Meaning

Forget Your Purpose, Start with Meaning

The stories we hear of the successful often make it seem like they were destined for greatness. They identified their purpose from an early age and forged ahead, cutting down distractions in their path. But if you peel back the facade, few encountered sudden revelations. Purpose is hard won.

Child prodigies like Mozart or Tiger Woods are the exception. Robert Greene, best-selling author, worked dozens of jobs as a construction worker, hotel receptionist, translator, and screenwriter, before pitching his first book, The 48 Laws of Power, at age 36. But each step gave him a greater sense of meaning and direction on his way towards writing full time.

It’s human nature to crave a sense of direction. And direction comes from purpose, identity, and authenticity, each of which are intertwined. But they’re not the same thing. If you want to make progress, you have to be able to separate these and lower the stakes. 

Meaning is what purpose is made of

The trouble with taking on purpose from day one is that it appears insurmountable. When you break it down into its individual components, it’s easier to pursue. Purpose is the series of pieces you find meaning in. 

Your life doesn’t need a single purpose out of the gate. Just as it doesn’t need a single meaning. Meaning is an ebb and flow that tracks the motion of your life. If you follow this, it leads towards things you are uniquely suited to bring to life. 

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) discovered botany only after dropping out of medical school. And he wouldn’t publish his theory of evolution until twenty-four years after his visit to the Galapagos Islands. During that time, he speculated on diversity in the natural world through experimentation and careful observation–breeding pigeons, studying barnacles, and soaking seeds in salt water to see how long they survived. What tied together these seemingly unrelated experiments–where he found meaning–was working to understand the nature of life.

Purpose becomes attainable once you stop obsessing over it and turn your attention to the little things you find meaning in on a daily basis. Meaning is within reach.

What’s meaningful to you?

As you seek meaning in your day to day, there are different strategies worth considering. Robert Greene suggests a three-part approach in his book, The Laws of Human Nature.

  1. Consider inclinations in your earliest years – moments when you were unusually fascinated by certain subjects, objects, or activities. 

  2. Reflect on moments when certain tasks or activities felt natural to you.

  3. Determine what particular form of intelligence your brain is wired for (mathematics, logic, physical activity, words, images, music).

Do more of these things. The key is determining what’s meaningful to you and not absorbing what’s important to someone else as your own. Otherwise, you’ll miss the mark. If Darwin listened to his father and remained in medical school, he wouldn’t have joined the crew of the HMS Beagle or discovered the theory of evolution.

And this is perhaps the most difficult skill of all–sorting through the noise and determining what’s your own. It requires years of exploration, introspection, and reflection to determine for yourself. But this exercise gives you a solid start. 

The long game and force multipliers

When you focus on meaning first, you create a system that favors an action-oriented approach. You shift your mental framework from external to internal–what’s within your realm of control. And this is the mindset you need to play the long game. 

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.
— James Clear

The promise of recognition or reward can carry you for days, maybe months. But not years. Only meaning provides that. Robert Greene’s latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, was the culmination of his life’s work and took six years from start to finish. You can’t fake 72 months of sustained effort without turning things back to what’s within your control and finding a stronger sense of meaning in your daily work. 

Aspiring to win a Royal Medal or become a bestseller can still be productive, if held in perspective. But if that perspective is lost and your self-worth becomes dependent on external validation, you’ll likely give up at the first sign of criticism or apathy–and there will be plenty. 

I find meaning in reading, writing, articulating complex problems, leveraging technology to simplify (rather than overcomplicate), and using storytelling to reveal something to people about their own lives. I can sustain each of these indefinitely because they’re meaningful to me and how I make sense of the world. If recognition comes along the way, I’ll welcome it (always keep the upside). But I also won’t stake my existence on it. 

The catch is that few reach achievement without first pursuing meaning. You can get lucky and reach the top once, but to sustain at that level, like Darwin or Greene, requires something more. Meaning is a force multiplier. The stronger the connection to your work, the more force you’ll be able to exert. 

It’s almost impossible to beat someone who’s engaged, finds meaning in their work, and is committed to the long game. 

You still have to determine what you want out of life, make sacrifices, and focus on a few important things. But it’s not worth agonizing over the search for a single purpose from day one. 

