Adding Meaning to Life — 3 Years Down the Rabbit Hole

Photo courtesy of Ashley Batz — Unsplash Photo

It has been some time since I have added anything to this publication. Life has a way of winding you through its kaleidoscope of change, carrying you along — leaving you as little more, it seems, than a helpless observer. My life over the past year has been no different and I have found myself in new and strange places. I would like to say — for the sake of my own ego and some half belief we control our destiny — all of this is by design. But, that is a half-truth. I have come to realize our lives are often like rudderless ships in the night — our actions leading to unintended consequences, propelling us through uncharted waters. With this realization comes the temptation to embrace nihilism. Why even bother? But something deep inside the human condition prevents us from drifting along without taking some measure of action as to our course in life. I am no different.

The past year has perhaps been one of the great turning points in my life. Some of this has been the result of my own decisions (though they have not always led me where I envisioned they would). In some instances, I was not sure where certain actions would lead me. I just acted. However, some of the changes were beyond my control.

All of this has been the result of my own personal quest — a quest to add substance and meaning to my existence. I am nearly 3 years into this journey and it has changed much of who I am as well as my perspective on life. And, I have picked up a few things along the way.

Here is what I know.

Define your core values

One of the first ideas I had to contemplate was a set of core values. What do I value in this life and what values do I wish to focus upon? I needed a framework or philosophy with which to navigate, lest I continue drifting along aimlessly through life. This wasn’t easy because it involved a lot of thought, meditation, reflection and truly understanding who I am. It took months, but I finally developed three primary elements I value (and have always valued) in life.

I won’t go into the details of the values I chose, but they have become guiding principles for me. All that I pursue in life, relates to these core values. These values also help me choose what not to pursue or what elements in my life I should walk away from.

If you don’t spend some time analyzing your life and choosing what you value and, subsequently, what you will pursue, you will become a master of nothing and a servant to any and all desires or directions in life. I chose to focus on core values and form them into a philosophy for living. But, you could just as easily work on a philosophy for living (sometimes referred to as a personal philosophy) from different directions. For example, focusing on outcomes or what you want out of life could also help in forming some foundational pillars or elements to live by.

In short, a personal philosophy is essential to narrowing your focus and developing guiding principles for living and pursuing what is most meaningful to you in your life.

Changing what you do can radically change your perspective in life

I have written about work before. Twenty-five percent of our lives or more are spent in a daily grind to just put food on the table and care for our families or ourselves. And though work is not our life, it can make a great deal of difference in how we perceive life, our happiness and our outlook. It can make us miserable or bring us a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. It can bring meaning to our lives or leave us feeling a sense of helplessness caught in the gears and cogs of a large machine beyond our control.

A year ago this month, I watched my daughter graduate from Purdue University — one of those great moments in life I have written of. I helped her move to a new city so she could settle in to her new job on a food production line. And then I watched her struggle with a job that was not a good fit for her interests in Food Science. I empathized with her. It wasn’t that the work was hot and nasty or that the job was not quite what she wanted (although these factors did play a role in her misery). The primary factor was she did not feel as though what she did was contributing to anything meaningful. This stemmed from not feeling appreciated and her quick immersion in a culture that was simply not a good fit for her personality.

I empathized with her because, of course, she is my daughter, but also because I have worked so many similar positions — places where it felt as though I made no meaningful contribution. She has since moved on to a much better position in line with her interests where there is a culture giving her a sense of belonging.

Around the same time my daughter graduated, I took a new position as well. I had really enjoyed my previous job, but had reached a point where I wasn’t growing any longer. I wanted a larger design team to work with and a project that would push my creativity to new heights. I found that in my new position and it has been a rewarding year working with the team and on this new project. As a result of this, I have finally arrived at a place where I am at ease and feel a sense of satisfaction in my career. That has changed my entire outlook on life.

Whether you like it or not, your work is a large part of who you are, your outlook on life and your sense happiness. It can either fulfill or drain you.

Know what gets you out of bed in the morning

Life can become a mundane series of habits and rituals without one really noticing. You get up on Monday, work until Friday and binge watch Netflix on the weekend with maybe a Saturday dinner with friends thrown in. There’s nothing wrong with this. But, what is driving you? What gets you out of bed each morning? What keeps you up at night? We can become so lost in the monotonous routine of our lives, we fail to notice the world churning around us. And, we forget we even have any sort of purpose.

It isn’t easy to identify your purpose. And purpose does not necessarily equate to your passion. Purpose more closely aligns with a sense of accomplishment in life. Years hence, when you look back on life, what will you want to have accomplished?

Living a good life involves fulfilling our purpose. However, our purpose may not simply be a singular entity. A life can have more than one purpose. Perhaps you are a parent, spouse, activist or conduct work in some way that fulfills you.

