What is the meaning of life?
This utterly vast and philosophical question pops into our lives with amazing frequency.
But is it the right question to ask?
What if we move the words around a bit and asked another question. Like: What gives your life meaning? Hmm, that changes things a bit doesn't it? And even when we change the words, we may still move towards the specific.
So why does the abstract help more? Find out in this episode.
What gives your life meaning?
It was 6:20 AM. I was close to the beach, halfway through my walk, listening to this podcast on Transom.org. There was this reporter who was asking older people how they went through their lives. They were 100 years old. She started out with this question, which was: What is the meaning of life? I've grappled with this question before, and it sounds very philosophical, but then somewhere in the middle, the question changed. Those words just interchanged somehow and it became: What gives your life meaning?
I had to stop. I had to stop on the road just to absorb what that meant. Just by that little interplay in the words, suddenly the whole sentence, the whole construct changed. It was amazing to me. As you tend to do, you tend to try to answer the questions. I tried to think of the people in my life and I tried to think of the things that I do. Then I realized I was going about it the wrong way.
In today's podcast we're going to cover three elements as always, but the way I'm going to cover it is I'm going to talk about me, me, and me. I'm going to talk about the three things that give my life meaning and why I approached it the wrong way, but I think it is the way that we need to approach it. Of course you might choose to borrow these, or you might choose to bring up your own three elements, but this is the way I think that you've got to approach the question: What gives your life meaning?
Part 1: Space
I think the right way to approach it is to go through an abstract sort of thinking. The three things that give my life meaning are space, deadline, and elegance. Let's start out with the first one, which is the factor of space. About a month ago, it was August in New Zealand. Well, it was August everywhere, but it's wintertime here in New Zealand. I had this little piece of paper in my pocket. I'd been carrying it in my wallet for well over a year, maybe a year and a half. This piece of paper had been given to me by my doctor. I'd done my annual checkup the year before and I was supposed to get the blood test done. I had been procrastinating for quite a while, as you can tell. That day I decided I'm going to park the car and I'm going to walk to the lab and get the blood test done.
I wasn't expecting anything. I'd been walking every day. I'd been eating sensibly, I think, drinking sensibly. Yet, the very next night I got some news from my doctor. He said, “Your cholesterol is high.” I went and looked it up, and I found that there was no real linkage to what you eat and cholesterol, but there is a very distinct relationship between stress and everything, not just stress and cholesterol but stress and everything. That is when I started taking the weekends off.
Now we fool ourselves. We say we're taking the weekend off but we check email and we work for a couple of hours, or do this and do that. Suddenly, the weekend is not really off. I found this to be true for me. I used to get to work, even on the weekend, at 4 AM because I wake up at that time. Before I knew it, it was 9:00, 10:00. I put in five or six hours on the weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. Of course I had my excuses. The podcast takes so much time, and we're doing this course, and I have to write this book.
When I got this report, I suddenly realised the importance of space. I realised that there is no point in me doing this stuff on a consistent basis and driving myself crazy, and that the weekend was invented to give us space. Now we take three months off, and you know that, but these minor breaks become very major breaks on the weekend. I had to find a practical use for this, because at the same time we have courses going on, like we have the headline course going on. Now our courses are not about just information. They're about practical usage. Clients will come in five days a week and they'll do their assignment every single day.
This is a problem for me, because in the US it's Friday, but here in New Zealand it's Saturday. That means I have to look at the assignment on a Saturday. That's what I was doing. I convinced myself it was only going to be a couple hours here or there. I had to then go to all the participants and say, “I'm going to take the weekend off, but my weekend, is it okay if I take it off?” I had to take their permission. No one had a problem. I don't know I was expecting that they would have a problem, but no one had a problem.
This is the concept of space. I've had to use this concept of space over and over and over again. Every time, it drives me crazy when I don't. For instance, now I'm preparing for the storytelling workshop and I have to write the notes and do the slides. I have to create this space. I have to go away from the office and sit in a space that is quieter and less disturbing, and then work through that. This factor of space had an effect that I didn't expect.