Instead, look for the pieces you find meaning in. Trust yourself. Discover ways to blend your unique abilities, interests, and experiences. With dedication and reflection, you’ll discover a sense of purpose that ties it together along the way. 

How the Stoics Mastered the Art of Influence

Desire for influence is human nature. Many people allow this to dictate the course of their lives, often unaware. But the Stoic philosophers developed a deeper sense of awareness and took the opposite approach.

Influence wasn’t their end goal. They approached it with indifference and chalked it up to fortune–nice to have but nonessential. Instead, they offered a more effective strategy–seek meaning over influence.

If you focus on work that matters to you and discover significance in yourself, you put yourself in a position to build something that strikes a deeper chord with others.

Find significance within yourself. Within your own sphere of power–that is where you have the greatest consequence.
— Epictetus

But if influence acts as your guiding principle, you dull your sense of authenticity and depth. You might get lucky and hit the target a few times. But you’ll always be guessing. And it’s difficult to sustain when you’re creating from outside of yourself and dependent on things beyond your control.

It’s a dangerous game to tie your sense of meaning and self-worth to external conditions. You introduce dependencies that can drop you into a state of anxiety, envy or despair, without warning.

Sooner or later your voice begins to waiver. By allowing influence to dictate your decisions, you compromise the quality of your work and your character. And how much good can you do if you sacrifice your integrity and a sense of meaning in your work along the way?

What you’re building must first resonate with you before you can expect it to resonate with anyone else.

But if you lose your honor in striving for greater (perceived) significance, you become useless.
— Epictetus

People gravitate towards those who have discovered a deeper sense of meaning in their work. That’s why the Stoics remain relevant to this day. They created from a place of meaning and valued their internal compass over recognition.

When you seek meaning over influence, you add an unusual depth to your voice that draws people in.

Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca knew this well. They channeled their own sense of authenticity into their work and they way they lived their lives.

As their influence grew, they leveraged it to contribute something worthwhile. But they weren’t dependent on it. Despite the obstacles faced and privileges afforded, they remained focused on what was within their realm of control–living a meaningful life to the best of their ability.

Meaning starts with something that’s all your own. By prioritizing meaning over influence, you build the courage to speak from a place that resonates with you.

You would be foolish to ignore your audience entirely. But that’s a secondary consideration because there’s no guarantee. You’re the one who has to live with the work you put out into the world and the way you live your life.

Influence is far more likely to follow if you build something you believe in.

Keep your principles in order. When influence tilts your way, you’ll be prepared to lead with a steady hand like a Stoic. You’ll position yourself as the antithesis of the paranoid, corrupt leaders scattered throughout history.

But if you fail to assign things their proper value, you’ll risk losing yourself to an obsession with influence and power.

Focus instead on the things that are your own and create from there. There’s more fulfillment in this work and it often leads to better outcomes.

When you focus on your own authenticity, there’s a far greater chance it will resonate and make a measurable difference in someone else’s life. And even if it doesn’t, it remains valuable because it meant something to you. There’s a fundamental beauty in that.

Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous...Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt?
— Marcus Aurelius

It’s a rare thing in this world to first seek significance in yourself and build the courage to create something that resonates with you. Trust yourself. The world is drawn to authenticity.

When you value meaning over influence you’ll achieve a state of relaxed concentration to do the work that matters. The work you find meaning in. And it’s through this work that you build character and a sense of authenticity.

Seek meaning first, authenticity and influence will follow.
Seek influence first and you’ll risk losing yourself along the way.

*My original post appeared on Daily Stoic – a great resource for all things Stoicism. Check out their daily email for thought-provoking morning meditations.

The Philosophy of Remarkable Minds

Each of us has the capacity to face difficult work. In many ways, this defines life. The struggle to create something of our own is where we find meaning.

Our modern era of comfort and convenience can be a double-edged sword. It’s allowed us to eliminate the daily struggle for survival and afforded us the privilege of having this discussion. But when taken to an extreme, it leads to a deep anxiety and restlessness. Emptiness can be a fiercer foe than hardship.