I have discovered my primary purpose is to create. I am a designer by trade and truly fortunate in the sense that I create something daily. I have left my “design footprints” all over the world at this point and will continue to do so. But I am also the proud owner of a 7-pound geriatric Maltese — Cody. He often gives me more purpose (and reason to rise) than anything in my life. Out of all the loved ones in my life, he needs and relies on me the most.

Cody (aka Little Big Dog)

What works for me will most certainly not work for everyone. But, I am certain most humans need to have some sort of purpose or some thing we are working towards to establish a sense of meaning in our lives — some reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Preserve your past…tell your story

A year or so ago, I came across some old 35mm slides at an estate sale and purchased them. At the time, this became a bit of an obsession with me and I would scour eBay for slide lots and purchase even more. I ended up with thousands of slides. As I began to review them, one thing became apparent: Many of the photographs were of places and things. There would be picture upon picture of beautiful beach scenes or famous landmarks in Rome. There would be less pictures of people.

I noticed some similarities in my own photographs. When my wife and I are on vacation or visit someplace new, I tend to photograph the landmarks, buildings and scenery. This is a bit comical because you can often catch me on a trip with, not one, but two cameras strapped to me. And with all of that photographic technology strapped to my body, it is not uncommon for me to return without a single photograph of my wife or myself.

It seems my slide collection confirms I am not the only person like this in the world. So I have made a point of trying to get pictures of us both together when we travel — a bit of a challenge. The “selfie stick” has solved some of this for many travelers (when it isn’t banned or just inappropriate). The alternate, giving your camera to a stranger can be both awkward and possibly lead to a Clark Griswold moment.

The key here is to consider what others would want to see of your life if they were to look through your photo books or photos (or anything that documents your life). Viewing pages upon pages of landmarks, buildings or scenery might make an interesting portfolio of artistic photography. But, it does not make for a very interesting view of your trip years hence.

Preserving our past and telling our story becomes a challenge in the current world we live in. I am old enough to have lived through a period of time when not everything was electronic. I grew up writing letters and using film cameras where you might grow old with a shoebox full of photographs and correspondence in postmarked envelopes. Email and digital cameras have changed that.

The solutions I have found to this are pretty simple.

With photos, you have the option of publishing your own books on archival quality paper. This converts your digital images to something people can hold in their hands. It also allows you to curate a collection of photos and annotate them — a trip to some foreign land or the early years of you and your child, for example.

Correspondence is a bit more challenging because today (and for the past 20 years) we mostly write via email or in some digital form. However, it is somewhat traditional in America to send cards — especially those holiday cards where you sum up the year. The only problem with this is you have no control over what happens to the card and letter once it is sent. Loved ones move, lose things or maybe throw them away not realizing they could be a keepsake. My approach is to make a copy of the letters you send (either a scanned copy or the original in your handwriting) and put it in a safe place. A better approach is to keep a journal and use this as an archive for both written and digital correspondence. I use Day One and copy emails over to it along with any sort of scanned correspondence. You can then publish your journal using a number of different methods and/or services.

Beyond photos and writings, what else do you have? Do you have a hobby that produces some work of art? Do you paint or work with wood? Perhaps you have a craft of some sort you can begin to curate. And of course there are videos — the endless videos we can so easily create today. Preserve all of these items. They tell your story. Purchase a keepsake box to keep them in or devote a whole room to your items. Build a library of your life.

The larger concept here is to begin curating a collection of what represents your time here on Earth. This can be both valuable to you and to those who live far beyond your time. It is valuable to you in that it gives you a sense of accomplishment. For example, I enjoy sorting through old photos, reading my old handwritten letters or combing through journal entries from years ago. It reminds me of things long forgotten while also giving me a sense of my own growth as a human. It is valuable to relatives and friends who outlive you as a means to remember and cherish your life.

Enjoy today and be cognizant of our limited time here

It’s easy to get caught up in the business of our lives — running around on mundane errands or vegging out in front of our HD televisions. We can easily let the days of our lives slip right through our fingers. Those are the days we won’t remember. This is probably inevitable and as I get older, I have more and more of these days in my life. This is why I keep a journal. But I also have developed a habit of stopping in the midst of each day to simply appreciate my life, the people in it and simply contemplate my existence here. If possible, I try to recognize any memorable moments in my day or create them if there is the opportunity to do so.

This practice is akin to meditation. But I am meditating on my being, my place here and my role in this life. I am savoring the day and in some sense, seizing the day. This practice doesn’t take long and can be very simple. For example, there is a small stream near my office where ducks and geese come to feed. I often walk there during my lunch break and take a moment to reflect (and feed the birds). This small interaction with nature grounds me in the moment and reminds me of my connectedness. Moreover, the ducks never fail to bring a smile to my face.

Enjoy today. And if you feel as though you have nothing to be joyful for, consider a worse scenario than your own. How could your situation be worse? If you try hard enough, you can always imagine a scenario that is worse than your own. And do keep in mind: Our hardest days on this Earth are often those we look back on with the greatest sentiment.

