#2: 📝 What I Learned From Writing my Autobiography
A reflection on the challenges and lessons of Self-Authoring
Welcome to the second edition of the Samadhi City - a series of articles to help you cultivate a sense of inner stillness amidst the chaos of everyday life. Check out this post to learn more about its goals and what you can expect for the coming weeks.
💬 If there is something you’d like to learn or share about mindfulness, you can get in touch with me here and on Twitter.
At 24, I wrote an autobiography. One that wasn’t meant for anybody else’s eyes but my own. At the time, I felt like the world was racing forward and leaving me in the dust. My peers were thriving in jobs they loved, and the people I used to climb monkey bars were posting pictures with their kids at the playground. Meanwhile, I was trudging through life on a treadmill instead of any real path. Moving, but not headed anywhere. So, this autobiography wasn’t some vanity act to recount a fully-lived life, but rather a Hail Mary effort to get out of the rut I had found myself in during the winter of 2018.
I found out about the Self-Authoring Suite in the middle of a Joe Rogan binge one night. He was interviewing Dr. Jordan Peterson, who mentioned a guided writing program he had created to help individuals understand themselves and set actionable goals that took their strengths and flaws into account. The course of action was clear, and I had full control of how far I wanted to take it. My interest was piqued.
The game plan was to create a snapshot of my current Faults and Virtues. Identify them. Understand how they have helped or hurt me. And think about how I can address (Faults) or capitalize (Virtues) on them moving forward. This stage is called Present Authoring.
Next, I was to split my life history into seven “Epochs” - time periods that could group significant life events - and write about each experience to explore the impact that they had on my life. This is the autobiographical Past Authoring.
Lastly, I was to think about my ideal future and come up with general goals for the social, professional, health, and familial aspects of my life and then devise a plan to go about achieving them. This last stage is Future Authoring.
I tackled the program in this order because Present Authoring would allow me to pinpoint the personality traits that I could then attempt to unpack with Past Authoring. Equipped with this knowledge about myself, I could plan for the Future in a more informed manner.
And so, I went to the checkout page and paid $23.90 to have some facetime with my own demons. The entire program took me about 4 weeks of brutally honest introspection and I left it with a 100+ page account and analysis of my life. Each stage came with its own challenges and lessons. This is how it went.
PRESENT AUTHORING - The Operating Table
I dove into Present Authoring and felt like I was performing surgery on myself. I took out each aspect of my personality and laid them bare on a cold operating table under a light that unforgivably shone on every strength and flaw. The prompt provided a list of traits and asked me to select the ones that most accurately described me. The traits were categorized in 5 different dimensions according to the Big 5 Personality Framework:
Emotional Stability/Low Stress Tolerance
Each personality dimension came with its own list of Faults and Virtues I had to select from. On the list of Faults were things like:
Can bottle up my feelings until I become resentful (Agreeable/Assertive)
Don’t appear to learn as well from my mistakes as others do (Emotional Stability/Low Stress Tolerance)
Pursue too many activities at the same time (Openness/Traditionalism)
On the list of Virtues were things like:
Have a lot of insight into myself and others (Openness/Traditionalism)
Have seen my tendency for hard work pay off (Conscientiousness/Carelessness)
Talk to a lot of different people at social occasions (Extraversion/Introversion)
After selecting from the provided lists, I ranked the Faults and Virtues by which ones I wanted most to hone in on. Unlike the personality tests I had taken up to that point, I had to reflect on specific incidents where a given trait meaningfully impacted a situation. So if I had selected the statement that said I was resourceful, I was to reflect on how my resourcefulness opened doors to new opportunities in the past. If I believed I tended to bottle up my feelings, I had to write about the consequences of that.
Present Authoring made me realize that I had just as big a role to play in the things that happened in my life as the external circumstances. In the past, whenever things went wrong my first instincts had been to exclusively look to the outside world for something to blame, neglecting the role that my biases and ego played.
The biggest lesson here was that we tend to overestimate the control we have over others’ behavior and underestimate the control we have over our own. I recognized how my tendency to bottle things up to the point where I became resentful can hurt a situation as much as the other person’s obliviousness to the issue. I could have saved myself months of silent frustration by just telling the other person how I was feeling.
