I am constantly wondering what the heck it is I’m doing. I try new variations on my “career path”, doing my best to evaluate what seems to work and what doesn’t. As a net result, I haven’t experienced “success”; if anything, my career history resembles a 20-year long game of Jenga, with plenty of wipeouts and a nice big pile of blocks to play in.
There’s a remarkably open post on Jory Des Jardin’s blog about her late father. Her dad was incredibly smart, entrepreneurial and confident…right up to the day he just stopped caring. This passage, in particular, I found personally chilling:
“You just can’t imagine how frustrating it is,” he said, looking up at the ceiling, as if trying to make sense of the ceiling tiles. “I keep looking, but there’s just no answer!”
It’s never actually occured to me that there may be no answer. I may have just seen a glimpse of my future, lying in a bed and delivering the same exasperated, angry, desperate conclusion: I just can’t find the answer. The difference is that my room is empty, and I’m talking to myself.
I feel like I’ve been on a mission to discover something all my life. It’s hard to explain, and I don’t really expect people to understand anymore. I’ve tried different labels: finding meaning, having purpose, and finding my niche. I’ve explored the angles, trying to get some edge on the puzzle of living. I cackle with glee when I discover some new way of deconstructing my world view into more manageable chunks. It’s fun! It’s exciting!
It’s a distraction!
Jory quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from his book Flow (yet another book I need to read). He “describes this precipice of questioning, when we seek justification for bothering to try, but lack a means of gauging our success” (I’m splitting the quote into two paragraphs, emphasis mine):
Purpose gives direction to one’s efforts, but it does not necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead into all sorts of trouble, at which point one gets tempted to give them up and find some less demanding script by which to order one’s actions. The price one pays for changing goals whenever opposition threatens is that while one may achieve a more pleasant and comfortable life, it is likely that it will end up empty and void of meaning.
It’s an insightful quote, though not very comforting. There are times when it feels like I’m overlooking that precipice, fully cognizant of its ability to diminish any sense of accomplishment in my world. What is it all for? What is the point? Intuitively I know that Jory’s Dad was on to one of the dark secrets of the universe.
Sidestepping the Issue
One of my favorite movies is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…not because it’s Staaaaar Trek, but because of its bittersweet themes of friendship, conviction, and out-of-the-box thinking. It is the source of the Kobayashi Maru Scenario, a test that measures the ability of Star Fleet Academy cadets to handle stress under impossible situations. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t plan to (though you probably should), here’s a link to the wikipedia entry on The Kobayashi Maru Scenario.
Anyway, my line of questioning has that same feeling of doom that I imagine one would get from the Kobayashi Maru test. Let me break it down:
 What I do is irrelevant. There is no meaningful end-game. Life is meaningless.
Although I accept this statement from a certain philosophical/agnostic perspective, I also reject it because it doesn’t really do me any good. However, the statement does reflect a certain feeling of despair that is nevertheless real.
 What I do is irrelevant. I can therefore make up my own end-game. Life is choice.
This is a very empowering perspective, and it’s generally the one I maintain. However, I am also aware that I’m masking a desire for meaning. Making up your own end-game can also be very isolating; such is the nature of command, even when applied only to yourself. That leads me to the following conclusion:
 Life without Meaning is the No-Win Scenario.
Eep! My immediate reaction to this statement is that it’s gotta be wrong, but on the other hand it may be that I just want there to be meaning. It’s entirely possible that there isn’t any, and I am deluding myself. There are no Answers with a Capital A. Even if I make them up myself, the authority vested in those answers come from “just me”…and that is an exhausting proposition. It is not sustainable in the long run.
I am toeing the line of Religion now, but I am not going to cross over. I may believe that there is a higher being, but I am not going to let some organization convince me that they hold to the keys to my salvation, so I have to move in a different direction.
Changing the Rules
Later in Wrath of Khan, it’s revealed that the Kobayashi Maru test has beaten every single cadet in its history, with the exception of one very smug James Tiberius Kirk. As a cadet, Kirk “expanded the scope of the problem”, which allowed him to get leverage on a solution that otherwise would not have presented itself.
In the context of finding meaning, my expansion of scope is to look at the pieces I’ve got:
- Me, feeling alarmed at not having Meaning and Purpose
- Meaning and Purpose, which I suspect are arbitrary and don’t exist
The solution should will address the feeling of alarm.
