something. To gain more knowledge, you will be required to have some — to think about what you already know, get up out of your comfy chair and go find information that will broaden that existing knowledge. You will gather a stack of books and return to your chair to pour over them for useful nuggets, sifting through the chaff of unimportant or unnecessary material in your quest for the meaningful. And with each new piece of data, a new pathway for further enlightenment will open.
Such is metacognition. The library is your own brain. And like the libraries of today, while we know it’s around, we rarely step inside.
Metacognition Versus Self-Awareness
Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. More importantly for our purposes, metacognition is thinking about how you think. And although that sounds like a pretty easy undertaking, consider the daunting task of walking into the Carnegie Library to do some research on a topic of which you have only a superficial understanding with the expectation that you will leave it with absolute expertise. Take quantum physics, for example. I have heard it described this way, “Quantum physics is not just harder than you think, it is harder than you can think.” You might know a little about physics, but it’s going to take a whole lotta trips to the library to learn quantum physics. In that way, metacognition is an entirely other level of self-awareness.
And here is where metacognition differs from mere self-awareness. Most people have some degree of self-awareness. Using the library metaphor, we can define self-awareness as the shallow knowledge that you possess about a subject upon visiting the first time. You may go to the library to research the wine varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, with the knowledge that it is a grape used to make wine. Upon researching it, you would learn that Cabernet Sauvignon is the “offspring” of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc; it is one of the noble grapes of Bordeaux and is considered the “King of wine grapes.” This in turn creates pathways to explore, related to the “parents” of Cabernet Sauvignon, why it became popular in Bordeaux and how it spread in popularity around the world. Each of those rabbit holes of research will introduce more things to explore, and so on. It is in this way that metacognition serves as a metaphor for the pursuit down these rabbit holes. Self-awareness is simply realizing that you behave in certain consistent ways and patterns. Put another way, self-awareness is simply knowing how you behave, but not why. For example, maybe you have worked with a boss that liked to tease other people. These bosses would likely be self-aware that they did this. They may have even bragged about their ability to “burn” members of their team. The fact that these bosses know this about themselves has only modest value. Metacognition would require that they knew why they behaved this way; what happened in their lives to initiate this desire, what usefulness this behavior had to them, what value he gained from this teasing. Being accurately self-aware is useful, but hardly the destination for extracting Me — a process the mirrors the winemaker’s efforts to pull the best of the grape into the wine. Metacognition is the tool that we as individuals use to pull the best of our essence into our own expression of humanity. A person who is engaged in metacognition is examining why their behaviors exist, what formed them, are they useful, how can they be changed if they are barriers to our full potential. We bring into the library the knowledge of our behaviors (self-awareness) so that we can then research the reasons for these behaviors and their contribution to our best selves (metacognition).
Thinking About Our Thoughts
Most of us have never engaged in extensive metacognitive activities. Why? Pretty much the same reason we don’t go into the library these days: we don’t have to.
The funny thing about our brains is that they work quite effectively without supervision. Think about the patterns of your days. You have routines. You have lists. You have calendars. You have handheld electronic devices. You know where you are going, and the few times you don’t, you have technology to assist you. Soon the car will drive you there by itself anyway. You work, you sleep, you do errands. If something unfamiliar pops up, you can Google your way to a resolution without having to learn any more than superficial information about the issue. Nearly our entire existence is akin to running a computer app.
It is not an exaggeration to state that many years — perhaps even entire lifetimes — can pass without individuals stopping and actively examining their own thought processes. For all I know, these people are completely content living their own version of Groundhog’s Day. The library just isn’t that important to them. I imagine they say to themselves, “Why do I need to go looking for a deeper understanding of myself when I am happy with things as they are?” Discovering their Me is not important to them; it might even be a bit unnerving. There’s not a thing wrong with that, and good for them.
