“The only thing I know is that I know nothing” — Socrates
I empathize with Socrates. I am 20 years old, and I am certain that there are infinitely more things that I don’t know than I do about life, even more so about a meaningful life. The purpose of this article is not to tell you how to live (because quite frankly I don’t know myself) but rather some thoughts I’ve had as a product of a lot of reading and reflection over the last year.
(Also I’m pretty sure the I’m taking the Socrates quote way out of context, but it sounds cool so I’m going to go ahead with it)
What Is The Telos Of Life?
In his book Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do, Michael Sandel introduced me to the concept of “telos”, an ancient Greek word simply meaning “a goal, purpose, or end”. In the context of Aristotle, he claims that everything has an innate purpose, and what is just is what best fulfills that purpose. Sandel’s example illustrates this clearly: the answer to “Who should get the best flutes?” is “The best flute players” because the telos, or purpose, of a flute is to be played well. By giving the best flutes to the best flute players, we fulfill the telos of the flute.
So what is the telos of life? According to Aristotle, what makes humans different from animals is our ability to contemplate morality. In The Politics, he writes that “ it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things of this sort”. With this in mind, he defines virtue as contemplating what the good life is and behaving accordingly. Naturally, the telos of human life is to live virtuously, and the way to discover virtue is to engage in philosophy and political discourse.
While I admire the simplicity and power of Aristotle’s views, I am uncomfortable with the idea that contemplating philosophy and politics is a prerequisite for virtue. I believe that people can discover what is good or bad through whichever path they decide to choose in life. In this sense, when considering the question of the telos of human life myself, I tried to be as broad as possible. Here’s my answer to the question:
The telos of life is to live meaningfully.
This on its own means very little. The obvious follow-up is “What does it mean to live meaningfully?” Well, now we get to the heart of this story.
The Roadmap For A Meaningful Life
My one sentence answer for how to live a meaningful life is the following: figure out what matters to you and do something about it. Once again, this probably means very little right now. Here’s the more substantial answer:
- Introspection & Interaction
- Action & Creation
I’ll walk through these steps one at a time.
1. Instrospection & Interaction
I’ve found reading to be an incredibly effective tool for obtaining new knowledge, gaining new experiences, growing empathy, and learning about myself.
The aim of this step is to find out what matters to you. To find our what matters to you, you must first figure out who you are. At first glance, this may seem trivial; “Of course I know who I am, I’m me! Who knows me better than myself?” you may think. But the more you think about it, the trickier this gets.
I recall that I took a lot of personality tests throughout middle school and high school, and something strange would happen: every time I took the test, I got different results. An example is the famous Meyers-Briggs test. One year I would be an INTJ, the next an ENFP, the next an ENTJ, and so on. What became clear to me is that people change. As I learned more about people and the world, accrued more experiences, and thought more about myself, I grew and evolved as a person. Note that this state of flux isn’t limited to adolescence; every day we all learn something new and change. This change is just so gradual that we don’t notice it.
The point of introspection isn’t to get one definite final answer about who you are, because that’s impossible. Rather, the point is to be aware of how you are changing and what is driving these changes. Once your aware, you can start controlling these changes.
The most effective way that I’ve found, by far, is reading. I could honestly write an entire article (or more) about how reading has impacted me, but I’ll try to be concise here. I started reading actively and purposefully in October of 2018, so about a year ago. In my experience, I’ve found reading to be an incredibly effective tool for obtaining new knowledge, gaining new experiences (though not as good as first-hand), growing empathy (by living through the lives of others, fictional or real), and learning about myself. Through learning about the world that surrounds me and the lives that other people lived on this same world, I feel a sense of perspective. Remember that you cannot understand yourself in a vacuum as a sole being isolated from the reality that surrounds you. Through reading, I understand the context that I was born into and as a result feel more connected with the world and myself.
Another essential factor in connecting with the world is by interacting with it. I don’t limit this interaction only to other human beings, I also include experiences. The takeaway from this paragraph is simply to talk to more people and be active about pursuing new experiences. There definitely is something to be said about focus, the ability to say no, but when you’re starting from blank, the only way to find out what to reject is to explore first. Interact with the world you’re living in, find out what other people gain fulfillment from, investigate why things are the way they are.
Once you’ve sufficiently undertaken step 1, you will naturally gain an interest in certain ideas and issues. If you’re not sure, then keep looking. As Steve Jobs said,
“As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” — Steve Jobs
If it’s taking a long time, don’t feel discouraged. Step 1 is meant to be the hardest, and most exciting, part. On some level, everyone is always on step 1 throughout their entire lives. I include myself here.
Back to step 2. As I’ve said, with sufficient introspection and interaction, you will naturally develop interests. Take it a step further, you will naturally find a sense of purpose. Think about it. A sense of purpose is nothing more than having a set of goals that you want to achieve. What do these goals come from? Interests. Are you interested in artificial intelligence? Take an online course. Are you fascinated by history and the tides of politics? Write some essays, share your ideas, join a campaign. Are you inspired by the pursuit of better education? Teach a class.
