Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life

It's been over a week since I was last able to post, so I figured I'd better make it good this time.

I have over 60 different items saved up in my del.icio.us folder (check for the tag: yehblog) that I can talk about, but tonight I want to focus on an important topic: the meaning of life.

And yes, I'm being serious.

Like most people, I have searched for meaning throughout my life. I've studied many different philosophies and religions, without ever finding "the meaning of life."

I have two young children whom I love incredibly, but while the survival of the species may be the biological meaning of life, it's not philosophically satisfying.

Now that I'm an old man of 31, however, I think that I'm finally coming to some important realizations.

First of all, it's clear to me that the meaning of life differs for every person. So many great thinkers, far wiser than me, have disagreed on the one meaning of life; clearly there are many different meanings.

Second, to find the meaning of your life, you have to be willing to listen to your fundamental instincts, regardless of whether you like what they have to say.

It would be nice if the meaning of my life had some lofty goal, like "the greatest good for the greatest number," or "love thy neighbor," but guess what? Those particular principles don't resonate with me. They may resonate with you, in which case, they might be the meaning of your life, but they aren't the meaning of mine.

Third, if you're not sure if you've found the meaning of your life, you haven't found it. The point of something as large as "the meaning of life" is that there should be no doubt in your mind. Thus, if you haven't found what you're looking for yet, keep looking. And look in as many places as possible--because the meaning of life is so personal and individual, you may not find your meaning in the place you'd expect.

You're probably asking, so Chris, what's the meaning of your life?

Bear in mind, of course, that knowing the meaning of my life won't necessarily help you find yours. If what I write sounds dull, strange, or even insane, that just means you need to look elsewhere. (Conversely, if you find your meaning, and you tell someone else, and they look at you funny, just ignore them. There's no reason to expect that they'll share your meaning.)

There are two key insights that I've come to in the past month or so that have made a huge impact.

First, thanks to Don Yates, I read Edward Deci's "Why We Do What We Do." It is well worth reading for its many insights into self-motivation, but that's not what grabbed me.

In the book, Deci talks about a study which discovered that humans have six basic aspirations. The first three, the extrinsic aspirations, are to be rich, famous, and good-looking. (Actually, rich/powerful and famous/well-liked, but why ruin a euphonious phrase?) Sound familiar?

The second three, the intrinsic aspirations, are to have good relationships with the ones you care about, to achieve personal growth, and to feel like you contribute to your community.

Deci's work showed that people who focused on extrinsic aspirations (regardless of whether or not they achieved them) tended to display narcissism, anxiety, and depression, while the people who focused on instrinsic aspirations displayed a strong sense of well-being.

This hit me like a thunderbolt.

I'm fond of saying, "I have everything that money can't buy. Now I need is the money." What Deci's work does is prove the old saw that money can't buy happiness. Actually, the meaning is more subtle than that. Clearly, money is helpful. But believing that money can buy happiness is actually associated with anxiety and depression.

In fact, Silicon Valley as a whole is overwhelmingly focused on extrinsic aspirations. I'd often find myself sighing on weekends, as I felt the pangs of not being rich and famous (I'm pretty happy with how I look...).

After reading Deci, the sighs are gone. Once I could identify the problem with focusing on external aspirations, my desire for those things drained away.

It was a near-religious experience (and that's saying something, since I'm not religious). The closest analogy I can draw comes from C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. In "The Silver Chair," Aslan warns a child that when she leaves his country, her thoughts will lose their clarity (very much like Plato's allegory of the cave). I feel like reading Deci brought me a moment of clarity, and whenever I find myself backsliding into my old extrinsic habits, I give myself a quick refresher course by re-reading Deci's work.

Second, after 10 years, I feel like I've experienced enough in my career to realize what I want to do with my life. I know where I want to be, and how to get there, and thanks to Deci, I can go after what I want with a sense of detachment. I know that no matter what happens, I can achieve my intrinsic aspirations. And curiously enough, that detachment makes it more likely that I'll achieve my extrinsic goals, since I'm pursuing them out of innate interest, rather than as a means to a materialistic end.

I've seen this in the business ideas I've come up with; in the old days, I focused first on the market sizing and the business model. Now, I focus on creating products that will deliver value to their users, and fill in the rest from that first principle.

And with that (and the fact that Stanford's men's basketball team just finished a narrow loss to Virginia Tech), I will bid you all a good night. Good luck finding your own meaning of life!

3 comments:

Ben Casnocha said...

1. del.icio.us - glad to see you on board. Why are you tagging everything "yehblog" - are you really going to get around to blogging all those entries?

2. your post - I liked it because it "came from the heart," as cliche as that sounds, but i say that because most of your posts aren't that personal. What I find interesting is that while I haven't read the book (it's on my wishlist), Deci's points aren't all that revolutionary in and of themself. Intuitively, they make total sense, and I'm sure there are 50 other books that articulate a similar theory. So I would posit that the reason they really struck a chord with you is that YOU were ready to hear it and embrace it. Some personal development books I read don't do much for me, others do. I think the reason the ones that do, do, is because I read them at a time in my life when I really WANT to digest it and believe in it.

Overall, beautiful stuff.

Chris said...

1. Before I started using del.icio.us, my practice was to send an email to myself listing all the links I wanted to remember or blog.

I find that using del.icio.us for this purpose is a lot faster and more efficient.

But I probably won't blog all the entries, just the ones I think make the most sense.

2. Yes, a long time ago, I consciously made a decision not to post too much on personal topics. Part of it is a desire for privacy, part of it is the belief that the mundane details of my life aren't that interesting. But I made an exception this time.

The problem I have with most personal development books is that they don't have a scientific basis. They're not credible with me, because they're based solely on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. With Deci, the book both came recommended by Don, and was a serious scientific work.

But it is also true that a book can only affect you if you are in the right frame of mind to be affected.

I've been reading a lot of books about motivation and self-discipline, some because of recommendations by Don, others because they are parenting books. My mind was prepared to receive insight, and when I read Deci, the pieces suddenly fell into place.

Tyler Willis said...

Chris

Awesome post. I really liked some of the ideas put forth here. Specifically the idea that there is no one meaning that ties the world together. A poet might tell you love and its expression is the meaning, a housewife might say nurturing her children is her meaning. Not accounting for less obvious meanings. A very rich business man might find the only true meaning in his family - one of the benefits of this new information age is how much more accessable peoples personal life is... to a point.

However I take slight issue with the wording of "The Meaning of Life" Everything I've encountered in my own relativly new search suggests it really should be "The Meanings of Life." There are many worthwhile things we all do and couldn't live well without.

On the subject of having books affect you when your ready, I seem to have read books that were exactly what I needed at the time. Sometimes I sought them out (times of social disgust and Vonnegut comes to mind) but sometimes it seems like books call out to you when you are ready for them. Those tend to truly change your life. Deci seems to fit that for you, mine was reading East of Eden during my travels when I was trying to "find myself." Call it luck or fate, but what you experience in books and music will certainly affect your lifeview and your meaning. Interesting how really any part of culture that speaks to you becomes an individual experience, and hard to share with others.

On a lighter note, now that both you and Ben have given nods towards del.icio.us I feel like I pretty much have to try it.

I look forward to reading more of your stuff, and will look into Deci's book -- it sounds intriguing.