Musings on Meaning

I look at my life, and I can measure my significance. I tell myself the story of my career, and I rate the meaningfulness of my days. It isn’t a secret, after all; everyone knows the scale — we’re all somewhere between Billy Graham/Steve Jobs and the people who never even try. But what, exactly, is the metric?

It isn’t money. While money often accompanies significance, it doesn’t guarantee it. There are plenty of wealthy low-raters out there. These are the no-names who enjoy their fortunes but have nonetheless accomplished little that would be considered meaningful. Fame, too, falls short of hitting the mark. While celebrities often use their platforms to grasp at straws of significance, very few achieve the enviable position of a highly rated life.

No, the real measure of meaning is something more nebulous. The real measure of a significant life, as I’ve come to understand it, is what we’ve collectively termed ‘impact.’ There’s no one path to making an impact — no formula or even agreed upon definition. But I know it when I see it. As one of the reigning champions himself — Steve Jobs — put it, impact is achieved when a life lived is so powerful that it can’t help but ‘make a dent in the universe.’

Like a massive asteroid, I want the ripple effects of my short time on earth to be felt for generations after I am gone. I want my life to fundamentally alter the course of human history. Short of this, I at least want to ‘improve’ the lives of thousands or — even better — millions of people. I don’t need people to know my name — but I want the fruits of my life to be a source of goodness, a source of joy, a source of some measure of permanent ‘betterness’ in their days. And all peoples lives are valuable, I think, because all people have the potential to live lives of great impact. This point, however, is where the problems begin.

I don’t want to live a meaning-less life. I want meaning-FULL life. A life filled to the brim, running and spilling over with significance. A good life, simply put, is a meaningful one. But if this notion of ‘impact’ is the metric for meaning, then I must confront the fact that most people are inevitably doomed to lives nearly void of the stuff. It’s a simple supply problem. We can’t all be a radiant spots among the dull mass of humanity — the very notion of impact requires ‘the rest’ to be normal by comparison. It is here that the yawning chasm of my cognitive dissonance is revealed; I affirm the value of potentially impactful lives precisely because they are potentially impactful…while simultaneously recognizing the fact that impact will not and, in fact, cannot be achieved by most people.

You see, I can’t have it both ways. Either achieving ‘impact’ is the metric of a good, meaningful life and the rest (meaning most lives, likely including my own) are thereby rendered fairly meaningless…or impact isn’t an important indicator of a good, meaningful life at all. My thinking towards the former seems to benefit from the same assumptions that those who like to talk about ‘post- apocalyptic survival’ make. They fail to recognize that, in order for the apocalypse to have occurred, most people must be dead — which means that in their imagined scenario they are much more likely to be dead or zombified than having to bother with post-apocalyptic life at all. Instead, they assume they would be the exception.

These assumptions are aided by the effects of survivor bias in our data set, which deceivingly paint a picture in which those who strive hard enough for impact often succeed in achieving it. This is, I’m afraid, an illusion. Once under the microscope, the lives of those who have achieved the greatest impact often did so as a combination of both factors that the person in question could control (such as their own self-discipline) and those factors out of their control (such as being in the right place at the right time). The former were necessary, but not any more or less necessary than the latter. And we cannot control whether the latter should ever occur to us. Is our significance, then, up to factors out of our control? Worse, is a life of meaning a rare occurrence that requires constant diligence, strife, and awareness (in case we should miss it) that will nonetheless almost definitely pass us by? Hardly a motivating thought.

And this is without acknowledging the biggest elephant in the room: impact as a metric for meaning cancels itself out. For, what does it matter if one has ‘made an impact’ in a world where most lives are necessarily less than meaningful? What does it matter if you have ‘improved’ the lives of millions…if those lives are ultimately and unavoidably insignificant? A slightly more comfortable or even greatly more happy life cannot be counted as more valuable on the merit of it being more comfortable or happy — as we have already chosen our metric of value as ‘impact’! The irony here proves fatal; choosing ‘impact’ as a metric for meaning ultimately robs impactful lives of having any meaning at all.

If impact cannot be a metric for meaning — then should it not be celebrated? What, ultimately, does it matter if a life is impactful? How are we to interpret the massive impact of a Steve Jobs, a Billy Graham, or a Martin Luther? Were their lives more meaningful, more significant because of the impact they’ve had on the world…or is it possible that we are obsessing over what, at best, amounts to an anomaly that has much less to do with who they were than we’d like to think? Is it possible to live a life of great impact that is nonetheless insignificant — meaningless? Somewhat counterintuitively, I’m led to believe this is is so. For only by affirming this possibility can we also affirm its companion; a life of little worldly impact can still be one of great meaning, significance, and value.

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G.M. Wood

G.M. Wood

human.

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