Create experiences and capture life events

I have written of life events before and the importance of capturing them. It can be a trip with your spouse, a vacation, a family reunion, graduations marriages etc. These are life events. But they are not the only moments you’ll remember of your life. When you review your life, you’ll find you remember the simple pleasures as well — an ice cream cone with your son or daughter, the time you were stuck in the pouring rain with your spouse, a long walk on a fall day with someone you care deeply about. Learn to not only recognize these moments, but also to capture them in your memory.

When I was a kid, I used to close my eyes real fast and capture a picture of whatever I saw in my head. I would pretend my head was like a camera and I could capture moments to keep forever. Sometimes I would even tell myself: “You just captured a moment in time — where will you be 10 years from this moment?” I would store these moments in my head thinking my future self might access them. This idea fascinated me as a child. I still remember many of those moments and have done this all the way into my adult years. One of those moments was when they first put my daughter in my arms. I was the first one to hold her and I closed my eyes really fast and captured a moment thinking this little girl will be grown someday. I wondered where I would be. I have many moments of her and my life captured this way. When my dog, Jasmine, was getting older — years before she died — I would lay with her and wallow on the carpet with her just capturing the moment because I knew it wouldn’t last forever.

Life events, such as graduation, marriages and child birth are often beyond our control. We don’t usually actively create a life event like this. But we can work to create moments and memorable experiences in our lives. Binge watching Netflix will probably result in a pretty slim chance of creating a memorable experience in your life as would another trip to the mall to buy shit you don’t need. But, a day trip with your spouse or child to someplace new will always be in your memory (even if the trip turns into a disaster). Some of my worst trips are the ones I laugh the hardest about and remember the most.

Turn off the TV, put down the phone and just spend some time with someone you love — pet or human. You’ll give yourself a chance to create another memory in your life. Write it down, photograph it or shoot some video. You’ll thank yourself for it in years to come.

Eliminate the waste and simplify to focus on what’s important to you

The result of all I have learned in the past 3 years has pushed me to “streamline” and “refine” my life. I have become hypersensitive to my limited time here. This has prompted me to begin curating the story of my life through artifacts while also working to create memorable moments I can curate in the future. My search for a sense of purpose and all that is meaningful in life has led to a natural tendency to eliminate waste.

Time is a commodity no human can corner the market on. We can’t get time back and it is all too easy to let it slip away minute by minute — day by day. And not a single day goes by without me thinking at least once about my mortality. At various points in each day I ask myself a single question: Is this the best use of my time here? I can be in the midst of a meeting, handling email or sitting on the couch in the evening. And I will ask myself that single question.

This isn’t a productivity technique or “hack.” It’s my way of grounding myself in the moment and being cognizant of my time and how I am spending it. It is not a question to push me to some new productivity peak where I am constantly producing or working. Sometimes reflecting on life or relaxing in front of the TV is good for us. Most things in moderation are good for us.

The result is, I’ve become quite adept at filtering out the “noise” in my life. The precursor to this has been understanding my strengths — knowing what I am good at. This enables me to avoid meetings where I can add little or no value. It enables me to quickly sort through emails, only answering those requiring input from me where I can provide value. Knowing where I excel and where I don’t gives me insight into what I should or should not be doing (or pursuing) at any point in the workday and prevents me from spinning my wheels trying to get something done that would take someone else on my team half the time.

But there are virtually dozens of items, beyond work, in our life where this applies. Is money or time a more precious resource? For me right now in my life, time is. If I can spend a small amount of money to get a home repair job completed or have some maintenance issue taken care of by someone else versus spending a Saturday afternoon doing it myself, I opt for the former. Consider the true value of your time and spend it wisely.

If you would have asked me three years ago where I would be today or what I would be doing, I would have most certainly had a speculative answer. I might have spewed forth ideas of where I would be in my career while mentioning some side projects I was working on and plans I had that would never come to fruition. But, my answer would not have addressed my life, it’s trajectory, it’s impact or who I am as a person. I probably wouldn’t have mentioned my values or had any idea what my values are. In short, there would have been no focus or cohesive philosophy in my answer. I had no principles with which to guide my life.

It isn’t that I was aimlessly wandering through life, never thinking about any of this. I have always been quite contemplative and reflective. But in some sense, I had never truly meditated on the holistic nature of my life — looking back on it from some far away future vantage point to understand the story it told or the story I wanted it to tell.

It’s impossible to predict where exactly you will be in five years or twenty. But if you know where you want to be through a set of guiding principles, you can check the winds, gain your bearings and read the stars to garner a sense of your current direction. You can, in short, assess whether or not you are heading in the wrong direction. This is where I was three years ago — moving in the wrong direction, aimlessly drifting with the winds. And as funny or sad as it might seem to some, one small dog has made all the difference.

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Meaning in Life, Existentialism and Being

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Chris Kiess

Chris Kiess

Healthcare User Experience Designer in the Greater Chicago area

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