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.
— Sebastian Junger

It’s easy to sit by as a passive consumer and allow someone else to assume the risk. On a surface level, it might even appear that you’re reaping all the benefits. But if you fail to establish a creative outlet where you can build something of your own, you sacrifice your primary source of meaning along with it.

It’s through the work you put out into the world and the way you live that you instill your life with a sense of meaning. By creating more and consuming less you claim a larger part of yourself.

Those who have lived remarkable lives hold this philosophy in constant focus.

Into the Venezuelan Jungle

When Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769 to a family of wealthy Prussian aristocrats, by all standards of the day, he had it made. His father was an army officer and advisor to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, and his mother was the daughter of a rich manufacturer. If he wanted a comfortable existence, all he had to do was sit back and stay the course.

But despite these advantages, he was anxious and unhappy for most of his early years. His adventurous spirit was never satisfied by the confines of a classroom or the promise of a lucrative career as a civil servant. His dream was to explore the natural world.

As a child, Humboldt was fascinated with the journals of Captain James Cook and his accounts of distant countries and cultures. Humboldt wandered the Berlin countryside to recreate adventures of his own, stuffing his pockets full of plants, rocks, and insects, earning the nickname ‘the little apothecary.’

But after his father died at the age of nine, his financial dependence on his emotionally distant mother allowed her to dictate much of the early, unfulfilling course of his life. Despite his objections, she demanded that he work his way up the ranks of the Prussian administration.

Humboldt found creative ways to channel his deep interest in science, geology, and languages at different universities and academies along the way. He poured over the work of various artists, botanists, explorers, and thinkers. And while each provided inspiration, it was not enough to fill the void he faced for the first twenty-seven years of his life.

Humboldt was torn between the expectations of his family and his insatiable desire to set sail, experience the world firsthand, and contribute something of his own to the scientific community. He lacked an outlet to discover and create in a way that resonated with him. Without this, an emptiness continued to build.

It was only after his mother’s death in 1796 that he felt in control of his own destiny. Longing to escape his tiny corner of the world, he began planning a voyage to South America.

At age thirty, Humboldt set off on the expedition which altered the course of his life. He would explore treacherous landscapes that no scientist had set foot in before. The driving force was his desire to piecing together a more cohesive understanding of the natural world. Most scientists of his day were focused on isolated disciplines. Humboldt was interested in bridging the divide and the interconnected whole.

After arriving in Venezuela, Humboldt trekked for two months across the tropical grasslands of Los Llanos, facing temperatures near 120 degrees Fahrenheit. He followed this with seventy-five days of grueling river travel down the Orinoco, covering 1400 miles to reach the Casiquiare canal–a natural tributary between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Along the way, he faced torrential rains, incessant mosquitos, the occasional jaguar, and bouts with fevers and dysentery.

This would seem disheartening to most, but Humboldt came alive with boundless energy and enthusiasm during these explorations. No matter the conditions, he insisted on measuring the height of mountains, determining longitude and latitude, taking temperatures of the air and water, making astronomical observations, collecting new species of plants, and documenting it all with detailed notes. Each new environment brought him closer to understanding how the natural world fit together.

The pinnacle of his experience in South America came during a 2,500-mile journey from Cartagena to Lima to explore the Andean Mountains. During this trip, he attempted to summit Chimborazo, an inactive volcano standing at 21,000 feet.

At 15,600 feet, the porters refused to go on. But Humboldt continued his ascent, fighting through freezing conditions, deep fields of snow, and altitude sickness. Without fail, every few hundred feet he stopped and fumbled with freezing hands to set up his instruments to measure temperature, humidity, altitude, and boiling points. He reached 19,286 feet–a world record at the time–before he was forced to turn around due to impassable conditions.

This experience inspired Humboldt to sketch ‘Naturgemälde,’ a depiction of Chimborazo’s cross sections with the distribution of vegetation, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure according to altitude. Humboldt showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents. And he presented it in an unprecedented infographic style, allowing those without a scientific background to understand the concept.

