The Power of the Meaningless
Why we don’t need a reason for everything
This is not another piece about following your passions. This is not a commentary about making a career from what you love. This is not an essay on being more productive. This is about taking things less seriously, and enjoying life as best you can.
When we talk about things that have meaning we are usually referring to things essential to survival. Most of our lives are made of things that ladder up to something else: feeding ourselves, clothing ourselves, finding shelter and raising our families. We act in service of these things. In the service of these responsibilities our actions have significance. We act in a way where what we do can be explained. Even with the smallest actions we like for there to be a point, cause in a chaotic world full of unpredictability having a point makes us feel grounded. It gives us a reason to live.
Recently, I painted a wall in my office with chalkboard paint. I don’t have kids and I’m not an illustrator. I painted the wall to draw letters and numbers from typefaces I find beautiful. I am not a type designer or a letterer nor do I want to be. When a friend visited me and saw my chalkboard she asked why in the world I had invested so much time in such a thing, something seemingly meaningless. My frustration was palpable. I had no reason. I like typography. That’s why!
For me there is something valuable in the meaninglessness of drawing letters on my chalkboard. That part of my office has become a place where there are no consequences. No one is depending on my chalkboard to look pretty. No one is waiting for me to finish anything. It is a place of choice. A place of freedom.
Getting away from meaning allows the stress-free expression of action without weighty consequence. If you skip work, if you simply don’t go, there are consequences so great that they could threaten your very existence. Going to school can feel the same. Raising our children, cleaning our apartments, running errands, all of these things are life or death decisions. But finding a place where the consequences aren’t so great allows us a place to relax. Finding the opportunity to do something meaningless allows us to play, to take risk and fail without some repercussion that may kill us in the end.
There is a host of things you can do that are meaningless. Build a house of cards. Make an origami bird. Cut down a tree and leave it there. Simply doing an action or activity that has no meaning is not the point. The power of the meaningless is found in exploring something you’re interested in, something you like, something that excites you, but without the pressure of having to make that thing your career or become a master of it or get approval.
However, finding something that’s powerfully meaningless can be hard to do. I’ve asked myself this many times: How can I spend my time in a way that feels significant but has no heavy consequences? With the pressures of work and social obligation and just getting enough sleep to not be an asshole, I see myself spending that time on a beach somewhere; turquoise water lapping white sand and beautiful topless women strolling the beach around me. That’s the right kind of meaningless, right? Seems pretty significant to me.
But if I take myself to that beach, past my second mojito, I wind up thinking about other things. I wind up pondering the sea life in the ocean or how many grains of sand there are or who designed my Tiki glass or why I have nipples. This is where I find the power in meaninglessness. What are the things I would think about after two drinks on a majestic, foreign beach? Or after I have sex with a beautiful topless beach-woman. Where would my mind go, where would my intellectual curiosity take me? With these considerations, I arrive at my answers for meaningless activities: taking a class in earth science or starting a blog about cookware design or writing a short story about nipples. Through exploring these things, I find myself capturing moments of relaxation, of peace and of satisfying solitude.
I’ve been convinced of this practice by my favorite designers and artists. There’s Tina Roth Eisenberg and her focus on side projects. The seemingly meaningless nature of side projects can open incredible doors. Or there’s Frank Chimero and his focus on doing things the long, hard, stupid way. It’s often the “stupid” things that are brilliantly meaningless and brilliantly powerful. Or Kevin Carroll who illuminates the power in play. The pointlessness of play has been proven to have incredible impact. These thinkers and doers highlight the underlying power of meaningless activity: having faith that when you enjoy yourself, when you do things that move you, something opens inside. There is peace in that place. There is happiness. There is deep satisfaction.
It’s not what we’re taught. It’s not how we’re raised, but doing things because they excite you is as powerful as doing things because they pay the rent.
Anais Nin once said “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life.” There is a beautiful thing that happens when, for a moment, we let life be meaningless and find the meaning therein.
When was the last time you did something powerfully meaningless?