Man’s Search for Meaning

Telling people to do what they love is so last year. Now that we’ve successfully convinced a generation of kids to become self-entitled brats, it’s time for a new commencement speech.

This year’s schpeal is to tell kids to pursue meaningful careers. Careers that give them a sense of purpose. No epiphany yet? That’s because it’s bullshit.

These days, a career with purpose has loosely come to describe any job that serves to benefit healthcare, poor people, or mother earth.

The purpose of my last job was to make money for the company shareholders. Many of them have children to feed. How come that didn’t qualify as meaningful?

Meaning is an artificial carrot that people invent when their lives have become insufferably boring. Usually these people have desk jobs. Desk jobs lead to back problems and existential crises.

You know who never suffers from existential crises? Construction workers. Have you ever heard a day laborer complain that his life lacks meaning?

We shun blue-collar jobs and want to replace manual labor with robots, but that would be terrible. Will a car mechanic be happier if we take him indoors and stuff him into a cubicle? I read a post on by the workers, they argued that
We really ought to be building robots to replace the cubicle monkeys. Then send all those white-collar workers out into the field.

Several years ago, I took a bicycle frame to an auto body shop in Sunnyvale to have it painted for a cyclocross bike project. It was a high-end shop, specializing in fixing Porsches and Jags and whatever else Los Altos residents might bang up.

I knew the guy who worked there. He was a Mexican immigrant who commuted from East San Jose. On any given day, the car he was repairing would be worth more than his annual salary.

I asked him what it was like to spend his days repairing vanity scratches on cars he could never afford. Gotta be demoralizing, right? (I’m not always tactful)

I love making things look shiny and new, he said. I’m proud of my work.

So that’s it. Do stuff that you can be proud of. It doesn’t have to have a greater purpose, but it can. It does mean doing something hard. But it’s easier than wandering the earth in search of meaning.

Yes, I am aware that I stole the title from Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. For those of you who came here in search of a review to rip off for your English term paper, here are the Cliffs notes:

Frankl was an inmate at Auschwitz during WWII. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Choose to focus on hope, or choose to focus on pain. That will dictate how much you suffer.

You’re welcome.

Carl McCoy: Dear Grads, Don’t ‘Do What You Love’ –

Why You Have No Passion

“If you really want to fly, just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everybody has one.” –Oprah Winfrey

Shut up Oprah, no they don’t. Everybody gets it already. We’ve all had the “follow your dreams” mantra drilled into our heads by various inspirational figures for the past couple decades. Nobody ever says “Life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely hate.”

Franz Josef Glacier

Two years ago, I was hiking up Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand when I was stricken with a bout of food poisoning. I had consumed some bad fish and chips the previous night or something. My first hint was a sudden tightening sensation in my lower abdomen. A squeeze and some pressure. I took a few deep breaths, and it subsided.

Several minutes later, it came back. This time it was a sharp twisting, like someone was trying to wring out my large intestine like a wet washcloth. My face turned white and I broke out in a cold sweat.

I recalled what our tour guide had said to us in the morning. Please be sure to use the bathrooms before the hike. Anything left on the glacier will be frozen there forever.

Can’t…desecrate…pristine…glacier. I rested my palms on my knees with bated breath. The twisting relaxed, and I could continue.

Of course, it was only a matter of minutes before it returned with a vengeance. An invisible hand drove a seppuku blade deep into my gut, turning it in like a corkscrew and bringing me to my knees. We had 2 hours left on the hike, and for the first time in my life, I prayed.

That’s what it feels like to have a passion. Nobody needs to be told to follow it. Working full time on anything other than that passion is like trying to hold in an explosive hot dump. Pursuing a passion is an act of relief, not work.

Problem is, most people don’t think they have a passion. How can you recognize passion if you’ve never felt agony?

Passion does not spring forth from an immaculate conception. It requires a life of exploration and misery and setbacks until you have something to express. That takes work. So get out there and gorge yourself.

How To Do What You Love

Every time I see a news headline bemoaning the 20% underemployment rate and how we’re in the midst of the worst recession in our lifetimes, I cringe a little and wonder if I should hunker down in my cushy shelter of employment for just a tad bit longer. I should really give it at least 6 months, I tell myself. I could learn to like it.

My inner id said No. Not just No but HELL NO. YOU ONLY GET EACH DAY ONCE. How much is it worth to live a day in the prime of my life to its fullest? When I’m 70, what would I give to spend a day as a 30-year-old again? A hell of a lot more than this salary I don’t need.

Life is too short to waste time on tedious work. This is an older essay by Paul Graham. I try to remind myself to read it whenever I’m feeling shiftless. It makes me feel a little bit better about not having everything figured out just yet.

One of my favorite passages:

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!” (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.

How to Do What You Love — Paul Graham