Naturgemälde – Alexander von Humboldt’s first depiction of nature as an interconnected whole

Naturgemälde – Alexander von Humboldt’s first depiction of nature as an interconnected whole

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt’s exploration of South America inspired him to write thousands of letters, essays, publications, and lectures. By making connections and framing nature as a unified whole, his work revolutionized the way we view the natural world. As an interesting aside, he was also the first to observe and describe human-induced climate change.

Humboldt inspired generations of scientists and writers including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. But his greatest contribution was making science more accessible and exciting to a broader audience.

In Berlin, his series of free lectures packed music and university halls with royal family, students, servants, women, and children. He took his audience on a journey that ignited their imagination–combining exact observation with painterly descriptions. He brought distant landscapes to life through poetry, geology, and astronomy, bridging the divide between art and science.

Humboldt continued exploration into his sixties with a 10,000 mile, six-month journey through Russia. He was invigorated by each expedition, showing the same youthful energy and endurance that he had thirty years earlier. He shared his learnings in publications and letters up until his final moments when he died in 1859 at the age of eighty-nine.

The Struggle to Create

Humboldt could have settled into his early existence, lived a comfortable life, and allowed others to assume the risk in their own research and exploration. But this shallow life wasn’t enough for him. Instead, he set out with an insatiable curiosity to better understand the natural world and contribute what he learned along the way.

His adventures were his outlet for creativity, discovery, and meaning. There’s nothing easy about a 2,500-mile trek through the Andes. But the struggle to study and create something that resonated with him at a deeper level brought him to life. Without this, he would have never found his own sense of authenticity and fulfillment.

Creativity is about finding something worth struggling for.

We live in a unique time. Most of us, like Humboldt, could coast through life without facing any significant hardship if we so chose. That’s a wonderful thing. But it collapses into its opposite when we allow our entire lives to be dictated by comfort and immediate gratification. We must not forget the importance of meaning, which is found through the struggle to create something of our own.

Spending the evening watching four episodes of your favorite show on Netflix or scrolling through Instagram might be the path of least resistance, but it’s mostly empty. There’s little opportunity to create meaning of your own. More often than not it’s a distraction that pulls you away from the things that actually matter.

Your unique identifiers are the work you put out into the world and the way you live your life. These are what add depth to your voice. Not the things you consume–fashion, film, food, music, research, sports, technology.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t appreciate other people’s original work. But you should use it as inspiration. It should serve as a catalyst for you to create more and find alignment in your own sense of authenticity. It’s the height of selfishness to expect other people to create meaningful work for your personal benefit without contributing anything of your own.

Creating begins with making yourself an essential part of the process. Not standing by as a passive consumer and allowing someone else to take the risk.

But don’t let anyone fool you, creating is challenging, uncomfortable, and a slow grind. There’s no way around it. That’s why most people fail to sustain the habit. You have to trust your capacity to suffer. But it’s where all the upside is found.

Endurance, Imagination, and Depth

When you prioritize creating something of your own, you give yourself more opportunities for peak experiences and claim a larger part of yourself–just as Humboldt did at the age of twenty-seven when he shifted the course of his life. This is infinitely more satisfying than the temporary highs of a consumer.

By creating more and consuming less, you add an unusual depth to your voice that draws people in. Your creative outlet is where you are able to channel the questions and struggles you’ve faced into something that offers profound insight. And that’s what life is all about.

Whether you forgo a life of privilege to trek through the Venezuelan jungle or you set aside Instagram so you can focus on your art, science, startup, or relationship with the person right in front of you, what matters is that you provide yourself an opportunity to create.

Those who make a measurable difference in the world are inspired to contribute something of their own. Instead of taking the easy route–opting for comfort and immediate gratification–they push themselves further into the unknown.

Human nature has given us remarkable endurance to face difficult work and the imagination to build something from nothing. It’s through this struggle to create that we instill our lives with a sense of meaning.

To find your sense of authenticity and fulfillment, you must fight to create more.

 

*If you want to learn more about Alexander von Humboldt, check out The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. It’s a tremendous read and the source of many details in this article.

Struggling to Find Direction in Life? Try This

Few things cause more angst in your 20s than struggling to come to terms with what you want out of life. But the best insight often reveals itself the moment you accept that you cannot be anything you want. In a world that loves empty sentiments and the delusional advice that you will be great at whatever you set your mind to, it’s an empowering realization.

