The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life

Authors: The School of Life
Read in May 2020


Five Sentence Summary

A meaningful life aims at fulfillment. Some sources of meaning are love, family, work, friendship, culture, politics, nature, and philosophy. To determine what is meaningful to us, we need to go through a process of experience and introspection to find something that speaks to our nature. But, there are also obstacles to meaning. These include vague self-understanding, provincialism, selflessness, immortality, and negative self-talk that need to be overcome to find meaning in life.


Complete Notes

  • The goal of a meaningful life is long-term fulfillment. Not contentment.
  • Creativity is the act of recombining unlikely elements into something new. It allows people to see opportunities for improvement that others miss.
  • In a meaningful life we draw upon our highest capacities and come closer to realizing our potential.
  • "In the minds of geniuses, we find ... our own neglected thoughts." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Creative people don't have thoughts fundamentally different from ours; they just don't neglect them as readily.
  • We often feel like "the only way to get people to like us is to conceal most of who we are."
  • "... aligning one's path through the world with a mission."
  • What we find desirable in others (idols, mentors, partners, friends) is a hint to what we admire but don't posses ourselves.
  • Friends can help us to understand and befriend ourselves better.
  • For many family is the most reliable source of belonging because it's not based on our beliefs, accomplishments, or efforts but our birth.
  • Don't be blind to the faults of others, but don't use them too harshly against them either.
  • Our social circle (friends, family, colleagues) keep us closely tied to particular age, income and ideology-brackets. We increase this effect, by ostracizing all those who don't charm our world view.
  • Parenting demands that we address what a good life is.
  • Who we are at the time when we become parents will powerfully influence who our children become.
  • Work feels meaningful when it helps others, makes strangers happy, reduces suffering or pleases an audience.
  • "The question of what makes life meaningful has to be answered personally." We can't rely on others to determine it for us. If we do, we will experience a crisis of meaning when their interpretations conflict with our divergent interests, values, and priorities.
  • By paying close attention to our experiences, we can identify what feels meaningful to us. Once we identify meaningful experiences we can begin to recreate them and integrate them into our lives. In this way, we can experience meaning reliably in our lives.
  • When we have a positive impact on the lives of others or create something lasting and positive our actions feel meaningful.
  • Care can be a source of meaning.
  • "We love in part in the hope of being helped and redeemed by our loves."
  • When we fail and disappoint others repeatedly, we need people in our lives who are patient and give us more chances to try anew and who stay on our side even when we don't really deserve it.
  • When work is a combination of our interests, sources of pleasures, and strengths it feels meaningful.
  • Work gives us agency to build a very accurate and extensive understanding of a topic in a limited area. Through this constraint it makes it easier to make real contributions to the improvement of humankind and experience meaning in our lives.
  • rekindle a long lost sense of meaning
  • When we work with or alongside others we can combine different strengths, knowledge and wisdom. This combined power can humble us and can allow groups to accomplish more than any individual could ever hope for.
  • Piece by piece you can create a body of work that can become an elevated version of yourself and transcend your flaws, imperfections, and faults.
  • A lack of knowledge about ourselves and our past often complicates our relationships with ourselves and other people.
  • You have no control over what happens in the world, which problems are solved or which continue to exist. But, you have this power in your own life. You can identify a problem, figure out a solution and solve the problem for good. So, if you really want to make the world a better place, focus on fixing your problems than trying to change the world.
  • If you are unwilling to engage with views that oppose yours, you will never truly understand why someone is drawn to them. Without this understanding, you won't know how you could effectively change their mind or find out if you should change yours. Without the opportunity for progress and change you'll be left frustrated, bewildered and angry.
  • Money is a tool which enables actions to have larger impacts and people to increase their reach.
  • Homes have a "memorializing function". They help us remember our values, reinforce our identity and organize our complex self. The smallest things in our home whisper encouragement, remind us of what's important, or warn us of our weaknesses as we make breakfast, work at our desk or relax on our couch. Hence, arranging our home can be a deeply meaningful activity.
  • Every phase of life offers advantages for the accumulation of different forms of wisdom. Because these phases can feel so different we often forget to take the wisdom we've learned in one phase into the next.  often forget to hand on this knowledge to our succeeding self, when we enter a different phase of life. Yet, the lessons of your past self often hold the wisdom that the growth in your new phase of life requires. Heed it.
  • "... we bear within us a legacy of unfelt feelings."
