A couple of days ago I stepped into the elevator at my apartment building, and held the door open for a couple of other people to get on.
Two other people walked in.
The first was a middle-aged salaryman, dressed in a business suit and returning from work with a briefcase in one hand and takeout in another.
The second was a young woman, casually wearing a white t-shirt and shorts, busily swiping her phone.
As I usually do, I politely asked what floors they were going to and pressed the elevator buttons and up we went.
The elevator stopped at level 6, and the salaryman got off.
My floor was next, so I patiently waited for the slowish elevator to continue.
When we arrived at my floor, the young woman was still busy swiping her phone and promptly walked out to the door much to my surprise.
I briefly said “I think you have the wrong floor” at which point she stopped, turned around, looked a little embarrassed, and hurried back into the elevator as I stepped off.
Now I’m sure this has happened to all of us at some point. We’re so engrossed in swiping through eyebrow styles on Instagram that we have no idea what’s going on around us or where we really are.
But why does it happen?
It’s almost as-if as the years have passed by and technology has progressed, we’ve lost our in-built sense of awareness.
But I believe there’s more to it than just that.
Not only have we started to become less aware of the world around us, but many of us have also become unaware of ourselves and what we truly want for our own lives. Our sense of self has been lost and replaced by the contents of our phones instead.
Defining Awareness and Self-Awareness
Awareness and self-awareness are two related yet also separate concepts. Let’s look at both.
Awareness is knowledge combined with perception of a situation.
It can also be thought of as a state of being conscious or cognisant of events or things.
When we consider “awareness” in general usage, we usually refer to our surroundings and the other people around us. There is also “general awareness” of the world-at-large.
People have different degrees of awareness.
Some people are hyper-alert, and very aware of everything going on around them. Others remain blissfully unaware.
It’s worth asking what an acceptable baseline for awareness is, and the answer is usually “it depends”.
Is it necessary to be aware of the traffic laws in your country? Probably yes.
Is it necessary to be aware of what your co-worker on the other side of the office is doing right now? Probably not.
As the world has become more connected a new baseline of awareness has emerged. Everyone nowadays is expected to know what a phone is, what the Internet is, how to find things online, and how to do basic technology tasks like installing apps, checking email and messaging others.
Everyone will also have specific knowledge that contributes to their awareness. Accountants all understand books, GAAP and financial statements. Civil engineers understand shear forces, structural integrity and fluid dynamics. Online marketers understand advertising models, growth hacking and customer acquisition.
But awareness is more than just about knowing things, it is also about being able to perceive them in a useful way.
This can be thought of as the application of knowledge, or the ability to sense, know or feel out a situation and know if something is correct or not.
It’s great to have accounting knowledge… but you need to be able to apply it to real-world companies.
It’s great to have online marketing knowledge… but you need to be able to apply it to campaigns and strategy.
In the case of the young woman in the elevator, she knew how the elevator worked… she just lacked the perception in the moment to “use” it correctly.
If awareness is the knowledge and perception of the things around us, then self-perception is our knowledge and perception of ourselves.
It is being conscious about what is going on in our own minds and lives.
Having a general interest in personal development contributes to your knowledge base for self-awareness.
Applying that knowledge to assess your own situation, life and thoughts is the perception component of self-awareness.
This is being able to not only perceive the situations of others, but your own as well. For example:
- What emotions are you currently experiencing?
- Are you on-track with your goals?
- Are you living your purpose? Or have you lost your way?
- Is there any self-delusion going on?
- Are you in the right… or the wrong, and just can’t see it?
- Do you have a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses?
- Do you actually enjoy what you do?
One way to shortcut this self-assessment is to use a mental model, like Dilts’ Neurological Levels for assessing your inner game.
As you look down this model, it should be crystal clear what each component means to you — what your mission, identity, values, beliefs and behaviours are.
Being self-aware means that you know when an action violates one of your values. That you know the limits of your own capabilities. That you live with a sense of hedonism or authenticity, and act in a rational manner in line with your interests.
Not being self-aware means you are unaware of your own values and what you stand for. That you overestimate or underestimate what you are capable of. That you act irrationally, out of emotion, and sometimes against your own self-interest.
Why Awareness and Self-Awareness Are Important
Both awareness and self-awareness are important.
Awareness lets you function in the world.
The more aware you are, the better you function. This is because you have more knowledge and a better perception of events, meaning that you are more likely to take the correct actions in a given situation.
In practical terms, this translates as doing things that are in your best interests, often towards a goal or your purpose in life.
When you are not aware, you cannot take these actions except by chance or accident.
Taken to an extreme, without any awareness, it would be difficult to survive in the modern world without someone taking care of you 24/7. Imagine not being aware that a hot stove burns or that cars at a green light do not stop.
Awareness, once developed, helps you live a better life.
