Know Thyself: A Poet’s Advice

Tam remembers the evening clearly. It was one of those late summer evenings in New England, where the sun is still out. The day was warm, but the evening chill foreshadows the autumn season coming around the corner. As she walked along the brick-paved sidewalk, with freshly-painted colonial houses with shutters and an umbrella of elm trees on each side, she heard a voice, “Hey, Tam.”

She turned around and saw her date for the night—now partner—riding on his city bike with a book in the front basket. It was a gift, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, with a handwritten note inside: “For Tamara, There’s no better Virgil for a Voyage of the Heart.” He told her the poet reminded him of her because of her intensity, which she wasn’t sure was a good sign. The First Elegy begins with: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”

That being said, they were headed to a cemetery on their second date, and she had a ouija board in her bag—so maybe she had just shown her cards. But ever since then, Tam’s been enamored with the words of the late poet, and as a remote work advocate with a strong imagination, has connected the dots to work.

In the early 20th century, a young man and the famous Austrian poet and novelist exchanged a series of letters, which culminated into a timeless classic: Letter to a Young Poet. The correspondence started with a request: the young man wanted feedback on his poetry. Rilke declined, and instead, encouraged the young man to be patient and curious. The answers will appear one day—through lived experience.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

This type of advice takes time; no wonder the letters between poets spanned six years. That being said, we believe that you need to know yourself in order to design a remote work life that optimizes for all those strengths, grips and quirks that make you, you. All of the personas you have been in the past—whether that be the “type A” student or the novelty seeking wanderluster (and yes, both of those can be true!)—contribute to who you are in the present.

It can be useful to have a third object—whether it’s a poem, a story, an image, or a metaphor—to reflect on deeper questions. It’s often through indirection, not confrontation, that one’s inner truths come to light. As Parker Palmer, a teacher and Quaker, once wrote: “Mediated by a third thing, truth can emerge from, and return to, our awareness at whatever pace and depth we are able to handle.”

We thought the Tarot’s Major Arcana—twenty-two cards that represent the stages of life and generally follows Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s way”—is a fun third object for this exercise. We’re not going to ask you to pull calls to predict your future, but remember who you are dealing with. After all, we started this blog post with Tam’s trip to the graveyard with a ouija board in hand.

We’ve pulled five cards that we believe to be representative of critical points on a remote worker's journey. Take a moment to look at the card and description, and then reflect on the associated questions. If you occasionally lean on the woo-woo or spiritual side and have Tarot cards laying around, feel free to pull more if so inclined!

The Fool

The fool represents fresh starts and new beginnings.

  • What did you want to be when you grew up?

  • How did you feel at the start of your career?

  • What excited you about your career journey?


The Hermit

The Hermit represents a teacher or a healer who we can learn from.

  • Who has been a mentor to you?

  • What is an important lesson that you’ve learned recently?


The Justice

The Justice represents justice, fairness and truth.

  • When was a time that you felt treated unfairly? What did you learn from that experience?

  • How would you describe your values in three words?

  • How do these values show up for you at work? How do they align with your company's values?


The Tower

The Tower represents sudden endings and unforeseen changes.

  • What has been a major U-turn in your life?

  • What happened as a result of that U-turn?


The Sun

The Sun represents renewed optimism and energy for the future.

  • What are your hopes at work? Outside of work?

  • What helps you feel refreshed?

Did you learn anything surprising about yourself? What are ways that you can navigate your work week better with this self-knowledge?