What is the meaning of life?
The deep profound question that endless amounts of people have tried to answer.
Hunter S. Thompson famously had this to say in a letter he wrote to a friend (found in the book: Letters of Note) who asked him the meaning of life:
“You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal— to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.”
I totally disagree.
See, to me, this way of thinking is a cop-out — this idea that objective truth doesn’t exist, that everything is subject to interpretation, and that humans couldn’t possibly be able to derive the true essence of meaning, or whatever.
Not only do I think we can know the meaning of life. I think it’s pretty obvious.
I’ve seen this theme ring true in my life, relationships, career, almost every facet, actually. Without this central source of meaning, life just isn’t everything it can be. When I lose sight of it, I’m misaligned.
The same goes for you. The secret to living a life of meaning has everything to do with your relationship with what you do as opposed to the contents of what you do.
Before I provide my answer, let’s get this out of the way,
After I started to achieve a bit of financial freedom, I realized the money itself provides almost no meaning. It feels good to have the money and flexibility, the but they’re only a potential pathway to the meaning of life — definitely far from a guaranteed one.
What do I mean?
Some of the most unhappy people in the world are often the ones we’d want to trade places with who have financial security:
In your mind, you lust for the opportunity to take a permanent break from the grind life and have all the toys and experiences you can imagine.
I definitely thought I’d relish the day where I had nothing to do after having conquered all my goals, but I found myself feeling no sense of appreciation for idle time. Why?
Think of the way you behave when you actually take a break from life.
You have a blast the first few days you’re on vacation but as the cliche goes you need a “vacation from your vacation,” by the end of it. Extend that out to an entire lifetime — and endless vacation. You think you want it, but you don’t.
You want to live out the meaning of life, which is…
The meaning of life is to be useful.
This is why trust fund kids are unhappy. When you have that much pleasure without earning it whatsoever, it’s too incongruent for your brain to handle. It doesn’t make sense on a deep emotional level that you should experience that much ostentatious. Retirees understand that they weren’t seeking leisure after all, but simply wanted to stop working because their work didn’t truly engage them. Lottery winners have the toys, money, and envy of their peers, but ultimately, there’s no meaning in living that way unless they find a way to stay engaged and useful.
When you create a life, a career, or a business in an engaging way, you get the meaning and the fruits of your labor. You create happiness by being useful.
So what does this all mean for you, specifically?
How do you find this magical meaning and engagement?
In the book Relentless: How to Go From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover, he talks about the attitude it takes to become an elite-level athlete or professional, called a “cleaner”
“Being relentless means never being satisfied. It means creating new goals every time you reach your personal best. If you’re good, it means you don’t stop until you’re great. If you’re great, it means you fight until you’re unstoppable. It means becoming a Cleaner.”
Being a cleaner means being the most engaged of all the engaged.
At a certain point in the book, he uses a peculiar example for someone who’s a “cleaner.”
Instead of an elite-level athlete, he cites a…bus driver as someone who can be considered a cleaner — someone who can live out the true meaning of life.
Why? Because the bus driver is engaged. They take care of their vehicle and their passengers at the highest level, which is equally worthy of respect as a successful entrepreneur, even more so in some ways.
Per Grover on the bus driver’s inner thoughts:
“This is my fucking bus; it will be clean and on time, and anyone who messes with me or my bus will be back on the street walking.”
Usefulness has little do with your output or material success. You can be useful as a bus driver or a billionaire. You can also be useless and meaningless as a bus driver or a billionaire.
Your relationship with what you do matters. Just like you have relationships with people, you have a relationship with your path.
Some live the path akin to a loveless marriage — sticking it out for the sake of it. Some live the path of lust — they’re passionate but don’t have staying power. The sweet spot — passion, love, engagement, and long-term friendship all at once.
The meaning of life is to engage in it regardless of what you’re doing. Most people “go through the motions.”
So while it is true that you can’t pinpoint exactly what the meaning of life is, you don’t need to know the exact meaning of life to “get the joke.”
Deep down, we all get it. I get it. You get it. But you avoid it. Why?
Everybody knows what their passion is, more or less. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer for a very long time — most of my life, actually.
But you lose sight of it because life beats you into submission and conditions you to tune out. Society at large promotes activities that dull and disengage you — poor quality food that makes you lethargic, alcohol and drugs to numb the senses, T.V. to mute your brain for 30-60 minutes or an entire day with Netflix binges.