I recently received a LinkedIn request from someone fresh out of college whose headline read: “Experienced Project Manager, Thoughtful Leader, Aspiring Musician and World Traveler.” My immediate impulse was to send out the word that, at long last, we’ve found the next Leonardo da Vinci. But empathy set in soon after, as I realized I was this exact person for most of the past decade.

When you trick yourself into believing you can be anything it often leads to paralysis. You become unwilling to make a single move out of fear of closing the door on a potentially rewarding alternative. But the reality is that many directions in life are mutually exclusive. Only once you check your inflated sense of self, are you free to focus on a single direction and begin creating momentum.

Picking a lane isn’t limiting. It’s the first act of empowerment.
— Ryan Holiday

To say I struggled to determine what to dedicate my time to during most of my 20s would be an understatement. It wasn’t that I had a shortage of interests, but the opposite–I felt like I had far too many. I wanted to be everything and as a result ended up unable to commit to anything. I convinced myself that I could balance dozens of unrelated goals. But meaningful progress proved impossible because I was unwilling to prioritize.

As I came to this realization, I discovered a thought exercise from Warren Buffett which he refers to as his “not to do” list. Rather than approaching my lack of direction and focus in the same way that I had for years, Buffett uses inversion to reframe the problem. And for me, this made a world of difference. It was only after I used this model that I was able to refocus and commit to the right things.

Here’s how to do it:

1) Write down your top 25 aspirations

List out 25 things that you want out of your life. 25 is general rule of thumb, go crazy. No matter how ridiculous you think they might be, get them on the page. My original list was all over the place and included things like publish a book, become a travel photographer, join/start a forward-thinking technology company, study Stoicism, and live near the mountains. Side note: There were far more ridiculous goals, but I’ve omitted those to avoid public humiliation.

2) Circle your top five

Ask yourself, which five aspirations are essential to having a good life. Which can you not live without? Which leverage your natural talents and allow you pursue more of what you enjoy? Remember, most of these are aspirations and goals for a reason. You’ll have to put in years of dedication and hard work to achieve them. Figure out which include a process you’re able to immerse yourself in and sustain for indefinite periods of time, because that’s what it takes.

There are certain goals that you should be able to cross off with relative ease, while others might require additional soul searching. “Become a travel photographer” was an easy one for me. That’s a dismal idea for someone who is average at photography and has no natural curiosity to further my skills in this area. All it took was a simple reminder to look beyond the romanticized end result and consider the process involved.

3) Avoid the other 20 at all costs

Once you’ve narrowed it down to your top five, bury the other 20. Buffett refers to these as goals to ‘avoid at all costs.’ They’re particularly dangerous because as long as you allow them to, they’ll linger in the back of your mind, distracting you from making progress where it matters. This can be difficult to come to terms with, but it’s essential if you want to contribute your best work to the world. You only have a small window of opportunity. Your focus must be dialed in to your top five if you have any hopes of accomplishing them.

This exercise demands a deep level of honesty and introspection, but can be done in a single afternoon if you’re dialed in. Don’t get too caught up in the specifics, you can adapt it however you see fit. But no matter how you approach the exercise, it proves to be one of the most valuable frameworks to help you negotiate your priorities and reflect on life’s more difficult decision.

My personal approach is to use the top five for larger aspirations which encompass dozens of smaller goals. One example that made my final list is publishing a book. I’ve broken this down further into its individual components, which I view as necessary to the success of the greater objective. These include growing my newsletter to 10,000 subscribers, writing shorter articles that cover a range of subjects to see which gain the most traction, and partnering with online publications that match my style to generate additional exposure.

There’s great value in using your 20s to try as many new things as possible and allowing your work to teach you as you go. In this trial by fire, you often learn as much about what’s worth sticking out by discovering what you don’t enjoy and what you’re not good at.

But you have to be realistic. The earlier you cross the irrelevant off your list, the faster you’ll be able to make meaningful progress and give your complete attention to the things you can’t live without.

Remind yourself that you don’t have to be everything. There will be things you suck at, and that’s okay. The only true responsibility you have in this life is to give something back to the world based on what resonates with you as an individual.