I recently finished the amazing book Man’s Search for Meaning, written by a concentration camp survivor.
The book has a simple premise: what was everyday life like in a concentration camp and in such a horrible existence can you find meaning?
When Vicktor directly addresses his friend Otto, a man who he has just made memorize his last vows, and suddenly asks “Otto, where are you now? Are you alive? What has happened to you since our last hour together? Did you find your wife again?” I cried. I cried as hard as I have at funerals.
It really is an incredible book. I’m certain that the book is one of the most important guidebooks for finding your way through life. You can read it free here.
Vicktor’s central insight is that goals motivate humans and give meaning to their life. Having a goal—such as doing everything you can to survive in the camp in order to possibly see your wife again—is what gives meaning to human existence.
Likewise, Kant apparently said “Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”
Goals push us forward. They give us something to do. They make a pact with the present and future: no matter how low or impossible the situation, our actions give us freedom.
If you are unhappy right now, lost with your career, you need to set concrete goals. This is not only something that will get you out of this career rut but if you make a habit, it will serve you your entire life.
Poverty is an obstacle. Being dragged to a crappy job each day is tough work. But even when faced with tragedy, it’s your attitude towards life that counts.
I have friends who have given up. They are unlucky. Life, they say, has for whatever reason turned against them. There is no solution. There is only bad luck. Others live well and find fortune. But their obstacles are too large. They can’t find work. They can’t switch into a new career. Life came and it swept them somewhere and now they need to sit down, accept it, and live in their fate.
Vicktor’s tour of the darkest hole in human history says that’s bullshit.
Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more. “What sort of answer can one give to that?
What was really needed was fundamental change in our attitude toward life.
We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.
Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.
Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete.
They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.
No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.”
This is the meaning of life:
“Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete.
We search for symbols, for signs, and say money can’t buy happiness. We search for ghosts and abstraction. Ideas and fantasies about what will change our life. The lottery. A random job offer. A day where your luck switches like a light in a dark tunnel.
But the better truth is that life demands a concrete response to us.
What will you do today?
What do you hope to finish by next month?
What work will you accomplish this year?
What is the pain you are willing to endure to achieve your goal?
Will you suffer for your happiness?
Will you do the work?