  • "... the ambient noise of existence."
  • "Around 130 million books have been published in the history of humanity; a heavy reader will at best get through 6,000 in a lifetime."
  • We avoid facing many of our emotions. By ignoring them we try to make them go away. But, they remain in our lives as slightly uncomfortable background noise. Sometimes, triggered by other people, external circumstances or sudden realizations they spill out of us in spontaneous fits of sadness, rage or joy.
  • Music expresses our unconscious feelings. It doesn't invent emotions - it turns up the volume on the emotions we already feel. This ability of music to intensify feelings is what draws us to it. What keeps us coming back to it is our search for "the right soundtrack of our lives."
  • Books, movies and most forms of media simplify. They organize and clarify complex concepts by telling radically simple stories. In their plots we jump from one important event to the next with obvious logical links between them. This compression of logic and artificial creation of clarity can help us can understand things we would never understand otherwise.
  • You need to simplify things and need things to be simplified for you. Otherwise you'd become overwhelmed with the complexity of life left unable to act.
  • Writers put feelings into words that have long eluded us.
  • "Simplification does not betray the nuance of life: it renders life more visible."
  • Books, movies and most forms of media simplify. They organize and clarify complex concepts by telling radically simple stories. In their plots we jump from one important event to the next with obvious logical links between them. This compression of logic and artificial creation of clarity can help us can understand things we would never understand otherwise.
  • If a book is right for us does not only depend on the book. It also depends on when we read it, who we are like when we read it.
  • Your clothes highlight interesting or attractive things about you and capture the values you're drawn to. "Our wardrobes contain some of our most carefully written lines of autobiography."
  • "... to be political is to care about the happiness of strangers."
  • "Living in our own minds, we have a constant experience of impotence and failure."
  • Nature is remarkably unconcerned with our lives. It implicitly mocks our self-importance, self-absorption and wants. It humbles us and puts life into perspective by showing us how irrelevant our seemingly important fears, failures, and concerns are.
  • Sports embody the struggle of the human spirit against the entropic forces of the material world. They pursue the "masterful subjugation of the body to the will."
  • Modern life suggest that only one person truly counts: you. Your career, your wealth, your appearance, your house, your car.
  • Philosophy is the practice of pursuing accurate and clear knowledge. It's the practice of increasing our self-understanding. The better we understand ourselves, the calmer, more serene and more content we can become.
  • Travel can be an opportunity for maturation and developing our character by exposing us to different culture and restoring our perspective. To experience these benefits when traveling, we should choose our destinations based on how our outer journey there can assist us with our inner journey.
  • "... haunted by the fear of being abnormal, we can end up following few of our authentic inclinations."
  • Always putting other people first is only superficially a good idea, because over time it generates frustration, anger and resentment.
  • We often decide what's normal by taking cues from a very specific, unrepresentative groups of people: those that happen to be in our physical and digital vicinity. But, many ideas of what's normal are neither universal nor incontestable. Trying to conform to ideas of normal that don't match your authentic inclinations can make living a meaningful life impossible.
  • Selfishness means putting our needs above those of others. If it's good or bad depends on our motivations for doing so. Selfishness is bad when we are motivated by narcissism and egotism. Selfishness is good, when we base it on an accurate understand of our needs and concerns in pursuit of higher motives or to serve others  over the long term.
  • A lack of selfishness can lead us to spend our lives doing a lot for others and little for ourselves. It is a common reason for why we don't live the life we want. Because we spend it living how others expect us to live.
  • The believe that we have time to get around to the important things is one of the biggest obstacles to meaning. It creates a lack of urgency to identify or prioritize what is meaningful and makes it very likely that we'll never get around to it.
  • Mistakes are not dead ends. They are valuable sources of information that can  inform future actions.
  • Most people believe that they time is unlimited and that they are immortal. They distract themselves from their mortality because they can't bear the brevity of existence.
  • Every day you create, modify, and change the story about who you are, where you are going, and why events happened as they did.
  • Some reasons to be compassionate with yourself when you fail: You don't have complete information and often couldn't have known what lead to the failure. You don't have complete control over outcomes. In some cases, you can do everything right and still fail. Beginnings are imperfect. You will make mistakes that seem stupid in hindsight, will be hugely inefficient and often need to take two steps back to take one step forward. These experiences are all part of the process and you should forgive yourself of the horrors of beginnings.

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