As for me, I am infinitely curious about my purpose, my “gift,” and what I can do to make the best use of it. That probably makes me the more neurotic of these two types of people. Perhaps the “blissfully ignorant” have the better path — and that isn’t meant to be derogatory or provocative. To live a life of superficial self-awareness and be quite content in doing so is, literally, being blissfully ignorant. I have often envied those people. This book is not for them. I doubt they would buy this book anyway, so they are not my audience. If you have accidentally bought this book or received it as a gift, feel comfortable stopping here and re-gifting this to someone who would be interested. It’s all good.
However, many of us do long for a deeper understanding of ourselves. Are we special? I mean, everyone says “of course, you are special!” But how do we know? What makes us special? Am I using what makes me special to affect others; to impact the world for the better? If not, what do I need to change?
If we are lucky, we get 80 or so years in this existence. I don’t know what comes next, if anything. That’s a different book. I want to know what I should be doing with this existence. To discover that, you need to go to the library. You need to engage in metacognition.
There are other things that deter us from entering the library. Besides not feeling compelled, there are a lot of distractions. Imagine if right next to the library were all forms of other ways to occupy your time; options that were easier to navigate. Picture cafes and clothing stores, sporting events and televisions, places to work and people to talk to. Imagine that every moment was filled with something to watch, someplace to be, something to search, websites to check, things to buy, errands to run.
Wait — you don’t have to imagine that. I just described everyone’s life. That is precisely why both the real and the metacognition library are not busy.
When can I possibly fit in a trip to the library — which, by the way, can be inefficient, unproductive, and downright frustrating — when my day is already so full? Metacognition is rarely on any things-to-do lists, and it is the odd day that we are looking for items to add to our lists. It’s hard to envision a to-do list that says, “clean house, shop for groceries, pay bills, pick up dry cleaning, engage in metacognition, take dog to vet, work out, get oil change.”
Plus, imagine if that trip to the library turns out to be unpleasant? What if you found that there exists some information inside that makes you sad, angry or — the worst — disappointed in yourself? But guess what? You will. So now how likely is it that you would take the trip to the library, what with it being not entirely necessary, potentially unproductive, likely make you feel bad sometimes — and you don’t have time for it anyway. I mean, it’s not like you are looking to make more time in your life fruitlessly seeking parking spaces or getting a few more paper cuts. Metacognition is a lot like both of those activities sometimes.
Choosing to Extract Me
So, why take this trip into the library of your mind? Simple. Therein lies the content of Me. But you must find it. You must decide to visit this space. You must think about what you know, then get up and research what you know so that you can know more. All that noise that you experience each day, both important and not, can drown out Me. To find it, you must walk into that quiet library.
The good news is that it doesn’t really have to take place in a library (although there are worse places to engage in metacognition). I do my metacognition while walking in the woods. I didn’t realize all those years ago when I went on my wander ponders with Red that I was learning some valuable skills in how to extract Me. And the coolest part about that? Red was my librarian.
That makes me giggle.
Let me give you an example from the wine industry. Many years ago, I decided to enroll in the educational classes necessary to become a certified advanced sommelier. My decision to do so was to be able to more intelligently and critically assess wine and more fully appreciate all that it had to offer. A close second for reasons to take the classes was the prospect of drinking lots of cool wine. (Okay, so perhaps those two should be reversed.) Anyway, I was very excited about furthering my knowledge of the wine world.
However, it didn’t take long once I started classes to realize that this would be a lot harder than I thought. There was a great deal of reading about history, understanding geography, and terroir. Of course, there is the examination of the different colors, smells, and tastes that can be found in wine. The whole thing was intellectually exhausting. By the way, terroir is a cork-dork term for the influence of the place on the wine. Wine begins in the vineyard and each vineyard has a unique soil, moisture, sun exposure, land aspect, and so forth. In so many ways, a wine is affected by its roots. Just like us.
I became incredibly frustrated by how hard it was to fully understand this delightful fluid. I spent hours looking at, smelling, sipping (and occasionally spitting) hundreds of glasses of wine to understand their origins, the winemaking decisions, the impact of the vintage, and all the complexities that existed in that little taste. Despite what you might think, it was not fun. In fact, it was miserable. But, after a couple of years of study, I had developed a much deeper understanding of wine in general and a far great passion and love for each glass I experienced. Now, I look at wine in a very different and deferential way. I recognize the magnitude of the accomplishment that exists within that glass. I savor it for what it is. Each glass of wine is special.
