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!