Whenever you're in any business, you're always going to be slightly envious of someone else. If you're a writer you're going to be envious of other writers. If you're a dancer you're going to be envious of other dancers. It's just natural human behaviour. Now a lot of people interview on their podcasts. Once we finish what we're covering, they will talk to me just casually. Occasionally someone will say, “Oh, I'm so excited. We've just finished 1.8 downloads,” or, “Oh, we've got 5,000 more subscribers.”
This used to drive me not crazy, but you think about it. You think, how come? We're putting in as much effort into this podcast. How come? The question changed the moment I realized that space was important to me, the moment I realised that weekends were important to me. I started asking myself, are you getting the weekend off? I'd listen to that person saying that they made so much more money or they got so many subscribers. I couldn't get myself to be envious. This was a change for me. This was a big change for me, because I thought that somehow that would never go away. The space became the benchmark. It was no no no, this is more important to me than the money. It's more important to me than your subscribers or your downloads. Having that space allows me to think and relax. I have not felt this way, like I'm feeling right now, in a very, very long time. It's taken me about a month to slow down completely, as in to feel really relaxed. It's just because of space.
This takes us to the second element, which is in direct contrast to space and quiet. That is deadline.
Part 2: Deadline
In 2014, we had one of the most harrowing years of our lives. It wasn't harrowing personally, but professionally it was a real pain. That was because we had hacker attacks. It first surfaced on psychotactics.com. Now that is a very popular site, and for over a decade it has been in the top 100,000 Alexa ratings. It's natural that hackers like that site. We put a little Band-Aid on the system and we fixed it, but they came back, and they came back, and they came back. They wouldn't stop until the entire website had to be completely reorganised and rebuilt from the ground up.
Then after that, they went after 5000bc.com, which is our membership site. They did the same thing. Then they went after the training site, which is training.brainaudit.com. You can just tell how frustrating this is. You're going about your business as passively as possible, trying to keep your head above water, and these hacker attacks continue to come and disrupt your life and drive you crazy. When I think about it, the hacker attacks were the best thing that happened to us because they gave us a sense of deadline.
When we think of deadline, we only think of writing books or an article or finishing this project, but the hacker attacks were so cool. They forced us to do what we hadn't been doing for several years. We'd been putting off tidying up the website and making it just resistant to these fun-filled creeps. They came there and they went through the system, and then we had to pull up our socks. We just had to do whatever we had to do. This is the beauty of deadlines.
A lot of people consider me to be a pretty crazy person, as in I'm doing a lot of projects. I don't see myself that way at all. I see myself as a very lazy person. I see myself as someone who loves to lie on the sofa and get a lot of that space and not a lot of deadline. Yet, without the deadline nothing happens. All the books that you read on Psychotactics, starting with The Brain Audit, they were written because someone forced me to do it. The cartooning course, I didn't want to do it. Someone said, “Oh no no, you have to do this. I've tried all the cartooning courses. They don't work for me.”
I've written a book on storytelling, but to do the course was something completely different. I'm discovering elements of storytelling that I didn't know existed, or I'm discovering depths that I didn't know existed. Of course it's frustrating to have to build a whole course from nothing, to write notes, to create slides, to get all the event venue, to get everyone to sign up. We could do without it, but putting that deadline in place gives my life a lot of meaning because it enhances what I do and it forces me to do it by a specific point in time.
Take this podcast for example. In October we're going to Australia to Uluru. For those of you that don't know, this is Ayer's Rock, that big red rock in the middle of Australia. This brings up its own set of deadlines, which is I have to write extra newsletters. I have to put in extra vanishing reports for 5000bc, and of course podcasts. I have to do more of these podcasts so that it covers all of October. Then in December we're going to Morocco. I know, I know, it's a hard life.
