Are Purpose and Meaning Overrated?

IMG_20180608_110152553I finally started reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. I haven’t finished yet so I won’t be doing a full review in this post. But I read a chapter that, had I read it in my 20s, would have more than likely changed the course of my career if not my life.

Yeah, it was that powerful – to me anyway.

The chapter was called Live in the Present Moment. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

If you’re anything like me when you read that you wrinkled your nose because you’ve met and known people who are only about living in the now. Instant gratification. No planning. No consequences. And have tried to live in the exact opposite way.

On the surface it seems counter intuitive. It seems to be completely opposite of the stoic way of life. On the surface, but once I started to think about it I realized that to live in the present moment doesn’t mean I don’t plan for the future. It simply means that I don’t worry about what obstacles might – might – pop up along the way.

But as I read this chapter I was able to understand what living in the present is really supposed to be about. It also reminded me of all the times I’ve heard people say they were born in the wrong time usually because they feel misunderstood or mistreated or this is the worst time to be alive. That always confused me, because we’re alive now so why not make the most of it instead of whining about how different we wished it was or how better we think it used to be?

Holiday lists all the companies that started in the worst economic times in U.S. history and have thrived. It was almost like they didn’t know the country was in a recession, depression, or post bubble…

Then he brought the chapter to a more personal level when he wrote:

Yet in our own lives, we aren’t content to deal with things as they happen. We have to dive endlessly into what everything “means”, whether something is “fair” or not, what’s behind this or that, or what everyone else is doing. Then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to actually deal with our problems. Or we get ourselves so worked up and intimidated because of over thinking, that if we’d just gotten to work we’d probably be done already.

His point was that most people start at a disadvantage and end up doing just fine…

In our search for meaning we’ve given the minutiae of everyday life way too much importance and power. We feel like if what we’re doing doesn’t have any greater meaning or purpose then there’s something wrong. Or if our job isn’t fulfilling some deep-seated need then it’s time to move on.

See if we go looking for trouble we will without a doubt find it. It’s that way with anything we look for – good or bad. If we focus on what we don’t have then of course our life will lack meaning and what we do have – gainful employment – will always fall short.

This seems to simple and yet I’m not sure I would have got it in my 20s. I was so miserable that I needed to blame it on everyone and everything around me. And when things started to go wrong where I worked it surely wasn’t my fault. And there certainly wasn’t anything I could have done to make things okay enough to stay.

No, the only solution was to run away because I wasn’t being treated/paid ‘fairly’ or I needed to find something that would add more ‘meaning’ to my life. Running away made it possible to feel sorry for myself and never take responsibility for my own misery.

But running away cost me a decade or more of true growth. It only added to my misery. It blinded me to the opportunities that I can only imagine were right there for the taking if I had only been able to see them.

This is the flip side of living in the present moment, though. The first side is not worrying unduly about bad things that may or may not happen in the future, but the flip side is not obsessing about the past, not regretting. Only learning and growing.

I can’t wait to read the rest of Holiday’s book. I’m sure it will be filled with other life-changing concepts. If you’ve read The Obstacle is the Way please feel free to comment and share your favorite parts!


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