This is because being aware enables hedonism and flow, which means that you will have a higher quality life and simply enjoy it more.
Awareness does this by making you cognisant of a situation or problem, and then letting you apply your knowledge or experience to the problem.1Experience being knowledge accumulated through past events.
When you lack awareness in a given area it is likely that you will find that area closed off to you.
Two very obvious examples are:
- If you cannot read/speak English, 60% of the Internet is unavailable to you.2See Wikipedia. (n.d.). Languages used on the Internet. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Languages_used_on_the_Internet
- If you cannot code, whole areas of business and technical automation are unavailable to you.
But awareness is more than just knowledge. It is also perception.
Perception is important because it is our ability to feel, sense and calibrate our responses to the world around us, based on our knowledge.
People who lack the perception to read social cues have a hard time communicating with others, and find that any relationships they build quickly fall apart.
You may be thinking “Oh, but I read English, I don’t care about programming and I get along with others just fine”. Well, let’s take a more complex situation that affects us all, like diet and nutrition.
Most people lack an awareness of how diet and nutrition actually works and interacts with their body and metabolism. I have friends who endlessly debate good carbs, bad carbs, if they should eat fats, how many meals they should eat, why it’s bad to skip breakfast, why Diet Coke is evil but normal Coke is good and so on.
All these issues stem from a lack of knowledge of the basics of nutrition such as calories-in-calories-out, or how macronutrients work. This lack of knowledge is also often combined with low perception, which in this case would be determining their food’s macronutrient composition and weighing and measuring themselves on a consistent basis!3For more on diet and nutrition I highly recommend Andy Morgan’s site RippedBody.
Awareness makes us better human beings and this makes us better at everything we do.
Self-awareness on the other hand, is there to helps us develop ourselves… and to stop other people from messing with us.
When you are aware of your own identity, values and beliefs… you know when someone has crossed a boundary or done something against your interests.
Self-awareness stops others from leading you astray.
Problems from a lack of awareness and self-awareness
What happens when we lack awareness or self-awareness?
Awareness itself is pretty simple. As mentioned, it is hard to function in society without basic awareness.
Self-awareness is more complex.
A lack of self-awareness makes it difficult for people to be on their purpose, as they likely don’t know what that purpose is. This is often displayed as a lack of direction in life, or constantly asking others to provide direction for them.4Sadly, most people actually live like this.
These same people also live primarily by consumption, rather than production. This is because it is difficult to produce great work if you do not understand yourself well.
A lack of self-awareness can also lead to difficulties with productivity and flow, and with enjoying life. If you don’t know what enjoyment means to you, then it is hard to experience it.
When we put together a lack of awareness AND self-awareness… things get a little weird 🤓.
This combination is actually responsible for a large portion of the strangeness that we see in modern society.
If you’ve ever come across a conspiracy theorist, someone with irrational hyper-politicised opinions or other cases of fractal wrongness, this is the result of a lack of awareness and self-awareness.
These people believe that their opinions are true and will preach them to anyone who will listen… but are oblivious that they make zero sense to everyone else around them.
And it isn’t just the extremes — we often see people doing things that are weird, creepy and awkward because they are unaware that they are doing them.
This could be anything from raging out of control at others, being unnecessarily cruel or demeaning to others or even just exercising poor leadership and decision-making skills.
I tend to believe that these people are not intentional arseholes5OK, maybe some of them are. because most of the time it is their lack of awareness of the situation and themselves that have led them to the behaviours that we see.
Causes of poor awareness and self-awareness
Why do some people end up with poor awareness and self-awareness?
The two are related.
People who are not self-aware tend to have bad awareness. And people who have bad awareness tend to have little self-awareness.
I believe that there are three factors that play into this.
The first factor is technology.
This is best expressed as too much time looking at screens.
When we look at something on a computer or phone screen, we’re really perceiving reality on a 2D or virtual surface. At a subconscious level, we know it’s “real but not real”.
The more time we spend looking at recordings of real things on a “not real” surface, the more our brains become conditioned to see things this way.
And this carries out into the real world, where we start to see people and the physical world around us as “real but not real.”
This leads to poor awareness of the people around us, and we start to treat them the same way that we treat the people on our phone and computer screens — if we don’t like them, we think we can just “close the app” or “swipe them away”.
Social media in particular has accelerated this dehumanisation effect.
People are no longer real flesh-and-blood human beings. People have become representations that we like, love, hate and comment on.
2. Social systems and structures
The second factor comprises the social systems and structures we live in.
Every country and culture has its differences, but globalisation has made us all live under similar economic and social structures, connected by the Internet.
I regularly converse with readers everywhere from Chicago to Lagos to Tokyo and the issues around awareness and self-awareness have become less culturally specific and more global in nature.
