“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”
- Lao Tzu
The main difference between modern education and classical education is a focus on the maxim: “Know Yourself.” Classical education is about bringing our preconceptions of reality, our idea of what is reasonable, and our will into alignment with the way things actually happen. The aim is to make us more effective—better able to study, better able to apply what we learn, and to become stronger professionals.
Knowing yourself is essential to all of this. We see the world partly the way we are and partly the way the world is. In order to see the world as it is, we need to adjust for how we are. Our ego is the filter through which we see the world; without allowing for this filter, we get a distorted view of reality, making us less effective with less capacity to look after our best interests.
However, this perspective can be met with skepticism or cynicism. We are often inundated with advice and see more than enough “self-help” articles on social media and elsewhere. Many of these can be dubious, overly simplistic or even dangerously unhinged. Modern popular psychology is full of contradictions. There are books on the power of positive thinking, but also on the power of negative thinking! Other books advocate confidence on the same shelf as others advocating the opposite. Most of us consider it the best path to cautiously and prudently stick to our tried and tested approaches rather than to throw caution to the wind and try something new.
Nevertheless, one perspective has stood the test of time: the classical perspective of “knowing yourself” in the context of the human condition. This perspective has universal reach and is the touchstone that many of history’s greatest writers considered when portraying what it means to be human.
Classically, our psyches are divided among our heads, our hearts and our guts, rather than being simply in our heads. Classically, we are encouraged to be positive and confident in our hearts but also ego-critical and pessimistic in our heads, balancing out both with a healthy humility—one not based on bemeaning ourselves, but one based on being open. Being open means seeing beyond and questioning the narrative within which we operate.
An actuary was once portrayed in a Batman comic.1 He worked for the Penguin, did his calculations, but then got scapegoated and went to jail. Had he known himself, he would not have let himself get into that situation, or he would have been better able to handle the predicament. Unknown to most of us, courses in moral philosophy used to be compulsory for actuaries in prestigious universities. Perhaps it is time we brought back a direct cultivation of a moral framework in the Actuarial Profession to further strengthen its ethical and professional standards.
1 “Darkest Day” Detective Comics Vol.1 #684
If you would like to “know yourself” better, you might like to try The Know Yourself Test. The questions in the test, among other topics, will be discussed on my next ACTEX webinar on Ethical Leadership for Professionals on March 27 from 12:00 – 2:00 ET. This webinar can be used to satisfy your professional requirements for two hours of professionalism skills CPD.
Colm Fitzgerald, BAFS, MA, FSAI, FIA
Colm is the Director of the Actuarial & Financial Studies program in University College Dublin (UCD). Before academia he had a successful career in financial markets, where he was Head of Quantitative Trading in Bank of Ireland Global Markets. He is an active volunteer in the actuarial profession. He is a member of Education Board and the Board of Examiners in the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries amongst other roles. In UCD, he teaches classical ethics, workplace skills, actuarial risk management, investment psychology and trading, economics and finance.