Jul 15, 2008

The Meaning of Life

The search for meaning is a constant theme in our lives and we try to find it in many different ways. I believe that meaning can be found in the way we add to the world. Let me explain.

Step One: Take control

Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of the holocaust Victor Frankl tells us in Man’s Search for Meaning that between stimulus and response there is a gap, and in that gap lies the whole of our experience. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, we are free to choose our responses to the things that come our way. Many – perhaps most – people go through life on autopilot, reacting in the same habituated ways they have learned over the course of their life, often rehearsing the scripts they developed as children.

In adult life, many of these scripts are maladaptive and only serve to impoverish our experience and damage us and those we love. When we react defensively to a criticism, when we start to get angry because we are stuck in a traffic jam, when we keep on smoking despite knowing how bad it is, we are ignoring the gap and abdicating our freedom.

But the truth is that we are free – we are not robots, we are not like dogs salivating when a bell rings. We are pulling our own strings and when the stimulus comes we can take control, change our response and hence change our life.

Of course, the power of our habits is strong and keeps pulling us back, but the gap is always there, even after a long lifetime of unconscious behavior, and over time we can expand the gap and become more free. In The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey calls this being proactive, the first step towards a life of meaning. In truth, we have always been in control, but we need to realize this before can move on.

Step Two: Adding Value

Once we have seen that we can change our own life and construct our own experience, we are able to orchestrate things so that we experience greater meaning.

But what gives meaning to our lives? Is it money, property, a successful career, a big car, an attractive spouse or partner? I’m sure most people would agree that these things in themselves do not add lasting and profound meaning to us.

Albert Einstein said that ‘only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,’ and I believe that a life of service to others is what truly brings meaning. I prefer to use the term adding value, since this describes what I mean more accurately.

The term ‘service’ suggests that we have to give up our jobs and money to go help the poor and destitute. I know several people who have done just this, and they have certainly found happiness and peace in their choice of lifestyle. But a life of adding value does not mean abandoning your own needs and desires. It is not the same as sacrifice. Far from it – when we truly add value to the lives of others, we cannot help but receive value ourselves.

Examples of this kind of synergy abound in nature. For example, tree roots are often surrounded by fungal growths that take nutrients from the trees. Having no chloroplasts of their own, the fungi cannot synthesize the precursors of respiration, and so they piggyback on the trees’ ability to do this. In return, the tree gets to use the fungi’s vast subterranean network, extending its own reach and sucking in more nutrients from the soil. The soil, of course, gets this all back – and more – when the tree dies.

Our own body is, perhaps, the ultimate example of synergy in nature, all organs and system working together to create a wonderful entity where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Adding value is the only real way to live a meaningful life. Victor Frankl said that we must detect the meaning in our own lives, and I think what he meant by this was that we need to figure out the best way of adding value.

Step Three: Do What You Love

So the question remains, how can we add value? I believe the answer to this is surprisingly simple.

To quote Steve Jobs in a speech he gave in 2005, ‘Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.’

Through Apple, Steve Jobs has undoubtedly added immense value to the world. He did it by following his heart and has been richly rewarded for it. The same can be said for many famous, successful and wealthy people.

The formula is simple. Find what you love. Do it. Add value. Be a success. Perhaps the first step is the hardest. Do you know what you love? There is little more important in life than finding out.

Finally, some food for thought. In Making a Life, Making a Living, Mark Albion cites a study carried out by Srully Blotnick. The careers of 1,500 business school graduates were tracked from 1969 to 1980 and were split into two groups: group A said they wanted to make money first so they could do what they really wanted later, and group B said they would follow their interests first, regardless of financial considerations. At the end of the study, there were 101 millionaires. All but one came from group B.


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