Meaning guides actions. It provides focus. It energizes. Meaning is an essential motivation for work, especially great work. This post is an exploration of what meaning means, in which I discover some core values that make my life enjoyable, and share them with you.
Recently, I have been seeking both focus and consistent motivation. Though I know that focus, decisiveness, and clearing away the unessential is hugely beneficial to me, I still find it hard to actually implement this knowledge. I still get overwhelmed by minutiae, second guess whether something is important, wonder what I am missing, keep my finger in too many pies, and consequently, I battle a lot of frustration. This is the opposite of enjoyable.
What keeps me moving forward, I’ve noticed, is a destination. Any destination is wonderful, so long as it keeps me moving forward. That is because as long as I move forward, I am happy. I am thrilled. The problem is it is pretty hard to see which direction is forward while on the ground. I can figure it out with a great deal of hindsight, but by then it is too late. Unplanned surprises besiege me at every corner, it is hard to tell a friend from foe, progress from regress, and opportunities from dead ends.
Values, or simple rules of thumb that steer you right in most situations you may encounter, are absolutely crucial to avoiding frustration in the day to day. And, the fewer and more potent the values are, the more useful they will be. As a man of science, it is easy to fancy that I don’t need values. I can simply calculate the pros and cons. The problem with this idea is that it doesn’t work. I’m still frustrated.
No plan survives contact with the enemy.
I asked myself what my guiding values are and it surprised me to discover that none sprang to mind. I was surprised because not two days before I had established some great values which energized me. I even wrote them down. I went back to what I wrote down and I wasn’t as moved as before, but I found some clues that reconnected me to their meaning.
The fact is that I knew my values in my head, but they weren’t getting much use because I hadn’t internalized them. I bought the tools, but I left them in the tool shed instead of keeping them at hand.
Values are like side arms. They need to be checked regularly to keep them in good working order; they are only useful if you have them close at hand; carry too many of them and they are likely to backfire; and you better be real slick with them before you ever need to use them.
Can you bring your values to bear at a moment’s notice? Have you really internalized your values, or are you reciting some value that you heard that sounded good, just in case someone asks. (“Do you really love the lamp, or are you just pointing at things and saying that you love them?”)
As adults, we’re supposed to have the answers. We are supposed to have our meaning all squared away, but if you are like me, you don’t. So, we pretend we have all the answers and ignore the question. (“The meaning of life? Ha ha ha. What is this, freshman year? Enough with your silly questions.”) Then we give up seeking because if we haven’t found the answers yet, we never will.
I am happy to report that I don’t have the answers to the meaning of life, and I don’t need them. I don’t even want them. I prefer to try to figure it out on my own. I will not give up because I think it’s hopeless. I know it is hopeless, which is great! That means I can keep looking forever.
Does a world-class golfer stop practicing once he has mastered golf? To the contrary, he practices more, because practicing golf is golf. In the same way, searching for meaning is meaning.
Two Everyday Values For Maximum Fun times:
Meaning can be really simple. I boiled my everyday values down to two, based on ancient wisdom and my own experience. Give them a shot. They are only two, and easy enough to remember. I’ll even let you cheat and write them down.
1. Appreciate Everything
Dear Life, you don’t have to change. I love you just the way you are. In fact, I love you more each day as I become accustomed to you and discover your subtleties.
Bertrand Russell wrote that an extensive loving interest in people and things is a great source of happiness.
The takeaway is:
- find something or someone to like in every situation
- create situations that have a lot of what/who we like in them
- learn to like more things and people
Endless passion comes from seeking ever more nuanced details of the infinite mystery we call “life,” noticing them, and feeling privileged that we were able to experience them. Yet I need to convey all this meaning in a simple phrase that I can use to remind me of this attitude in each moment. For me, I say “appreciate everything” and that does the trick.
2. Leave Everything a little better than I found it.
I consider this “extra credit” meaning, personally, because I get enough meaning from the first value, but more happiness is always better. Also, I love extra credit.
On a day-to-day basis, this means:
- Clean as you go.
- Do an unexpected kindness whenever you see the opportunity, especially when it is easy.
- Smile like a dork.
- Give first without and accept gifts graciously.
Someone put it another way, which I found amusing and memorable:
“A maid cleans my house, but I tell her not to clean the toilet. I am the only one that cleans the toilet. Why? Because, to have any self respect, you have to clean up your own s***”
To this person, cleaning the toilet was a symbolic ritual that internalized the value of honoring the world that gave birth to him by leaving it a little better than he found it.
Likewise, one man I admire makes the bed in hotel rooms, even though I am sure he knows the maids have to change the sheets anyway. He does it to internalize a value of being a positive event in all situations, a value which makes his life happier the more he practices it.
A navy commander remarked, “When I inspect a gunboat, if the brass is polished, the guns shoot straight. When the brass isn’t polished, that is when I know I need to check the guns.”
Polished brass has nothing to do with the purpose of a gunboat, of course. However, polished brass has a lot to do with the kind of people who have internalized the values that keep guns shooting straight, no matter what. There is no doubt that everyone on a navy boat values guns that shoot straight, but not all of them have internalized it by developing an eye for spotlessness, which manifests in polished brass, among other things. Before the ship sails, the laggards will definitely clean the guns, if they have the time. But the sailors who polish the brass are always battle-ready.
As I’ve learned the hard way, values that aren’t handy are little better than none at all.
What Values Do You Have “Battle-Ready”?
Feel free to borrow the values I mentioned, or any of the other tried-and-true values of the ages. Use what works for you.
Keep going back to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and don’t hurry the answer, because you won’t find it. What you will find in the process, however, are the meanings of life. I promise.