A little more than three years ago, I set out on a journey to scientifically examine—and better understand—what it really takes to see ourselves more clearly and as a result, live a happier, more successful life.
Yet self-awareness is a science and an art—and so often, when studying a topic like this, it can be especially instructive to examine people who lack it. So, in that spirit, here is my take on seven of the least self-aware characters in classic literature.
Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
At one point or another, almost all the characters in Jane Austen’s masterpiece demonstrate at least some self-delusion. But while Elizabeth eventually starts to see herself more clearly and gets a happy ending, her comically delusional cousin Mr. Collins isn’t quite as lucky. Time and again, his aspiration to marry is thwarted by his endless humble-bragging and obsequious blathering. Flash forward a century—most people still know a “Mr. Collins.”
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Emma Bovary from Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Emma Bovary is the original desperate housewife—and an unaware one at that. In her frantic attempts to make her life something other than what it is, we see her posing and posturing in a constant state of self-delusion and she’s unable to accept herself—and the people around her—for what they really are.
Sherlock Holmes from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
To say that Sherlock Holmes is not self-aware is like saying that Kim Kardashian feels pretty good about herself—it’s a gross understatement. The protagonist of Doyle’s novels is brutish, rude, and arrogant. And because he can’t understand the way his self-aggrandizement comes off to the people around him, he is virtually alone in the world (with the exception, of course, of his faithful Watson).
Humbert Humbert from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert is so well-versed in the art of self-delusion that he even manages to get his readers caught up in his lies. Not only is he unable to acknowledge his despicable crimes, he convinces himself that he’s committed them in the name of love!
Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Though one could never fault Mr. Gatsby for a lack of commitment to the goals of wealth, social status and the affection of Daisy Buchanan, these very aspirations represent the “colossal vitality of his illusion.” Not only does he lie to others, he constantly lies to himself about his true values, actions, and vulnerabilities.
Jean-Baptiste from The Fall by Albert Camus
Whether he’s conveniently forgetting certain actions, detachedly laughing at the absurdity of his circumstances, or lying to a stranger in a bar, one of Jean-Baptiste’s greatest motivations is to avoid judgment, not just from others, but even more importantly, himself.
Emma Woodhouse from Emma by Jane Austen
Before beginning the novel, Jane Austen set out to create a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Yet, though Emma starts out as one of Austen’s most self-absorbed protagonists, her journey ends with a hard-fought insight—that her choices ruined her future with Mr. Knightley. In the end, not only does Emma get the guy, she becomes much more aware of who she is and what really matters to her in life.
These characters definitely could have benefitted from reading my new book Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. In it, I offer secrets, techniques and strategies to help readers make dramatic gains in self-awareness, thereby improving their work performance, career satisfaction, leadership potential and relationships with others.
Research shows that self-awareness is one of the most important skills of the 21st century—it’s the foundation for smart choices, high performance and lasting relationships. Unfortunately, we are remarkably poor judges of ourselves and how we come across. Apart from the chapters in my book, I’ve also developed a quiz so you can see if you are as self-aware as you think (or hope) you are? Click here to take The Insight Quiz to find out.
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