The search for meaning (TEDx transcript)

This is the transcript of my TEDx Surat talk (delivered on October 7th, 2018), which is adaptation of  my earlier & longer post on the same topic.

Raise your hand if you have pondered over one of these existential questions: What’s the purpose of life? What is the meaning of my life? What are humans doing on earth? Or in short, what is the essence of our existence?

Humanity has been asking these big questions of life, for perhaps as long as we have been conscious of our existence including this not-so-unique family that I am going to talk about today:

This is the Father: he has struggled and worked hard to start a business which is now reasonably successful & settled. This is the Mother: hardworking, industrious and always busy with chores. And this is their Son: freshly armed with an MBA, looking to set foot in the world of work.

Like most of you here, they have sufficient money to meet their basic needs such as roti, kapda, makaan & gaadi (and an annual foreign vacation if you are a Gujarati) . They are generally a happy family; they are active socially and are well respected by their friends and family.

Yet there are discontented with their lives. The members of this family are wondering about the purpose of their lives, even though they are at different stages and places in their lives.

The Father seems to be going through a midlife crisis. He’s asking, “Is earning money my only goal in life? And now that I have earned enough money, and my business is well set, what should I do now? Do I have a 2nd innings in me?

The Son on the other hand is wondering about how to start his 1st innings: “Should I join my father’s business? Or should I take that banking job where I will work endlessly with spreadsheets and numbers? Neither of them sound very exciting or challenging. Can’t I do something else?”

Like many Indian mothers, the Mother too is wondering what do with her life now that her children have grown up. She’s asking, “Is taking care of the house, cooking, cleaning and attending social functions the rest of my life as well? Is there more to my life that this?

These questions are a sign of discontentment with life. Such people have a need to show the world and themselves who they are or what they can really do. They seem to have a spark or as we call it, a keeda. If you are also one of those who has such a bug, then you too may have asked such existential questions.

Some of us have sought the answers through religion as religions have claimed to have authoritative answers to the mysteries of life since the dawn of human civilization. Religion has often dictated the meaning of life as service to God through rituals and prayers or sometimes through service to those in need. Yet the authority that religion had in times of ignorance, poverty and strife, has diminished in a world that’s far more knowledgeable, prosperous and safer (despite what the breaking news seems to be telling us). Many of us thus seek for the answers beyond religion, whether passively or actively.

I too have been pondering for many years about the meaning of life and while I don’t claim to have either an authoritative or a perfect answer; but I believe I do have a pragmatic answer:

The meaning of life is what we define it to be.

This means that we can choose what our lives mean by what we do. There are multiple ways to do so. Most of us are familiar with the meaning that we can find in our relationships with family and friends. In fact, a longitudinal Harvard study which tracked participants over 75 years concluded that good quality of our relationships is what makes us happy eventually, and therefore what makes our lives meaningful. This is seeking meaning through connection.

Making a difference in others lives, or seeking meaning through contribution is another popular method. I know one such group of ladies who have adopted a municipal school to help the children academically through tuitions and otherwise through exposure to a range of extra-curricular activities. That these ladies could’ve done much more with their lives professionally but are limited by societal structures, their conditioning and their choices is another matter.

The courageous seekers among us go further. Youngsters who choose to travel the world before they start college or work are seeking meaning through self-exploration of roles and identities. Exploration of the world leads to self-discovery: understanding what they really want to do in life or overcoming a set of social constraints or painful growing up experiences, which most of us have. Of course, the search for meaning is neither restricted by age or the means.

Many middle aged men and women nowadays take up running, cycling, gymming, or a sport to get fitter. But some of them choose to go well beyond basic fitness requirement; they choose to participate in marathons, triathlons or they just go on long cycling tours to coastal Karnataka and Goa or all the way to Leh-Ladakh. Considering that such endeavours require significant money, effort, time and change in lifestyle, this quest is driven by the need to accomplish something challenging; or in other words it’s the search for meaning in life through challenge and accomplishment.

Here I would like to distinguish between accomplishment and achievement. For the amateur runner, accomplishment may mean finishing the half-marathon in less than 2 hours as against the sub-one hour achievement level for professional runners. Therefore, accomplishment is a challenging but self defined goal, which when attained leads to a sense of accomplishment independent of external validation or the scale or size of whatever you’re pursuing.

