Defining a Meaningful Life
I was having dinner with a friend a few months ago, and as many dinner conversations went at that time, we found ourselves dissecting the 2016 presidential election. After trading similar theories of global discontent with “the establishment” and nationalism, my friend threw in another idea that struck a chord with me. He proposed that society is lacking active, public discourse on how we define and build meaningful lives. It was a theory he was still working through, and it was leading him to build a personal curriculum of philosophical and religious texts.
After talking about that plan and other ways this theory was motivating him, he asked a question that I’d never answered in words before:
“How do you define a meaningful life?”
I wasn’t prepared for such a deep question over tacos and beer, but it was a fun chance to take a stab at articulating an answer to something I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about throughout my life. I ended up identifying three areas that I try to spend time cultivating: family, career, and creative pursuits. I rambled a bit about how a meaningful life is about discovering the right values, pursuing them for the right reasons, and maintaining the proper ratios. And overall, I was satisfied with my answer given the impromptu nature of the question. However, with more conversation, some solitude, and some months of reflection since that dinner, I wanted to explore that question and my initial answers more. While those three areas were a decent start, I’ve expanded them into five categories. Additionally, I’ve spent time considering how I’m tracking against them.
I have a lot of love in my life. And as my friend and I discussed my top value — family — he noted that almost everyone he’s asked the question has some form of “relationships” as an answer. I like that term, because when I initially answered with “family,” I meant not just my family, but also my friends, my wife’s family, her friends, and others that have made an impact in my life.
That said, I probably struggle the most with this value. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m downright shitty when it comes to it. I spend a lot of time in my head — probably too much time. As my family and friends know, I’m sporadic in answering messages, emails, and phone calls. I’m terrible when it comes to acknowledging birthdays and holidays; some years I send gifts and cards, and other years I don’t. So yes, I feel somewhat phony writing about relationships as a major value of mine. But it is! I fully recognize and believe that without relationships, nothing else matters. Really, I do! I just truly struggle with hitting the mark and balancing this value with the others. Please forgive me, friends and fam; I’m trying to do better.
In many ways, I consider my career to be in service of others (more on that below); however, this is another value that’s difficult to balance since the tension between career success and…well…almost everything else is a real thing. The truth is, there’s ALWAYS more work to do. There will never be an end to my to-do list. There’s always more to learn and ways to improve. There are always networking events to attend sitting in my inbox. Opportunities to build my brand abound! Ugh. However, I’m fortunate that my career is well-aligned with my other values, and I work with really great people. We’re doing life-changing, exciting work at SchoolMint, and I find purpose in that. It all makes work feel less like work. Although your mileage may vary, I always recommend that anyone who has flirted with the idea of working at a socially impactful company should give it a shot. It’s been a highlight of my career.
Did I mention that I was discussing the global existential crisis with a friend while eating pork belly tacos and drinking an IPA in downtown Oakland? That energizes me (the discussion, not the tacos and IPA. Ok maybe the IPA too, but the energy is short-lived. I digress.). My closest friends and family would probably tell you that I suck at small talk. I prefer real conversations about difficult problems, coming up with theories, and walking away with more questions than answers. I’m a pretty curious guy, and my piles of books and endless Pocket feed taunt me. And let’s not start on my podcast queue. As I mentioned above, I spend a lot of time in my head, and as with all of these values, there just isn’t enough time.
I’m obligated to serve many communities. I’m part of the Black community, tech community, edtech community, Oakland community, historically oppressed people community, the dudes-who-grew-up-in-Flint-and-became-somewhat-successful community, and different intersections of those and more. And for me, “service” isn’t just about volunteering with an organization. I do that, but I feel that my career is also a service to my communities. I try to make sure that my interactions with people are a service to my communities. My creative pursuits — including this post — are in service of my communities. As I’ve written before, if a young black kid reads my writing and is inspired in some way, I’ve met my goal. That leads to my final value…
I love creating stuff and putting it out into the world. That love led me to engineering, and subsequently, product management. It’s why this article exists. It’s also the reason I’ve worked on countless media projects with friends over the years (including films, online sketch comedy, music, and most recently, a podcast). And, you guessed it, there’s so much more I want to do in this area! I have a long list of fun ideas, but…well…you get it by now — balance.
Is lack of public discourse regarding what it means to live meaningfully one of the reasons for the state of politics around the world? We’ll never know. And although it’s been great identifying how I find meaning and questioning the question that came up that night, I now feel overwhelmed and fradulent. Yay! Thanks for being a part of that!
I guess to some extent, that’s the point. I’ll never achieve the perfect balance, but attempting to meet my standards for these values is how I find meaning in life, at least right now. I’m sure that as my life changes, these values will shift a little. In keeping with my last value above, I’ll try to capture and share those changes. The quest will continue.