There is a well-known set of 36 questions that helps two strangers get to know each other, and potentially fall in love. These questions, popularized in the NY Times article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love,” were created by my Ph.D. advisor, Arthur Aron. The questions’ goal was to fast-track friendship, build closeness, and perhaps spark romantic interest. (You can read the original research article here; it includes all 36 closeness-building questions at the end.)
My colleague Brent Mattingly and I both specialize in studying the self-concept (particularly in the context of relationships), and we wanted to develop a similar set of questions to facilitate self-discovery and enhance self-knowledge. The question was, could we help individuals enhance their self-knowledge and self-understanding through guided reflection? To create the questions, we consulted published theories, research, and established psychological measures.
There are 6 parts, each with 6 questions for you to complete on your own. You’ll want to think deeply about each question, and write down your answers so you can look back on them. To do this well, each section should take around 15-20 minutes.
Not up to writing it out? That’s OK; just pondering these questions will encourage you to think about them throughout your day. In any case, I’d suggest doing one section a day to give yourself more time to reflect. (If you’re short on time, you could focus only on the starred items.)
Part 1. Your Essentials: Who Are You Today?
This is a chance to get reacquainted with the real you. It’s a reality check to remind you who you are at your core. Answering them should be breeze, but note any areas that give you pause.
1. List 5 adjectives or traits that describe you.*
2. List 5 roles that you fulfill.
3. List 5 of your skills and abilities.
4. List 5 of your possessions that provide insight into who you are as a person.
5. List 5 life experiences that have helped define who you are.*
6. List 5 attributes that your closest friends and family would say describe you.
Part 2. Your Authenticity: What Do You Know About Yourself For Sure?
It’s one thing to know some facts about yourself, it’s another to feel confident and certain about those characteristics. Let’s look at how predictable and stable your sense of self is.
7. When you think about who you are, what aspects of your personality are most clear to you?*
8. In what ways does the “you” that you present to the world match who you really are?*
9. Think of three examples of when you stayed true to yourself despite societal or peer pressure. How can you continue to do this?
10. What are three of your most important personal values, and how can standing by these beliefs benefit you in the future?
11. What aspects of your personality stay the same regardless of the situation?
12. Look at the “your essentials” lists that you’ve created for questions 1 to 6 in Part I. Do any of these traits conflict with who you think you are? If they do, how can you be more consistent?
Part 3. Your Self-Esteem: How Well Do You Know What You Stand For?
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s easy to focus on what’s wrong and forget everything that’s right.
13. What are your three best qualities?
14. If you compare yourself to others you know, what are you especially good at?
15. In what ways is your life better than the lives of other people you know?*
16. List three things about yourself that make you proud.*
17. Describe three of your greatest accomplishments in life. What’s your next big goal?
18. What things do you struggle with? Do you know anyone else who shares these struggles?
Part 4. Remembering the Way You Were
Time to get reacquainted with yourself and remember who you used to be before life got in the way. There’s a lot of good that you may have left behind.
19. List three things you enjoy but don’t get much opportunity to do. What steps can you take to do these things more often?*
20. What parts of who you are as a person have fallen by the wayside? What can you do to help bring them back?*
21. In what ways have you put others’ needs ahead of your own? How can you restore the balance and start focusing on your own needs more?
22. How can you make time in your schedule this weekend for at least one hobby you haven’t had time for recently?
23. Think back to the type of person you wanted to be when you graduated from high school. What positive attributes did you have that you don’t think you have now? How can you rediscover these today?
24. Spend an afternoon looking through photo albums and reading old journals. In what ways could you benefit from becoming reacquainted with the person you were in the past?
Part 5. Your Work Life: How Can You Get the Most Out of Your Job?
We spend a lot of our waking adult life at work. Like it or not, that can shape who we are. But we don’t have to accept that passively. Instead, we can take control by seeing work as an opportunity to improve ourself.
25. In what ways does your job help you improve as a person? How can you ensure that this will continue in the future?*
26. What types of new and interesting things do you learn at your job? How have these experiences benefited you?*
27. What new responsibilities that you’ve taken on at work do you enjoy? In what ways have these made you more effective at your job?
28. How could you make the mundane and boring part of your work more interesting and fun?
29. In the past five years, what new skills have you acquired at work? How have these been beneficial?
30. Looking ahead at the next five years, what additional areas of expertise can you develop?
Part 6. Your Future: How Can You Become an Improved Version of You
Time to step out of your comfort zone. Push yourself. Try new things, and discover new faces of who you are. Who do you want to become?
31. What are three new and interesting activities you could try? Which of them could you start next week?
32. What are three topics you would like to learn about? Create an action plan for deepening your understanding of at least one.
33. Challenge yourself to improve in three ways this month. What steps can you take toward accomplishing each?
34. Which three places would you like to visit in the future? What could you learn from visiting each place?
35. In what ways have you improved as a person over the past five years? How has this helped shape who you are today?*
36. Think about ways in which you could grow as a person over the next five years. How will this help you reach your full potential?*
Working through these questions will provide you with the opportunity to gain greater insights into yourself and enhance your self-knowledge. That’s important because being more clear about the self is linked to greater life satisfaction, happiness, better mood, and lower stress. As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”