Then there are those of us who make unconventional career choices. A degree from IIT, followed by an MBA at a world-class college, and then a top tier consulting job in the US of A is the aspiration of crores of Indians. Yet this gentleman, after having “achieved” this, dropped all of it to pursue his passion. He moved lock, stock and barrel to Coimbatore to study Sanskrit, the Bhagvad Gita and Vedas for 6-7 years. While he continues to do part-time consulting work in our city to earn a livelihood, the meaning to his life lies in sharing his learnings through regular Vedanta classes and lectures. This then is the search for meaning through your passion.

Now wouldn’t it be great if we could all make careers of our passions from the very beginning? Make our passion our 1st innings rather than leaving it for our 2nd innings? Sportspersons, entrepreneurs, musicians, travel bloggers are among those who are able to make their passion their work thereby finding meaning while making a living; but these are also the kind of careers that require a lot more struggle without any guarantee of success.

The reality is that only a few of us have the right combination of talent, risk appetite, dedication  and the circumstances to make our passions our careers; which means most of us still need to do mundane, humdrum, stressful or even boring work to ensure roti, kapdaa, makaan and gaadi for our families. It would be a shame if we were to spend most of our life working without finding any meaning in it.

Turns out – there is a way to make our work meaningful; by creating flow experiences. Has there been a time when you have lost yourself completely in an activity? It happens for me when I am taking a training session with teachers, when I am reading or playing Ultimate Frisbee. For others it might happen when you are running, or playing garba, or creating an artwork. Some even manage to find these flow experiences at work – when tackling a particularly tricky problem, in conducting complex negotiations, or creating a vision for their firm.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has spent years in studying these flow experiences, says that what’s common between such flow experiences are that:

  • They challenge us and yet are not beyond our skill or ability level
  • They give us instant feedback of what we have done well and what we can do better
  • They allow us to be in control rather than being driven by external timelines and pressures.

He quotes the example of an assembly line worker who challenges himself to do better both qualitatively and quantitatively in all the jobs assigned to him such that he becomes the most respected and well known employee of the firm despite never taking up a leadership role.

Now, if an assembly line worker can make his work meaningful, then surely most of us can also find meaning in our work by building flow experiences:

  • While a flow experience can’t be achieved in every task that we do, we need to put ourselves in the flow zone as much as possible by taking up tasks that are challenging yet within our skill level.
  • At the same time, we need to seek feedback actively and train ourselves to become better at what we do and to learn new skills.
  • And we need to set goals regularly to attain that sense of accomplishment.

And if despite these efforts, you are unable to build flow experiences in your work, then re-evaluate whether you are in the right career or company in the first place; and you may find an altogether different calling for your 2nd innings.

Not unlike Ms Julia Child who began her career in the US Navy but is famed for her cookbooks, the first of which she published at the age of 49. Closer home, Gandhiji started off his career as a lawyer, but realized that his calling was activism, which he pursued for 21 years in South Africa. Only at the age of 46 did he set foot in India to lead the struggle for Indian independence, in what you could almost call a 3rd innings.

Given examples like these, both, of famous people and people that we know of personally, we can claim that the purpose of life is a perpetual search for the purpose of life.

As we have seen, the purpose of our lives could come through the flow experiences in our work and through the various routes for seeking meaning – connection, contribution, self-exploration of roles and identities, through challenge & accomplishment or by following our passion. The routes that we choose to find meaning need not be exclusive. We may choose a combination of routes based on our priorities, circumstances and as we understand ourselves better.

That brings us back to the family that we began with; at this stage in his life, the son is figuring out which route to take in his journey of self-exploration. Will he find meaning in growing his dad’s business? Can he make flow experiences in the banking role? Or does he have the gumption to figure out what he’s truly passionate about and make that passion his 1st innings?

The mother and the father are figuring out which route to take in their 2nd innings. The mother is wondering whether she can start a small business or should she start volunteering at the local orphanage. The father is wondering whether he can pursue his childhood passion for music seriously or should he take the challenge of running a marathon at the age of 50 – or perhaps take on both challenges together.

What choices will they make? Where will they take their lives? It’s by answering questions like these, that this family and the discontented among us, will define the meaning of their lives. Richard Bach sums up the dynamic and never-ending nature of the search for meaning in life succinctly when he says:

“Here’s a test to find out if your mission on Earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

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