So often, we impose our own expectations onto others and get disappointed or angry when people don’t behave according to those expectations. As I was writing, I realized that I would have had a more peaceful time dealing with a situation if I had recalibrated my internal world before enforcing how I think the external world ought to work onto others.
Then came the hard part.
PAST AUTHORING - The Museum
The crux of Past Authoring was to split my life into different Epochs and write about the significant experiences that defined each of them. At 24, my Epochs were no longer than a few years. They were: childhood in my home country, the first few years in a new country and culture, my pre-teens, moving to a new country as a teenager, high school years, college years, first job until the present day. This stage was like a venture into a dark, abandoned museum whose dusty exhibits displayed the artifacts from each phase in my life. I was brought to confront everything from repressed memories to cherished moments, turning points, moving days, to first hellos, and last goodbyes.
At the beginning of this exercise, the prompt suggested that I enter a state of “reverie”:
A reverie is a state of contemplation, like a daydream. Normal focused goal-oriented thought tends to be narrow, precise and expressed in words. Image-laden thought - the movie that runs in your head - is more dream- or story-like. To complete this exercise properly, you have to daydream about the past and let thoughts and images come to you, instead of controlling them. This can be frightening if you start to remember unpleasant events from the past.
In a reverie.. parts of your mind that haven't been able to speak because of your focused concentration or moral opinions have a chance to let themselves be known. These are parts of you that need a voice. If you take your time, then you can make contact with parts of yourself that have been shut away. You will need the abilities and energies that are contained within these shut-away parts to deal with the challenges of the present and the future.
They weren’t exaggerating. The prompts were simple enough, but each additional word I wrote brought out some detail that had lingered in my subconscious and invited me to explore further. The text box was relentlessly tugging at every last worm in the can. It wasn’t all bad. I had a good time reminiscing about football matches and camping trips and sleepovers. The process even urged me to reach out and catch up with people I hadn’t spoken to in years. Past Authoring took me over 2 weeks of difficult writing.
For each experience, I had to write about what happened and the impact it had on my life. The site didn’t let me advance until I had filled the page with a certain amount of text, recounting one significant life event after another. Although the minimum requirement was only a few hundred words, I could only make it through writing about a few life events per day because my brain couldn’t handle the emotional shifts required to replay each memory.
I could be walking on air writing about the day we got a dog. How sunny it was. Bickering about what to name him. The neighbors who came over to play with him. I would read over my work, smile and click “Next”, and be prompted to write about the day my grandpa passed away. This was repeated for 4-6 defining moments per Epoch. In total, my mind had to do 38 pendulum swings between the best and worst moments of my life.
I began to see where and when the seeds of my insecurities were planted. I saw the power of words and how something that a girl said to me in middle school had a ripple effect on how I made decisions and interacted with people to this day. I saw how crucial my role models were in determining the traits I tried so hard to emulate or avoid. The influence they had on my blueprint of the world. What I chose to study in college. What I considered to be a “worthwhile” career. What I considered to be right or wrong. And what made life worth living.
The friends I made during my formative years played a huge role in how I expressed myself, or how I chose not to express myself. How hyper-agreeableness and tendency to “play it safe” drove me out of touch with my own intuition and suppressed me from authentically expressing myself for many years. I had blindly allowed the need to fit in to take precedence over just being myself.
One reason it took so long to complete this portion was that I wasn’t used to letting myself be vulnerable. I had to fight against my own guards. It was only after I accepted myself - in my entirety - that I was able to turn this vulnerability into a source of strength. In revisiting these seeds as an adult, I identified the beliefs and ideals that no longer served me and start to move on from them.
FUTURE AUTHORING - The War Room
Thanks to the previous two sections, the walls were now lined with blueprints of my strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, fears, obsessions, tendencies, and insecurities. Future Authoring put me in a war-room mentality. I had done the hard work of recon and information gathering. Now I could use them to devise strategies to build toward my ideal future.
I’ve had a mixed experience with goal setting over the years. It had been ineffective due to a variety of reasons. From the goals not being actionable enough, or being too lofty and generalized, to me not taking the time to unpack why I wanted the things I thought I wanted. Future Authoring serves to answer these questions:
Who do you want to be?
What do you want to do?
Where do you want to end up?
Why do you want these things?
How do you plan to achieve your goals?
When will you put your plans into action?