Metacognition is a lot like that.
Your Cognitive Schemas Make You Unique
So, we begin this journey with metacognition. And metacognition arises from the question, “Am I special?” The answer is yes, absolutely, without reservations, unequivocally … yes. Let me explain why I am so certain of that, and why you should believe it too.
First, I am not a motivational speaker. I know many, respect most of them, and certainly appreciate their value. But, I am not one. I am an entertaining educator on the stage and I endeavor to inspire learning in both directions between my audience and me. But I am also a product of my experiences: that rural upbringing with a problematic relationship with my mother, a caring but emotionally stoic father, witness to life’s injustices like everyone else. Heck, my dad’s most frequent response to my complaints as a kid was, “Cheer up, it gets worse.” I do not believe that repeating simple affirmations or learning some life hacks can radically change your life. I don’t believe that there is a convenient seven-step process to happiness and success. Life don’t care. Like that famous YouTube video, life is the honey badger; it don’t give a shit. As a result, we will experience pain, suffering, unfairness, bad luck, heartache, and failure. But, we are still special. Here’s why.
Each of us has become what we are because of our experiences. We are born and spend the first few years of our lives doing, seeing, hearing, and learning things for the first time — forming cognitive schemas to allow us to make sense of these experiences, and determine how to behave and process future events. Think of cognitive schemas as the policies and procedures of your mind. You are born without much programing, so what you go through initiates the process of downloading your software. Even more interesting, no one can predict exactly how you write these schemas into your brain. Two people can be exposed to the same experience and create completely different schemas. If you don’t think this is possible, grab a bottle of wine (preferably from Walla Walla Valley!), sit down with a sibling, and discuss your parents. Chances are you will have different opinions of each. The way we perceive our experiences is a distinctly personal and mysterious process.
If you take a moment to understand the full impact of that last paragraph, you will realize something very powerful. First, the way you think — the essence of Me — is created by both your experiences and the mysterious process of how you created the cognitive schema to define, process, and respond to them. Second, no one has been exposed to the collective database of experiences to which you have been exposed. Finally, even when you have had shared experiences with others, you will create different schemas than them; sometimes those differences will be subtle, sometimes radically different. So, the three tenets of metacognition are
1. Experiences create cognitive schemas.
2. Our experiences are unique to us.
3. No two people construct the same schema, even in identical experiences.
Therefore, your cognitive schemas — the policy manual of your mind and the basis of your essence — are unlike anyone who has ever lived, lives now, and will ever live in the future. I cannot think of a more apt description of special. The question isn’t “Am I special?” That is undeniably true. The question is “Do I know what makes me special, and am I using that gift?” That question is much harder because it will require you to answer many more questions, such as:
· Where do I begin in this metacognitive process of extracting Me?
· What are the elements of my essence?
· How do I use my gift?
· How will I know if I have truly found Me?
· Are there cognitive schemas that inhibit my gift?
There is one last insight that can easily be lost in this discussion. We have far more influence over our reality than we realize. Our entire perspective, the way we define our experiences, is the product of our own cognitive schemas. We installed them. Most likely, this took place when we were quite young, before the age of 22, as we were experiencing most things for the first time. But now, further down life’s journey, we continue to use these same cognitive schemas — despite some radical differences in context.
Imagine you ran a business for 80 years and never changed any of the company’s policies after the first 20 years. Sure, some of these policies will stand the test of time, but most of them will need to be evaluated, updated, changed, and even eliminated. New ones will almost definitely need to be installed. The decision to do that would be up to you, and you would make those choices in the best interest of the business. Similarly, while reading this book, you may well discover that there are things about you that you are not using to their full capacity. You may also identify personal attributes that are hindering your full development and impact. Just like the business executive who must make changes to achieve better performance, so must you for your own performance. The willingness to do that has a lot to do with your locus of control.