Robert Greene

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. 

Top 4 Books for Better Mental Models

In a world of specialization, mental models are the most powerful argument for adopting a multidisciplinary approach. The concept behind mental models is that broad exposure to a range of subjects enables you to leverage the most useful knowledge from each and make better decisions.

When you position yourself at the intersection of multiple disciplines, you develop the ability to connect seemingly unrelated dots in a way that the vast majority are otherwise incapable of discovering. It’s here where true creativity and the most innovative solutions are found.

Charlie Munger coined the term “latticework” of mental models–which is exactly what you’re aiming for. The models you pick up should be intertwined with one another, as well as with your personal and vicarious experience. The more connections, the faster you’ll be able to navigate the latticework of your mind, and the stronger your cognitive ability.

You can begin building better models by going straight to the source. If you read and study those who have demonstrated mastery over their specific fields–regardless of industry–you can improve your decision-making ability considerably.

Over the past year, I’ve read (and reread) over 70 books in search for the best systems. These have served as the foundation for improving my own mental models. I’ve distilled what I’ve found to be the most important methods and strategies down to just four books. Each documents real models from some of the most intelligent, imaginative minds in history.

While these are in no way comprehensive, it is my hope is that they will provide a useful starting place to build your own latticework.

1) Mastery — by Robert Greene

You would be hard-pressed to find a more profound, relevant book, no matter your position in life. If I had to recommend a single book of Greene’s to get you started, this would be it. He begins by defining mastery as the sensation we experience when we feel that we have a greater command of reality, other people, and ourselves. The book offers a deep dive into every element of mastery–including insight for those just starting out and searching for their life’s task. True to form, Greene also provides detailed accounts and models from some of the greatest masters in history–Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Paul Graham, and dozens more.

“The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise. Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents–will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction?”
— Robert Greene

2) Tools of Titans — by Tim Ferriss

A collection of interviews with hundreds of the most talented entrepreneurs and thought leaders consolidated into their most useful sound bites. It follows the same format as his popular podcast. Ferriss lays the framework for building better, more productive mental models. Rather than suggesting a checklist of X-Y-Z required to set yourself apart, he emphasizes strategies and tactics which can be applied more broadly. A few of my favorite sections feature Naval Ravikant (entrepreneur/investor), Josh Waitzkin (chess prodigy), and Alain de Botton (philosopher). There are sure to be a handful of ideas that will resonate with you and help improve your own mental models. It’s a book I revisit with regularity–especially when I’m in need of a new perspective.

Most people think they can wait around for the big moments to turn it on. But if you don’t cultivate ‘turning it on’ as a way of life in the little moments–and there are hundreds of times more little moments than big–then there’s no chance in the big moments.
— Josh Waitzkin

3) Antifragile — by Nassim Taleb

Taleb introduces his concept of antifragility, which explains that certain things–including us–benefit from a degree of randomness, chaos, and disorder. While comfort, convenience, and predictability, breed the opposite–fragility. He presents this as part of what he calls ‘the central triad’ which ranges from fragile to robust to antifragile–the key to personal growth. As he explains antifragility, he discusses the value systems that hold us prisoner, ancestral vs. modern life, and Seneca’s version of Stoicism. It’s a dense read, but worth it for a glimpse into the originality of Taleb’s models.

With randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.
— Nassim Taleb

4) The Daily Stoic — by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

I’ve found Stoicism to be the most effective philosophy for modern life. If you’re unfamiliar with Stoicism, you’re probably operating under the misconception that it’s synonymous with a lack of emotion. In actuality, it’s a school of philosophy focused on cultivating an unwavering sense of focus, appreciation, and rationality. The Daily Stoic is a great introduction to some of the most memorable Stoic philosophers and their models for living a better life, including Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and Marcus Aurelius. The book offers daily wisdom–366 short sections–focused on the most important Stoic themes. This is not a philosophy textbook filled with abstract concepts. It’s an accessible overview of Stoicism and its emphasis on the art of living.

Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.
— Marcus Aurelius