The screen prompted me to reenter the reverie and daydream about the future. I did a free-flow brain dump of what I saw in this reverie. I didn’t care about spelling or grammar or sentence structure. Just closed my eyes and wrote what I saw in my head. This laid the foundation on which I could lay out more concrete goals.
Unlike previous goal-setting attempts, I knew more about myself at this point than ever before in my life. Past Authoring helped me identify the ideals that no longer served me, outdated values that had been planted in my head by other people. Present Authoring shed light on my weaknesses that could bring me down and the strengths that could lift me back up.
An important step in Future Authoring was to evaluate the motives behind my goals. This is tightly coupled with my values and the kind of impact I wanted to have on the world. In the past, I had mistaken the means to achieve what truly mattered to me to be the desired end state in itself. This time, I used the 5-whys method and repeatedly asked why I wanted something when I thought I had formulated a goal. This helped me identify the essence of what it is that I really wanted. It looks something like this:
I want to make a lot of money. Why?
Because I want to travel the world. Why?
Because I want to see things I’ve never seen before. Why?
Because I want to develop broader perspectives. Why?
Because I want to be able to connect and have richer conversations with people. Why?
So the goal here is to develop deeper connections with others rather than just being rich. Money is important to the extent that it provides the optionality to get what I truly want. If I made money the goal without examining my motives further, I might just optimize for that and neglect opportunities to connect with others along the way, and end up feeling unfulfilled. Unpacking my motives helped me keep an eye on the bigger picture.
Another important realization was that money is not the only thing that gave me optionality in life. If I neglected my health, social and intellectual curiosity, there’s a chance I might not get to exercise my options regardless of money anyway. Future Authoring helped me view my goals through these alternate lenses.
I’m a fan of what Robin Hanson calls “viewquakes”, or insights which dramatically change your world view. I get my fair share of viewquakes from reading and learning from smarter people. But after going through the process of writing about my life - in all its good and bad and everything in between - there were plenty of viewquakes to be found in reflecting on my own experiences and how the seeds of my personality manifest themselves in my present-day decisions. It changed how I saw the world, and how I saw myself.
It’s been exactly two years since I completed the program so I felt that now was a fitting time to share about my journey and reflect on the impact it had on my life. Most people never write an autobiography, let alone as a self-help exercise in their mid-20s. This year has been challenging for all of us. But for myself personally, 2018 (the year I completed the self-authoring exercise) was a harder time in my life. This program gave me a refreshing sense of clarity on the past and something to hold onto for the future. It’s something I would recommend to anybody who is feeling like they are lost or in a rut. It’s a deeply personal and challenging exercise so it’s important that you take your time. A few hundred words of writing about one life event can invoke hours of introspection. Sit in it. Sleep on it. Accept it. And write it down.
I did Future Authoring with the recommended 3-5 year timeframe in mind, so it’s still a work in progress but after reading what I had written 2 years ago I can report this: the little details may be off, but I’m definitely moving in the right direction, and with momentum. I think that’s the best I could ever hope for. Some things turned out even better than I had written it.
I believe what did it for me is the fact that writing forced me to turn some elusive thing in my head to something concrete I can hold in my hands and examine. This set up my mind to say “yes” to the opportunities that could help me towards my ideal future, and “no” to things that distract me from it. Introspection through writing is how you can begin to see and evaluate yourself as a system. What is going well and how could it be better? What are its constraints? How can you remove them?
In the next article, I will explore how we can look at ourselves as a system and draw on the principles from systems theory and apply them to personal growth. In the meantime, if this article was interesting to you or if you have any questions about my experience please don’t hesitate to reach out.
You can find me at nichanank.com and on Twitter 👋🏼
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The Self-Authoring Suite: https://selfauthoring.com/
*NOTE: Although the program allows you to fill in your writing for each prompt on the website directly, I would recommend that you keep your writing in a separate document for data privacy reasons. You can do this as you’re going through, or migrate your writing off the site afterwards. The site gives you an option to delete all of your data at anytime. Migrating all your writing to one document also makes it easier to read through, organize, and make edits however you’d like.
Jordan Peterson on the Joe Rogan Experience talking about the program:
Big thanks to Akash Kumar, Anand Mariappan, Bea Trinidad, Bonnie Kavoussi, Lyle McKeany, Meeta Sharma, Nivi Jayasekar, and Salman Ansari for reading drafts of this and giving invaluable feedback.