The Fallacy of Self Discovery

Metaphors give shape to mystery, and the metaphor of self-discovery has driven me to try many new things, like going to Asia to live a monastic life. However, it is this exact metaphor that has driven me around in circles – chasing an ideal that did not yet exist.

Discovery carries an implicit suggestion that, somewhere in our mind’s recesses or in data outside the mind, there is something waiting to be discovered. For a writer, the metaphor of discovery pushes forward that writing is a way to bring that something out. But recently I’ve been exposed to the idea that using this metaphor to teach the creative process bears its own limitations.

Because discovery emphasizes the rather glamorous experience of “Eureka, now I see it,” it obscures the fact that writers don’t find meanings, they make them.

A writer in the act of discovery is hard at work searching memory, forming concepts, and forging a new structure of ideas, while at the same time trying to juggle all the constraints imposed by his or her purpose, audience, and language itself. – Linda Flower and John R. Hayes

The idea of self-discovery has become such a sexy experience to be sought for that we’ve lost sight of what it means to create meaning ourselves. What do I mean by this? We aren’t born with shit, and we’re the ones responsible for creating the meaning we are searching for. Someone asked me what I discovered about myself during my stay in monasteries in Asia. Did you discover that you are more introverted than extroverted? Did you discover that you like meditation? Did you discover the meaning of life? 

I call bullshit. Your “true self” isn’t out there floating in winter wonderland waiting to be magically “discovered.” But to your last question, I did discover the meaning of life. I discovered that the very path you’re walking now will determine how you will end up in the future. You aren’t living your life to “discover” what you want to ultimately become. Every second you are alive, you are creating the tale of your life. If you’re doing X, Y, and Z everyday but expect to see something different in the mirror when you wake up, you’ll be in for a surprise. What you’ll see is what you’ll get. Whether it’s going to suck or not though is a completely different story.

Discovering your passions by trying out a bunch of random things sounds like a crapshoot to me. I strongly believe that you create your own passions. The more you commit to something, the more meaning you will create – then you will have discovered your passion. But this passion wasn’t hiding in the “deep recesses of your mind”, it had not even existed until you took the steps to create it.

The myth of discovery implies a method, and this method is based on the premise that hidden stores of insight and ready-made ideas exist, buried in the mind of the writer, waiting only to be “discovered.” Or they are to be found in books and data if only the enterprising researcher knows where to look. What does one do when a ready-made answer can’t be found in external sources? The myth says, “look to your own experience.” But what happens when a writer on this internal voyage of discovery still can’t “find” something to say because his or her “ideas” as such are not actually formed? – Linda Flower and John R. Hayes

So is there a method to self discovery?

I must disagree.

What does one do when a ready-made answer can’t be found in external sources? Well, shit. I’ve felt the exact same way when I first came to college. Nobody grew up like me, nobody thought in the same way I was thinking. How was I going to find my “why” in college? The myth says “look to your own experience.” But that felt like randomly casting a fishing hook out into the ocean, waiting for something to bite. I was frantically searching through my experiences to find an answer, when in fact the answer had never actually formed in the first place.

Growing up is strange, but don’t commit your effort searching for meaning and self-discovery. Because chances are, you’ll have to create those discoveries yourself.


 

Check out the paper: The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem

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Author: Sam Shih

Hi I'm Sam! I'm from San Francisco, California and am currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College interested in Computer Science, Philosophy, and Religion. On campus I sing in the choir, give massages to stressed students, and lift weights. You can catch me crawling the interwebs or writing about positive psychology, self improvement, and my college experience on my blog (samshih.me)

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