- A first-order analysis suggests that if you don’t have meaning and purpose, finding them is the solution. That is, keep looking. However, I am pretty sure they don’t exist in the absolute sense I am craving. And this, my friends, is the no-win scenario. Let’s move on.
To apply the expansion of scope, I need to look at what’s not in the mix. On first glance, the system seems to be complete: there’s me, and there’s my personal desire…what more is there? It strikes me that the word personal reveals a bias in my thinking that is probably common…the search for personal meaning implies a circle of one. Just me, looking for some way to fulfill those desires that can’t be sourced internally.
I’ve already expanded scope once by trying to find different interepretations of meaning/purpose. I hadn’t until now considered the second: expansion of personal scope beyond myself. That is what struck me about Jory’s conversation with her Dad…he seemed so frustrated that he, incredibly smart as he was, could not find the Answer. Yet one aspect of the solution was right there in the room, listening to him vent.
The End of Solitude
I have been working in isolation for quite some time, and while I sort of enjoy the solitude, I also find that I’m going down that road of wondering what they heck it is all for. The bright spots in my days are when I’m having an active conversation with a client. At night, I feel energized by exchanging emails with my no-longer-local friends. I love making new connections with people through this blog, and figuring out how our various dreams and goals intermesh. Again, it comes down to people, not technology. Even though I identified this some time ago, I still find it surprising. Looking back at technology through the lens of remembered childhood isolation, I can see now that technology was one of the primary sources of personal empowerment, and that it was this served as the conduit to making my best friends. I mistook the empowerment for purpose: the truly meaningful product of the system was friendship and cameraderie. People are not just part of the system, as I thought in Passion Turn Me Round and Round: they are the point.
Being Less ClicheI recognize that “It’s the people, man!” is a very old chestnut to be tossing on the fire, but hey, it’s new to me. Let me clarify some of the salient aspects: Finding a purpose in life is a rational exercise. Finding the right people in your life is an emotional journey. I need both. As someone who tests very evenly on the thinking/feeling axis of personality, it is absolutely critical for me to balance both sides. To now, I have not done this on purpose. That must change. Reaching one’s goals requires focus and freedom from distraction. Finding the right people requires similar mindfulness and selectfulness. If I were to start a company and start hiring people, I know what I would be looking for in terms of temperament and personality. Would I be just as confident in the personal realm? Perhaps not, judging from my currently long-standing single status as a hermit freelancing in New Hampshire. I have known this for years, but thought that it was non-essential to achieving some modicum of success. This is classic male thinking: “I’ll achieve first, then I’ll find someone to relate to”. I thought I had somehow evaded this by talking to various women friends, but apparently this isn’t the case. Doh! Life is fluid, and so goals must be flexible. Similarly, to find the right people, one must also be fluid and open to opportunity. I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but the gist is that I shouldn’t pre-select based on my preconceptions of what people I want to associate with.
Time to Get BalancedFor the past few months I’ve been largely focused on productivity in terms of how to track time, choose goals, and recognize progress. It’s interesting to note that for The Printable CEO™, all of the new forms have dealt with those tangible aspects. However, the original form emphasizes two activities: concrete accomplishment AND creating connections with people. I have not released any forms to help with the latter, because I have not been mindful about pursuing this kind of relationship making. Instead, I’ve let relationships happen to me, passively. One of the keys to productivity, I’m thinking, is also the key to happiness. It’s the sense of MOTIVATION:
- One can be happy and productive when the motivation comes from the outside, but this is like running your business at a loss; it is not likely to last long.
It’s better when you can exchange your internally-motivated “product” for external motivation. If there is something I can do easily that I exchange for something that gives me motivation to keep doing it, then that is far more sustainable…assuming that a market exists for what you can make. These are great partnerships, and learning how to recognize them is the tough part. My feeling is that it takes uncommon candor and determination, but it’s the kind of happiness worth working for.
The “best” would be to be 100% internally motivated, both in productivity and in the seeking of happiness. I didn’t think this was achievable for myself until a couple days ago, when I had a huge insight about what really was at my core, and that this framed the world in a way that I hadn’t considered. However…that insight is just for me.
The Answer Key
p>Q. Is there an Answer, some kind of Ultimate Purpose for myself that I can believe asbolutely to be true?
Q. What should I do then if nothing matters?
A. Things don’t matter, but people do. Find the people who matter, then constantly show them why. That is purpose enough for you, Dave.