"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
The Short Version:
The journey before the journey (or, Why I care about the meaning of life)
My mother tells a story of me as a baby. I had toys with big, blunt interlocking parts, and I spent hours guiding colored beads along red metal wires and pushing rectangular blocks through rectangular holes. My mother laid out these toys in a large circle on the soft rug in the living room. I’d sit in my diaper beside one toy and then the next, moving around the circle, methodically completing each little puzzle over and over.
A few years later I developed a knack for building forts with couch cushions, pillows and blankets. I fantasized that my cramped fort would house me for decades, even the rest of my life, and so I equipped each fort with the necessities. At that time “the necessities” were books and a complex society of stuffed animals for company and amusement. My animals would fight, form friendships and romances, and resolve their differences. I also reserved different spaces for specific purposes: a library, a dining room, a sleeping area. Each distinct space brought me a distinct joy, especially the total relaxation of the sleeping area and the intense creative inspiration from the library. Each area had an atmosphere to match its purpose.
A part of my fort fantasies are alive today. At random times I wonder, What would happen if I were trapped here forever? How would I divide up and dedicate this space? Perhaps the doors to this restaurant, or this commuter train, will permanently seal us off from the world and force the people here to band together and create a tiny, functioning society. How would we organize ourselves? How would we find meaning? Happiness?
Each time I daydream this, I never think the doors will seal and chaos will reign. I never predict despair. For one, because just like in my fort-building days, I never really consider food and resource scarcity. I prefer to dwell on the great potential of my new society.
Perhaps if I’d read Lord of the Flies, or lived under a cult of personality or a totalitarian regime, I’d be less optimistic. If I’d grown up thinking most things were out of my control, I’d be less optimistic. Instead I take it for granted that humans always feel the need to organize ourselves, and the violence and destruction of history is nothing compared to the civilizations we’ve built. As humans, it’s our birthright to find order where chaos might otherwise reign. Right or wrong, we’re dreamers of systems and suckers for a plan, and perhaps my childhood is a small part of this heritage.
Nearly all my memories of childhood play involve two stages: first, decide on the rules (the purpose of the toy, how to win the game, or the laws of imaginary societies aboard pirate ship swing sets), then put them into practice. Like a child who demands “Why?” of everything, I never let go of the idea that things either had a meaning and purpose … or you assigned it.
My parents encouraged this in open-minded conversations about nearly all subjects. When a more informed opinion about something was available, we’d consult a three-volume dictionary or an edition of Encyclopedia Britannica on the shelf in the living room. If a matter of wisdom came up, it was anyone’s guess.
My parents gave me their earnest sympathy and unqualified support even as they avoided giving me any clear answers. For instance, I remember wondering if I’d ever have a best friend. I didn’t understand why my brother wasn’t nicer to me. Then I wanted my first boyfriend to never leave me. Later I wanted to know what I should do with my life, anyway. For these types of issues there was no iron-clad authority in sight – no clear parental advice, no spiritual rulebook and no judge on high. At best there were more or less reasonable thoughts to dwell on, and more or less effective actions to take. “Make it a game,” my mother advised me in many a grueling scenario, and I’d grit my teeth and wonder how to win.
And so I learned to live with ambiguity and with uncertainty about the deepest questions of existence. There really was no alternative. This is probably why, as a freshman in college, I fell madly in love with philosophy.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, fewer and fewer people believed that God and organized religion determined morality and the best ideas about how to live. In Europe, the venal hypocrisy of the Catholic Church helped to launch the Protestant movement. More and more sects appeared and claimed an exclusive access to Divine Truth, and the very concept of universal truth took a beating. Some protestants believed that only a predetermined Chosen People were destined to go to Heaven. Others thought only good works or unwavering faith earned you eternal rewards. With more and more people looking directly to scripture and reason for a personal interpretation of God’s will, the door eventually opened to a new brand of philosopher: the existentialist. Some of these iconoclast thinkers even suggested Godless answers to the deepest questions, particularly:
How should I live my life?
The Meaningfulness Project tips its hat to those “postmodern” existentialists who believed there was no one true path toward the good life. Instead we must all walk our distinct paths through a wilderness of doubt, conflict, temptation … and possibly profound enjoyment and satisfaction. My goal here is to explore what it could mean for me to live a meaningful life through reading, experience and written reflection – a kind of curriculum for personal enlightenment. In the spirit of existentialists like Friedrich Nietzsche, the project aims to harness not only reason and thought (the Mind), but also emotions, feelings and intuition (the Body).
In plenty of Western philosophy, great thinkers pitted the Mind against the Body. Even today the Mind can be overly praised for its ability to reason, while the body is derided for faulty senses, physical imperfections and unsettling emotions. Nietzsche was among the first philosophers of his time to question the values of the Enlightenment and state that the body, too, has important knowledge for us. In short, my hope is to assign a purpose and meaning to life that resonates with my whole being.
It should go without saying that my conclusions will not be yours. What makes me ecstatically happy might not even register with you. At the age when I was a pirate on a swing set, you may have been collecting feathers in the woods, or perhaps running a lemonade stand, or you may have been at church. We are each a separate universe of genetics, memory and preference, and I think this matters. Where wisdom and meaning is concerned, individuality matters. You matter.
The Meaningfulness Project also involves pseudo-experimentation. This is another aspect of honoring the marriage of Mind and Body, because we cannot just sit in a soft chair and think and feel our way to a conviction about living meaningfully. We must act.
My curriculum of experiments involves carefully observing my life before, during and after a precise change to my thoughts or behavior. The changes are really just new habits, and the best way to ingrain a new habit is to practice a sequence of cue, habit, reward. A cue might be a certain time of day, a feeling like hunger, or anything you want to trigger your new habit. Your reward may be allowing yourself a moment to feel pride in your accomplishment, or it might be something tangible like a piece of dark chocolate. Researchers aren’t in perfect agreement about how long it takes to adopt a new habit. I’ve decided to test each one for a month before deciding whether to make the change permanent.