The is that the deadline brings meaning to my life. Without the deadline I wouldn't achieve as much as I do. Those creeps, those hackers, I wish I could send them chocolate, like how we send our clients chocolate. Because they made such a difference to my life. They brought in this deadline, this “you have to do this right now.” It's made our life different and I would say a lot better. The first thing that we talked about was space, and having the space creates so much of quiet in your life, and of course a lot less stress. The second thing is this factor of deadline, which forces you to rush, rush and create that stress. They both coexist together just like music. There is quiet in music and there is this huge flurry of notes. They both have to be that way because that's what makes music.
This takes us to the third element, which is one of elegance.
Part 3: Elegance
Now I thought about it a lot. Why elegance? Why not simplicity? Simplicity is so difficult. Why elegance? In 1990 I was still living in India. A pen pal from the United States came across. She was there for a couple of weeks. She created a deadline of sorts for me. I hadn't seen a lot of India at that point in time and she wanted to see India, so we booked a trip. We got to the Taj Mahal. Now by this point in time I wasn't doing very well with this pen pal. When I was in university we were sending each other letters, ten pages, 12 pages, really long letters. It seemed like we would get along fine with each other.
Yet, the moment she landed that wasn't the case at all. Something about her drove me crazy. Something about me drove her crazy. By the time we had reached Agra, which is where the Taj Mahal is located, we were pretty much going our own ways. She'd set out later, but me, I wake up early in the morning. I decided one day to go to the Taj Mahal as early as possible. There was this huge fog that was in front of the Taj Mahal. I couldn't see it until I was very close, and it was amazing. It was stunning beyond my understanding. I've seen thousands of pictures of it over the years, but nothing came close to standing there right in front of it in that fog.
As I got close to it, what struck me was the elegance. It was just so beautiful. It was simple. There wasn't anything fancy about it. Sure, it was big, it was really big, bigger than I ever imagined, but elegant. It was so elegant. As we've traveled the world, we've run into places like Japan. When you buy something in Japan, it's amazing. It's like you never want to open it. You can buy the smallest thing in Japan and they put it in this little box and this little wrapping. Then they put this ribbon on it. Everything in Japan is so beautifully packaged that you never feel like opening it. There is this elegance to it. It's not just thrown at you.
As I started to be more aware of the world around me, it struck me that there are three ways to do pretty much anything. When you look around you, you see stuff that's really crappy. We don't want to go there because that's just crappy and sloppy. That's just how it is. Then you go to the next stage, which is where it's simple. When I look at a book on Kindle, it's simple. There's just text. It's been thrown in Microsoft Word. It's out there, nothing to it. Then you look at something's that's elegant and you know that someone has spent some time and effort and simplified it so it looks beautiful and it reads beautiful. The words work together and the pictures work together. Suddenly you have this feeling of the Taj Mahal. It's beautiful. It's a monument. There are thousands of monuments in the world, but some stand out for their sheer elegance.
To me, that's my third principle, that when I create this podcast I somehow have to be dissatisfied with it. I'm happy, but I still want to improve it. That quest for improvement becomes quest for elegance. The best example of elegance is a software program, because when you look at a software program it comes out as slightly crappy. You have version one and it's not so great. Then version two and it's a little better. Then it gets bigger and more bloated and it stops being elegant. Now you have to improve things without making it bloated and terrible. You have to bring in elegance.
That is the thing that gives my life meaning: to create information, or to create product, or to create a cartoon, or to do anything that is more elegant. The beauty of elegance is that sometimes it doesn't get noticed, like when you're watching a movie and there's this music that enhances the movie and you don't notice the music. That is elegance: that feeling of creating something that's so beautiful that it doesn't matter that no one notices it, as long as you know.
This brings us to the end of this podcast. I know it was about me, but I think it resonates with you as well. To me, the most important things, the things that give my life meaning, we could summarise them with three words, and that is space, and deadline, and elegance. Your three words might be similar, they might be different, but I think we have to stop asking ourselves what is the meaning of life, because that question is too big. Instead, it's what gives our life meaning. Then bring it down to this whole abstract feeling. I think that's the one thing you can do today. I think you can just sit down and write down these three terms on paper and start to think about it. What are three things that give your life meaning? Because even hackers can give your life meaning.
That brings us to the end of this podcast.