The first part of these social systems and structures is the market economy.
If we leave ideology out of it, essentially the market forces us to view people and the world around us in terms of dollar signs.
Instead of seeing people as people, we see them as a potential dollar value and what they can do for us.
This is the same problem as seeing people on screens — we subconsciously dehumanise our fellow human beings and have a lower awareness of them.
The second part of these social systems and structures is our consumption culture.
We live in a world where you win by buying lots and lots of the coolest and most expensive stuff.
This is people defining their lives through consumption, not production.
This results in a very egotistic and status-centric view of the world, and anything else that others do is treated as a challenge to this status, which results in the poor treatment of others.
I live in Thailand at the moment and every month there is a new video of someone driving a Mercedes or BMW6Or heck, even a Honda. who road rages against someone else in traffic, demanding that the other person apologise because, “Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know how much this car costs? Don’t you know you’ll never be able to afford it?”.
This is what happens when we live in a culture defined by consumption.
The third part of these social systems and structures is division based on caste.
This could be based in religion as it has historically been in India, or it could be based on politics, socioeconomics or race as it is in most of the world now.
Whether it is the ongoing problems in the United States or elsewhere, the irrational divisions of caste have resulted in the dehumanisation of others.
The fourth part of our social systems and structures is a lack of education.
This is straightforward. If awareness is knowledge combined with perception, then a lack of education is a lack of knowledge and a lack of training in the ability to perceive things.
We can see this plainly when people don’t understand themselves or others, or where people form opinions without using critical thought.
The hard truth is that not all opinions are critically sound, even if they are loudly voiced.
The last part of our social systems and structures that creates poor awareness and poor self-awareness is our population size.
When there are more people, we see people as crowds, masses and statistics, not real people.
This unintentionally makes us dehumanise them.
In the chilling words attributed to Joseph Stalin:
If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.
3. Individual factors
The third factor that contributes to a lack of awareness or self-awareness are the individual factors unique to each person.
Environment and nurture is one part of this — how your parents, authority figures and others treated you as you were growing up.
For example, if you grew up taller or more attractive than the average person in your country, you would have lived your entire life with people giving way to you, doing things for you or kowtowing to you simply because of how you looked. This would lead to a lack of awareness of others around you because you have been conditioned to simply having things done for you.7This is how unintentional arseholes are created.
Or if you say grew up in an affluent family where everything was handed to you on a silver spoon, you would expect the world to just hand you everything as you needed it. And for the most part, the world does. But when you come across someone who won’t, it can be quite jarring for both of you.
The other part of individual factors is the degree of overload in your life.
We only have so much energy, time, attention and other resources to expend.
When we spend these resources on the wrong things, we become “overloaded” and are unable to know or perceive the things we should or have to. And this, of course, leads to poor awareness.
What We Can Do to Improve Our Awareness and Self-Awareness
It may seem like there are many problems, issues and causes for the lack of awareness and self-awareness in the world.
Trying to fix all of them would be us trying to change the fabric of modern society and everyone’s individual thoughts, which is impossible.8Not to mention that you can’t control others.
If we set that aside, the solution to all of this is surprisingly succinct:
We aim to live better lives for ourselves, and awareness and self-awareness will follow.
This solution makes us focus on ourselves, and is self-contained as it is entirely within our control.
To develop better self-awareness, we have to know who we are.
This means knowing our purpose, identity and values.
It means developing our own standards and protecting our own interests.
It means understanding our own inner game.
And it means going out and living all these things.
To handle the lack of awareness in others we encounter, we need to walk our own path, be it through a system of true independence or by living life on our own terms through authenticity and hedonism.9For more on this, see Evolution.
It also means knowing what our mission, identity, standards and values are, much like it does for self-awareness.
It means being kinder to others.10Credit: JW. Just because others are unintentional arseholes, it doesn’t mean you have to be.
It means developing the skills, knowledge and perception that help us navigate a society and world that is becoming increasingly crowded and busy. A lot of this is productive flow, but it could also be critical thinking or social skills.
What To Do Next
I hope this exploration has given you many things to think about.
The first step in handling awareness is knowing. The second step is perceiving.
And the best place to begin, is with yourself.
- Experience being knowledge accumulated through past events.
- See Wikipedia. (n.d.). Languages used on the Internet. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Languages_used_on_the_Internet
- For more on diet and nutrition I highly recommend Andy Morgan’s site RippedBody.
- Sadly, most people actually live like this.
- OK, maybe some of them are.
- Or heck, even a Honda.
- This is how unintentional arseholes are created.
- Not to mention that you can’t control others.
- For more on this, see Evolution.
- Credit: JW.
Photos by Creedi Zhong, Christophe Hautier, Ugur Akdemir, Rikki Chan, Giu Vicente, Fabiana Rizzi.