Why Meaning Means More

When I was a little kid, I used to chant to myself quietly: “I am, I am, I am, I am” and, repeated enough times, this would send me into a state of pure wonder: “So wait, is this thing for real? You mean I (the reality and shape of that “I” felt so unchallengeable and so unbreakable—it must have been the last time I truly knew who I was) actually am? And I’m in it for the long haul? I’m doing this Life thing, I’m going to grow up, grow old and then die?” It’s not that I was scared of dying; I was just in awe of the fact that I, who knew myself to be timeless (not because I was particularly wise or spiritual, but because I was four—or are the two in fact the same thing?), was also about to go through a very time-bound and time-defined experience. It was unfathomable, but undeniable, and that first brush with paradox is still the closest I ever got to a true religious experience.

But once you know you’re in it (and hopefully for the long haul), you start to wonder what it is exactly that you’re in. Ok, we’re here, we’re doing this Life thing, and we’re doing it as best we can, but what does it all mean?

It’s such a daunting question that, at least for a while, we may do our best to avoid it, or to find some easy, ready-made answer. The most popular strategy in my own narrow circle is to get very busy at “doing life as best we can” (I’ve been at it since I started school, and can testify that it’s surprisingly effective, but not bulletproof). But if you live long enough, the question will eventually catch up with you. And here’s a fact combo about the times we live in which might be slightly depressing if you’re of the avoidant persuasion: we’re living longer AND this pesky question of meaning is catching up with us faster than it used to. The power of compounding (how I’ve longed to say this outside of a corporate finance context!) means, therefore, that we are increasingly unlikely to get out of this adventure without grappling with the question of meaning.

meaning-of-life

(This cartoon is presumably a Schultz from the Peanuts collection, but I could only find it on various random websites with no attribution…)

We’re living longer, and that means we need to figure out new rules for life

This is maybe not immediately apparent, surrounded as we are by a constant stream of news about the next thing that’s going to kill us (Cancer? Terrorism? Superbugs? Nuclear war? Reality TV-induced angst?), but, on average, we are probably going to be living for a whole lot longer than we thought. If you’re in your 40s, you can reasonably expect to live to 85 or so; if you’re in your twenties, you’d better be prepared to become a stylish (and hopefully healthy, so eat your greens!) centenarian. In their “brilliant, timely, original, well written and utterly terrifying” (I’m quoting Niall Ferguson here) book “The 100-Year Life”, London Business School professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argue that this increase in life expectancy must be accompanied by a complete overhaul of the way we think about life. The old education-work-retirement life cycle simply does not work in the context of a 100-year life. So what will we do instead? The future, as ever, is still unclear, but here are some pointers from the professors: people will work much longer, into their 70s and 80s, which means that there will be a lot more experimentation as we need to learn new jobs and skills, and have multiple careers over a lifetime.

Think you’re exempt from having to worry about all this because you’ve made, or hope to be making, enough money to retire early and you’re looking forward to sailing your yacht for the next 50 years? Well, getting the finances right will not be everything, because home and work relationships will also change. And here’s the real rub: “When lives are short, the concept of who you are develops without a great deal of insight or transformation. Yet when lives are long, what is the thread that connects the many transitions a person goes through? What is it that remains essentially you? […] In a way that past generations simply didn’t have to, each one of us will need to think about who we are and how we construct our life and how this reflects our identity and values”. So yeah, you may be on a yacht, but the mean meaning question will be sailing along with you.

Hungry for more

This might again be a surprising hypothesis in our world of logos, Kardashians, FROW mania and must-haves, but it seems we are “in the middle of a ‘fourth great awakening’, which is defined by an interest in ‘spiritual’ concerns like purpose, knowledge and community over ‘material’ ones like money and consumer goods”. Think that’s Eckhart Tolle or the Dalai Lama? Nope, it’s Robert William Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, quoted in the second book that got me hooked over the past couple of months: “The Power of Meaning“, by Emily Esfahani Smith. Esfahani Smith argues that any meaning-generating experience rests on four “pillars”: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence, a link to something greater than ourselves. You’ll have to read the book for more on those four elements and how they come together to create meaning (I promise you’ll love it, and if my promise is not enough then maybe the fact that Adam Grant, Arianna Huffington, Dan Pink and Susan Cain all wrote glowing blurbs on the back cover might sway you; or, at least, read the original article that got her started on thinking about the book).

But let’s return to this idea that we are living in an era in which we crave meaning more than ever. Surely that’s a good thing, right? Well, yes and no, because those four elements of meaning can be underpinned by hatred and divisiveness just as well as by positive values: cults and extremist groups can be incredibly effective sources of meaning, especially since they are less likely to let silly little things like the truth stand in the way of a good story. I’m sure you don’t have to try very hard to see how this has played out in recent history. Go ahead, check whatever you’ve just thought of against the four pillars: does it give its supporters a sense of belonging, of being part of the in-group? Does it give them a purpose, something to fight for? Does it tell a good story? Does it connect people to something larger than themselves, whether it’s divinity, a certain version of morality, ethics, principles, or a perceived greater good? Bingo! Our growing hunger for meaning implies that, if we’re not careful, we’re increasingly vulnerable to being recruited by Voldemort’s Death Eaters instead of joining Dumbledore’s Army, just like we’re more vulnerable to hitting the chocolates in the vending machine instead of the salad bar the hungrier we get.

Stay away from the junk food drawer

So what do we do? I’m not an expert in meaning or spirituality, but a good few decades of living with an incredibly assertive sweet tooth have taught me a thing or two about dealing with food, so I’ll keep with the hunger metaphor. Here’s what I’d say: let’s not let ourselves get too hungry. Let’s think about meaning before we have to, before it becomes such an overpowering need that we will reach for whatever’s at hand, for the story that’s easiest to digest. Let’s pay attention to the warning signs that say we might be getting too hungry to think straight. Let’s think about meaning soon, while we still have patience to struggle with some hard truths and to try to understand other points of view. And then, when we’re one hundred years old and still living life to the full, I say we all get together for a bake-off. And yes, we can have it on your yacht if you insist.

 

 

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