Now that we understand how a curriculum about living a meaningful life involves reasoning and feelings (reading and experience/thoughts and behavior/Mind and Body) and experimentation, this begs the question:
How does the Meaningfulness Project define a meaningful life?
At the center of our discussion about meaning must be a discussion about values. Values help you determine what’s bad or good, wrong or right. They aren’t exactly the same as morality, though, since acting out of step with our values is not necessarily an immoral act. For instance, if I value honesty and transparency in my relationship, but I don’t tell my partner that his breath stinks, do I really deserve a visit from the Morality Police? No, thank you. Likewise, it may be wrong for a health-conscious person to smoke a cigarette alone in the woods, but it’s difficult to argue this as a moral issue.
Different values trigger different thoughts and actions, and generally speaking it feels better when our life is in line with our values. The Meaningfulness Project revolves around an (arguable) assumption: A meaningful life comes from long-term dedication to a chosen set of values.
I plan to investigate a variety of values that govern many people’s lives: compassion, wellness, environmentalism, political engagement and more. Strong values encourage lifestyle changes that may bring about a day-to-day existence well outside the norm. Perhaps that’s why most people honor their values in moderation: The committed vegetarian happily goes to work at a steak house most evenings (that’s me).
I’m not interested in shaming myself (or anyone else) for hypocrisy, though. Everyone is guilty of accidental or thoughtless hypocrisy from time to time. Rather, I want to put forward the radical hypothesis that values held in moderation bring about a life that’s meaningful – also in moderation. It’s true, in some cases to live in line with your values it may be necessary to break free from the crowd, to sacrifice convenience, to force your comfort zone wide open and alienate people around you … and paradoxically this brings the greatest freedom, the fullest enjoyment and the most satisfying relationships out there. The Meaningfulness Project explores how this is possible.
So far we’ve given a nod to habit forming and lifestyle changes, but a meaningful life demands more. Your values organize everything in your experience – from the minutia of daily rituals to the gaping mystery of your life’s calling.
Vocation and the Meaningfulness Project
The word “vocation” comes from the same root word as “vocal,” and many people still feel they were beckoned to a particular line of work by the voice of God. Spiritual conviction or no, a vocation is a means to provide for your material needs while aligning your work and your values and fully expressing your talents. In an ideal world, your vocation would be identical to your job or career; it’s an elixir for your body and mind.
I know I’m not alone in my struggle to discover (or create) a vocation. Most people struggle with competing obligations of work, self-care and family; it can take a lot of time, patience, ingenuity and determination to tame your commitments, stretch your limitations, and figure out why you’re alive. The work of the Meaningfulness Project is to think through these struggles and encourage more focus and clarity (work-life integration rather than work-life balance) – all based on coherent values.
Being thoughtful is particularly necessary when your life’s passion isn’t obvious. For people like me, “finding” your vocation is more like making a decision: You choose the path, it doesn’t choose you. After you choose, you must commit to the decision, then you watch as it saves your life. Committing to a vocation requires risk and sacrifice. Your options are no longer limitless. You might forego a lot to do the work that’s calling you. And what’s more, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever achieve success and recognition. Although we can never be certain of the outcome, we keep working anyway. You know you’ve reached your peak when the sheer enjoyment of your life and work lays waste to your desire for approval.
I struggle to choose a vocation because I’m reluctant to master a single line of work. I’ve always been a jack of all trades (master of none), and so I’ve flirted with different lines of work but generally kept my options open. As a result, I feel like I’m floundering in a sea of possibility. Each year I fail to commit to something feels like yet another year of unnecessary preparation; I’m preparing to make a decision that will give my life meaning and purpose.
Vocation is communication
Whatever you ultimately decide for your vocation, it is how you communicate with the world. Whether you’re writing books, making businesses or inventing technologies, you are communicating something to the world. The Meaningfulness Project takes the position that communication can be more or less effective, and ineffective communication can blunt the genius of our contribution. Indeed, all “misunderstood geniuses” are either eventually understood or they’re completely forgotten.
Although this consideration seems to contradict the idea that a vocation transcends the desire for approval, it doesn’t have to. While we aim to harness our individuality for our work, we’re not forsaking the culture and society where we came from. We’re harnessing that, too, and to do that well is to communicate effectively with the world.
The Meaningfulness Project also strives to explore the principles behind effective communication. I see these as design principles – they optimize the content, the look and the feel of a project whether it’s a book, a gadget or a song. Keep in mind, good design principles still leave room for a multitude of personal expression. The huge diversity of cultural artifacts shows as much. Good design just helps make your work more relevant to other people.
Rest assured that within the boundaries of effective communication and good design, we can still test the limits of our society and move beyond them. We can look to the heroic figures of history (paradigm shifters like Charles Darwin, Picasso, Confucius) for insight on how this is possible, or we can simply take up our own work with a nod to our intended audience and a belly full of fire.
Steve Jobs once gave a commencement speech at Stanford university in which he said the only way our lives makes sense is in retrospect. Pursue all your interests as you develop a vocation. Later on, you will “connect the dots” and they will create a truly original contribution to society. I hope the Meaningfulness Project will help me connect the dots from the little girl making forts in the living room to the committed professional in one seamless trajectory. Furthermore, I want to live my values to their logical extremes. I want to move beyond the easy hypocrisy of a life that really values convenience more than anything else. The path to meaningfulness is not convenient. Nothing valuable is easy.
The road ahead is difficult, but it’s worth every effort.
*All images in this story are under a Creative Commons license.