In my experience, passion isn’t enough on its own to keep you motivated throughout the journey.
Having a set of goals is amazing, it gives you something tangible to strive for. But you’re not going to achieve anything without any motivation. The good news is, because of the nature of how we formed our goals in the first place, some level of motivation should come naturally. You’re goals should be something that excites you, something that feels meaningful.
At this point, I should mention what I call the “passion problem”. We’ve all heard the classic wisdom of “finding your passion” and how your passion will be so interesting that it will keep you up at night. In my experience, though, passion isn’t enough on its own to keep you motivated throughout the journey. Rather, passion is the energy that begins the journey and the Utopian vision that guides the path you take. What it’s not is the fuel that will keep you on that path.
So what is this fuel? How do we stay motivated? I believe this is a highly personal question that every individual has to discover on their own. One of the answers I’ve found is to have a positive and ambitious mindset. The way I derived this is by exploring the immense wealth of self-improvement content in this world and listening to and reading about a lot of successful people online and through books. If you’re interested in pursuing this path, I recommend buying a Medium membership and starting here. There are also countless books out there, and I think Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson), Leonardo Da Vinci (Walter isaacson), and The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck (Mark Manson) are all good starts.
Also a note on inspiration. I think inspiration is a great emotion, one that makes you believe that the world could be better and that you can help it become better. It’s important, though, to realize that inspiration is an emotion. Emotions, by their nature, are fleeting. Emotions are not a reliable source of motivation, habits are (so many Medium stories and books about habit-building as well). But inspiration can be good if we take it for what it is — a temporary boost in morale that we must build on for it to lead to anything substantive.
Whenever I find myself feeling uninspired or unmotivated, I go to my YouTube playlist filled with videos I found inspiring. Some of my favorites that I would recommend to anyone are Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address, Conan O’Brien’s Interview at Harvard University, and Stephen Colbert’s Speech at the Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner. I hope these videos will spark something in you, and I recommend maintaining a stash of your own inspiration somewhere.
4. Action & Creation
This is the final boss in the game of life. As with any game, to defeat this final boss, you must recall everything you’ve learned along the way and apply them in new ways that you never imagined.
Recall who you are, what you learned, what you found interesting, what you found meaningful, what your goals are, why you’re pursuing them… and so on. The previous steps were designed to lead to action, for you to actually do something. Recall my one sentence answer for how to live a meaningful life:
Figure out what matters to you and do something about it
Do something about it. It’s as easy as that. Pursue your goals, or at least try your best. Fail. A lot. Learn. A lot. Adjust to circumstances. Adjust to new knowledge and experiences. Make new goals. Fail. Again. Get exhausted. Embrace the struggle. Overcome the struggle. Don’t give up. But give up, sometimes. Make friends. Make enemies. Lean on your friends. Love your family. Fight with friends. And family. Learn. Grow. Adapt. Try.
This iterative, painful, confusing, and fulfilling process of overcoming adversity is what makes us human. Here’s a quote from Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) I found fascinating. The context is a “fabricant”, a genetically cloned servant, talking to a “pureblood”, a regular human as we know today.
“Is happiness the absence of deprivation? If so, servers are, as purebloods like to believe, the happiest stratum in the corpocracy. But if happiness is the conquest of adversity, or the sensation of being valued and fulfilled, then all of Neo So Copros’ slaves we are surely the most miserable.” — Sonmi, Cloud Atlas
Just like in the world of startups, ideas are easy to come across, execution is the hard part. It’s also the most exciting and interesting part. It’s also the meaningful part.
A Note On “Changing The World”
Hopefully you found something useful in this article. But before coming to an end, I want to mention that the numbers are misleading. These “steps” aren’t actually that sequential, as you’ll find when you try them yourself. In reality, it’s a messy and iterative process that frantically jumps between steps. As with anything in life, it’s not straightforward. It’s blurry, like Da Vinci’s sfumato (seriously, read the book!).
I also want to add a final note on “changing the world”. Throughout middle and high school, I used to think that the only way I would feel my life was meaningful was to “change the world”, or “make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs put it. After all, if I was to be just another one out of billions of people who come into and out of existence without leaving anything for history to remember me by, what was my life for? What was all the struggle for?
It was for me and all my loved ones.
As I grew up, I came to appreciate that fame and fortune aren’t necessary ingredients for a meaningful life. In many ways, they can actually be catalysts for an unmeaningful life (though not necessarily, of course). Don’t think of yourself as an insignificant one out of billions. Think of yourself in the context of your family, your friends, and all the communities that surround you. You don’t have to influence history to influence your most intimate communities, or to love and be loved by those closest to you.
After all, what good is being remembered by the generations that follow you if you’re not loved by the generations that live with you?
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