For the past few months or so since starting my second year, I have done a lot of thinking about life. A lot of it was inspired by late night conversations with my friends, as we analyzed life’s purpose and meaning. Some could say we were just experiencing quarter life crisis. However, I realized that the largest reason why I was experiencing these thoughts was because for the past few years of my life, I have been listening to the noise of the norms, beliefs, and behaviours of those around me, and not to myself.
What exactly do I mean by this?
A sense of meaning for many students is relative to achievement, particularly academic and career achievement. It comes with no surprise that many of us grew up with dreams of being doctors, lawyers, scientists. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these dreams. However, when these dreams originate from a desire for prestige and achieving a pinnacle of a status culture, are these dreams really yours?
The Prestige Trap
I am guilty of falling into the prestige trap. In my senior year of high school, I planned out a ten-year plan after reading a stupid “10 Things To-Do to be Successful by Your Mid-20s” article. Get high grades in high school, get into a good university program, maintain good grades, find an amazing summer job, build an impressive resume, make lots of money, and travel. I thought that accomplishing all these things would mean I achieved “success”.
Then I got to university.
My plan started falling apart at the seams. My grades were not where I wanted them to be, I struggled with homesickness, and I had no clue where to start with finding a job. By January of 2018, my anxiety was at an all-time high and I felt like my life was a lie. It is clear when I reflect now, my sense of self-worth and happiness at the time was inherently tied to our society’s f*cked up idea of success. Ultimately, I was obsessed with material and career achievements — what I thought was success. What made it even more difficult was being surrounded by peers who I thought at the time were all happy, “successful”, and had their lives together.
Our entire lives, we’re being told how to live our lives. From self-help books, to our parents, to the careers class in Grade 10, everyone is trying to tell you what you should do with your life. Society has set out certain paths of life to ascribe for that dictate how you act, what you do, and how you feel. Conformity is defined as prescribing to a norm that guides beliefs and behaviours in order to fit in a group. Ultimately, most people conform to society’s expectations. However, conforming to these paths don’t necessarily mean you are living, but perhaps that you are simply existing.
“John did all of this to get to this incredible school, where he did all of this to get that amazing job where he makes so much money, and now look how great his life is!”
We’ve probably all heard of or know of a John in our lives. Teachers, friends, and family would constantly fawn over these Johns. I would compare myself to these Johns and constantly feel ashamed and insecure about myself because I could never measure up to these so-called “success stories”. Beyond that, social media would enforce images of people looking happy and successful. Was I the only one struggling with my purpose?
This draws me back to something that I read over the summer in Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He details a much better process for achieving “success”.
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it!” — Victor E. Frankl
The world we live in is oversaturated with unlimited distractions that vie for our attention. The deafening opinions and ideals of others make it difficult for even the most independent and stubborn people to calm their minds and find their own truth.
The Meaning of Life (vaguely)
This all brings me back to the question that started everything out. What is the meaning of life?
Meaning is what we ourselves make of it. The global average life span is around 79 years. On average, we could spend up to 63 years of our life working, sleeping, in school, eating, commuting, and cleaning. That doesn’t leave a lot of time left for us to do what we truly want to do. At the end of the day, it becomes clear that only one thing matters — your own happiness and meaning. We waste so much of our lives trying to achieve things that don’t give us genuine happiness. Sure, that six figure salary might mean you have financial freedom to buy a beautiful home early on in your career; a home that you may barely spend time in as you toil through a job you hate.
“If we had a bank account into which $86,400 were deposited each day, with the remaining balance being deleted at 12 AM, we’d all be sure to draw out every cent and spend it wisely. Yet, we give away the 86,400 seconds we’re given each day to strangers and senseless pursuits.”
This is a quote I always find myself coming back to. We make choices as we spend the limited time we have in our lives. You made a choice to spend some time reading this article (assuming you’ve read up to this point).
What I have come to realize is that so many of us spend so much of our time wasted in the noise of other people’s opinions and lives. The Johns I looked up to? There are over 7.5 billion people in the world, and it’s insane to consider that what worked for one person out of that several billion people, would work for me.That ten year plan I set for myself in grade 12? I was wasting time thinking and planning, instead of doing.
Clarity for me now comes from removing myself from the stimuli of overwhelming opinions from peers, family, and social media. I still struggle with things like FOMO (fear of missing out) and my peer’s opinions of me. However, I now make it a priority to live for myself and strive to care less about the things that ultimately don’t matter to me.
Elon Musk described a really effective method to achieve this during his USC Commencement Speech. I’d like to emphasize that living for myself is a process that I work on achieving everyday. It is definitely not something that comes overnight.
“And then the final thing is, is to sort of, don’t just follow the trend. So, you may have heard me say that it’s good to think in terms of the physics approach, the first principles. Which is, rather than reasoning by analogy, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths you can imagine, and then you reason up from there. And this is a good way to figure out if something really makes sense or is it just what everybody else is doing. It’s hard to think that way, you can’t think that way about everything. It takes a lot of effort. But if you’re trying to do something new, it’s the best way to think. And that framework was developed by physicists to figure out counter intuitive things, like quantum mechanics. It’s really a powerful, powerful method.” — Elon Musk