What’s the meaning of life?
It took me decades to realize I was asking the wrong question. There is no one answer that applies to everyone. Rather, we create meaning through our beliefs, thoughts, and actions.
Now, I ask a better question:
How do I create meaning and purpose in my life?
From listening to other people’s experiences and undertaking lots of personal trial and error, I’ve learned to create significance in my own life by pursuing the following actions:
- Contribute value
- Take responsibility
- Acquire knowledge
- Make good decisions
- Help people
Identify your talents and interests and then apply effort and self-discipline to build competence in those areas so you can to contribute value to society. We’re not born equal. Everyone has different natural talents. These include creativity, cognitive abilities or aptitudes in music, art, or sports. We feel good when we contribute to something bigger than ourselves.
Find meaning by voluntarily shouldering as much responsibility as you can manage. This is not intuitive. Our culture tells us to seek pleasure, accumulate material wealth, and shed responsibility to live “the good life.” In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl provides three paths to a meaningful life. Dr. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, professor of neurology and psychiatry, and founder of Logotherapy, a type of psychotherapy based on the premise that an individual’s primary motivational force is to find meaning in life. Notice how taking responsibility underlies each of his recommendations.
Dr. Frankl says a meaningful life can be found on these three paths:
- Through meaningful work;
- Through nurturing and caring for another person (e.g., raising children); and
- Through overcoming adversity and suffering.
Learning starts with curiosity. We learn best when we are interested and want to learn. Be curious, expose yourself to new ideas, listen more, speak less, and engage with people who have different viewpoints. However, the desire to learn is not enough. Knowledge is not acquired simply by memorizing information.
We need to build a learning system that will help us avoid blind spots, overcome bias, test and analyze new information, and embrace diverse viewpoints. Design your learning system around the following elements.
- Learn mental models. The models in our head shape our experience of the world. You want a toolbox of multiple models across disciplines (e.g., physics, chemistry, mathematics, psychology). Unfortunately, most high schools and universities don’t teach the multidisciplinary mental models needed to solve problems and make decisions effectively. I highly recommend the book Super Thinking to upgrade your brain by incorporating the most important mental models. The website Farnam Street also provides an excellent overview of the most beneficial 109 mental models to help make better decisions.
- Expose yourself to new information and diverse viewpoints. Read nonfiction and science-fiction books, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, watch educational videos, and attend lectures. You can find a list of my favorite podcasts and books I recommend at the end of this essay.
- Write about what you are learning. Writing is thinking, and the act of writing will help you synthesize your ideas and integrate your knowledge. Capturing your insights and lessons learned will also help organize and catalogue your knowledge.
- Apply new knowledge to solve a problem. Working on a problem helps you integrate knowledge at a much deeper level than memorizing a solution.
- Learn by teaching. Teaching other people forces you to internalize learning at a deeper level. Gaps in your understanding will appear instantly when you try to explain and teach someone else. Teaching forces you to break down concepts into easily digestible parts.
Make good decisions.
Your decisions shape who you are and the reality you live in. Decisions you make about school, career, health, and relationships have massive impact on your individual well-being and success. Your decisions also impact the value you contribute to the world. Your ability to make good decisions depends on the quality of your thinking. The quality of your thinking depends on the quality of the models in your head. A model is an idea that helps you better understand the reality of the world around you. We all have models in our head based on our genetics, experiences, and backgrounds, and we need multiple models to make good decisions because one mental model is not sufficient.
Share your talents to benefit others. Helping other people provides us with a sense of purpose. However, in order to truly help others, we need to provide value. Therefore, we first need to build competence. You can find many opportunities to share your talents, including through your work or relationships or by raising children or volunteering.
Ask yourself the right questions. Asking the wrong question can lead you down the wrong path. Contribute value by cultivating competency in the areas of your talents and interests. Find meaning by shouldering as much responsibility as you can manage while pursuing activities that allow you to use your talents and skills. Acquire knowledge by building a learning system. Make good decisions to improve your well-being, success, and the value you contribute. Find purpose by sharing your talent and helping people.