The Examined Life: 7 Questions

Now may be a good time to step back and take stock of your life.

Posted Jun 10, 2018

Socrates is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. While most of us no longer have the time to sit around the city square thinking big philosophical thoughts, the notion is a valid one. But what does it mean today to examine your life?

It’s about reflection, taking 10, 20 steps back from your life to see where you’ve been, and taking that knowledge to look forward: The Big Picture. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you begin your own examination: 

1. How is my life going?

Let’s start with the broad-brush stroke. To borrow from Nietzsche, on an average day, is it good enough that you want to live it over? If you had to pick one emotion to describe your overall state of mind, your everyday mood, what would it be?

2. When I look over the past six months, year, what have I learned from my mistakes?

Successfully running your life is a process of elimination where mistakes are opportunities to learn a lesson so you don’t make the same mistakes again. What have you learned? (If the answer is, "What mistakes?" there may be bigger issues to consider.)

3. What is my one conflict?

In a 1921 letter to Countess M., Rilke wrote, “Everyone, in the last analysis, experiences only one conflict in life which only disguises itself differently all the time…”

The concept here is that everyone is essentially grabbling with one core issue that your life is trying to resolve, one problem that your life is circling around. When you look back over the past 5, 10, 20 years, and the problems you've faced, is there something that links them all together? What can’t you do? What is your emotional Achilles Heel? If you were to see your past played out as a movie, what would the title of that movie be?

4. Does my life reflect my values?

The obvious question before this one is, "What are my values?" Most of us have them, though they may not be unclearly thought out and sometimes shift. If that is the case, take some time to consider and write down what your values may be — defining what is important in life and what it means to you to be a good human being. The next part is evaluating whether there is a gap between your values and the way they are reflected in your everyday life.  

5. Do I have integrity?

Integrity comes from the Latin, integritas, meaning unified, whole. This is taking the question of values a step further, or deeper, and whether your inner and outer selves are the same: How you think about yourself and what you believe, represented by the outer you that you present to others. Are they the same? Is there a gap between them? What do you need to do bring them back in line?

6. Has my vision of the future changed?

This question can obviously mean whether you are, say, more or less optimistic, pessimistic about your future, likely reflecting your current emotional state of affairs. But the other view is a software update: Have your current priorities and goals changed since the last time you checked in? Time to upgrade who you are and what you want?

7. What do you need to change in the next six months, next year, to make your life better, be who you want to be, have the future you envision?

If yes, begin to think in terms of concrete behavioral change — bad habits you want to give up, new ones to develop, parts of your personality that have been pushed to the sideline of your life that you want to reclaim or expand. The fact that you're thinking about it would make Socrates proud. It's time to come up with a plan to begin this process.

If you’re ready to be your own Socrates, sit down, mull, and write down what emerges. It helps to do this when you are not rushed: Try to do it one sitting so once you get into the zone you benefit from the cumulative effect. 

See what you discover. See what your life is trying to tell you.