They know you need this novocaine. If they could get away with you working seven days a week, they would. But they realize they need to numb you just enough each week so that you don’t snap out of your haze.
See, if you had nothing to numb you week in and week out, the pain you feel about your life would be sharper and clearer.
Sometimes people come to sharp and clear realizations about their life via quarter and midlife crises. But those often fade, too.
For the most part, people are convinced to chase the wrong goals — status, money, logos. They fall for it hook line and sinker, often not realizing what happened until it’s much too late.
The crazy thing is? The malaise they feel about their life has nothing to do with what they do, but rather how they do it.
Have you ever had an experience with a waitstaff person that stood out to you — one you’ll never forget? Almost everyone has.
I was in Galveston Island, TX at a Bubba Gumps Shrimp restaurant. When our waitress came to our table, the very first thing I noticed — she was there, fully. It was as if the entire restaurant had disappeared aside from our table.
My daughter is pretty shy and takes a while to warm up to people — this waitress was the exception to the rule.
Within seconds, she was interacting with my child so joyfully that my kid’s attention fully deviated away from her mom (never happens) and to this waitress. It genuinely looked like my daughter was in a trance.
Of course, we received gold standard service throughout — she always seemed to be around exactly when a drink needed refilling, checked in on us frequently but not routinely, and again, it wasn’t that she was over the top gregarious or friendly, but she was there.
You can be engaged in any profession. When I was a manager at a video store, it was the first job I felt a real responsibility for, so I engaged. For the first time, I didn’t just have a job. I had a relationship with a path to a better future and it showed.
You can notice the differences in any staff you interact with — always a mixture of “engaged” and “going through the motions” types.
Guess who usually ends up successful in the long run? Whatever you’re doing right now, engage. Make your process of growth “alive time,” on your path to doing what’s next.
The idea of finding your calling is nebulous at best. Instead, find what engages you most. For me, that’s writing. The common misconception is that you must find something you love and find pure joy in. Incorrect. Simply find something that engages you…that compels you to want to get good at it.
You don’t need to make money to have meaning if money isn’t part of your mental map. Some people genuinely don’t care about having a large amount of money and would even go so far as to live an ascetic lifestyle.
But, if you’re someone who’s wired to be ambitious, even a little bit ostentatious, then it makes more sense for you to be that way. Richard Branson is a good example. You can tell his form of an engaged life has to be like a movie.
At the end of the day, you’ll find meaning if you’re both engaged and aligned with who you are at your core.
Take me for example. I always thought I wanted to be the type of entrepreneur who owned big billion-dollar companies. Now, I realize I’m more of an artist with entrepreneurial tendencies. I love the relationship with the craft, but maybe not so much the process of running a business itself.
The goal is to become the most useful version of yourself. Some people are equipped with both higher and lower levels of ambition than you. That being said, I’m almost positive you’re selling yourself short. I’m sure I am, too.
That means the answer lies in engaging without ever fully actualizing, which counterintuitively, fully actualizes you.
I’m good at engaging with my work, but I’m not good at engaging outside of it. I have a hard time having real fun. So I have to remind myself that while a life of endless pleasure isn’t meant for me, a life with no fun is also meaningless.
On the way to building my writing career, I cut off many avenues of my social life, and maybe even lost my marriage partially because of my writing career.
I rationalized my engagement in my work as a cure-all for everything. I figured once I got what I wanted, I could take my foot off the gas, and have more time to have fun. But that’s not what happened. Now that I quit my job and write full-time, I’ve doubled down on work.
So, to get a full sense of meaning in my life, I need to become a whole person. That means:
Many people have the opposite problem. They check off the boxes on the list pretty-well, except for the “find your purpose” one.
And also, many people think they’re having fun when they’re really numbing themselves. The impossible ideal is to be present 100 percent of the time — something you should chase, but will never reach or even get close to.
So my answer is that there are no easy answers.
At the end of the day, if you read his full letter, Hunter and I give pretty much the same answer, but he won’t cop to it, fully.
I will. Maybe it is presumptuous to think you know the meaning of life.
But, you know what? I find it to be a welcome swing in the pendulum from the side who abandon all attempts at reason, who’d rather shrink than try, who’d rather throw their hands of because life is random instead of trying to navigate the chaos in spite of it.
Engagement is the meaning of life because every other plausible definition can be derived from it.
Stop sleepwalking through your fucking life and live it.
That is the meaning of life.