It could be an existential theme, but I’m feeling a little depressed. I saw the sunrise in Casablanca, and by the time I finish writing this, I’ll have seen the sunset in San Francisco, in the same day, thanks to plane flights and time zones (and maybe a little bit of apparating).
I know I know, how can I feel depressed when I’ve just been to the continent of Africa?
Well, first, tonight’s sunset will signify the end of a reunion trip with some of my best friends and family; when you have friends and family as unique as mine, leaving them is tough. Second, I realized something over the course of my trip, something that directly links to the recent theme of existential angst:
My life doesn’t have a defined direction. Sure, I’ve always known deep down that I want to make an impact on the world, and that I want to leave a positive legacy, but I realized that I don’t even know what impact and legacy mean. And with that, I found the root of my existential angst, the cause of my low-level depression, and potentially the cause of yours.
It’s pretty hard to achieve a goal or achieve your life’s work when you can’t even define what those are, to yourself. What are your long-term goals, and more importantly, what’s your life’s work? When you lay on your death bed, what will you point to to prove your life mattered?
For me, I always thought that my life’s work was to make an impact on a societal scale, and to leave a multi-generational legacy. Sounds great (and even warm and fuzzy!), but that’s really not much to go on. These buzzwords don’t give a tangible direction to move toward, and don’t provide a quantitative measuring stick for personal success.
If making an “impact” and leaving a “legacy” means my life will have mattered, but I can’t even define what those words mean, how can I feel I’m making progress or working toward anything at all? I don’t think I’m alone in this situation. When you think about your inability to truly define what your ultimate goals are, it’s pretty easy to see why we’re subject to the human condition, and why we fall pray to existential angst.
So, in between tea, targine and elusive Moroccan beers, I understood that in order to shake my existential depression, I needed to define what my ultimate goals are and what my life’s work will be. I think you should do the same.
Sounds scary though, right? Defining our life’s work can literally be a lifelong process. It wouldn’t be too fun to be depressed and angsty until we’re 70, or even older.
Well, lucky for us, our ultimate goals and the measuring stick for our success don't need to be a well-defined event, only a framework used to make decisions. If your framework is strong enough, and firmly built on your underlying values and principles, it will push you toward the goals, events and meaning you seek.
For example, at my stage of life, there’s no way I can define specifically what my life’s work will be. In fact, many of us might not find our life’s work until much later in life. But don’t fret, there’s a way to give your life meaning in the moment and still propel you toward the discovery of your ultimate purpose.
And this is what I came up with:
- Accumulation of positive experiences with people you bring into your life
To me, making a large-scale impact means directly contributing to the advancement of humanity. I’m self-identified as a space nerd, and if we don’t figure out how to leave our solar system, galaxy, or even our universe, the human race will go extinct.
Now, that wouldn’t happen for millions, even billions of years of course, and we’ll probably cause a self-extinction before then, but there’s no denying our Sun will implode one day, and that the Universe will expand so much that it'll go cold.
When I look at Candy Crush and all its copy cats, snuggies and even speed boats, I can’t help but ask, why? How is this making an impact; how is this changing our existence? Well, it’s not. To make a massive impact, you either need to contribute to an invention or event that directly or indirectly increases human longevity, or inspire someone who will.
And when I think of legacy, it’s of the Einstein-ian type, where thoughts and ideas permeate through multiple generations. But, if you can make a massive impact, then you kind of take care of your legacy. While you’re making that impact though, make sure you’re also leaving a positive legacy with individuals in your life. A lasting legacy is to be remembered as a positive influence, both on the societal and personal level.
Wow...pretentious much? I know this sounds pretty self-rightous, and trust me, I want a speed boat as much as I want to make an impact. I’m just saying that for me, I need to be working toward impact and legacy to quench my existential angst - all while making money and having a kickass life, of course!
Just because you want to help the world doesn’t mean you have to join the Peace Core. It’s ok to want material possessions, too. I know I do.
Regardless, these two definitions have finally given me a framework to take action. Moving forward, with any major decision, I simply have to ask myself: will this help me make a massive impact and will this help me leave a lasting legacy, based on the definitions above? If the answer is yes, do it. If the answer is no, well, time to keep searching.
So even though I don’t know exactly what my life’s work will be, I now have a decision-making framework to help me move in the direction of that work. This gives my life purpose and meaning because I know that as long as I keep trying and having new experiences, I’ll find exactly what I need. In fact, by using this framework, with each action I take or decision I make, I know that I’m building the proper skills so that when I find my calling, I’ll have the tools necessary to succeed.
I don’t think even Elon Musk could have created SpaceX until he was ready.
Wait, there’s more! Making an impact and leaving a legacy both are great, yes, but life is also about the experience. I’d be remiss if we forgot about the underlying meaning of life: the journey.
While I’m dedicated to (eventually) advancing humanity and changing the world, I also love to travel, meet interesting people and drink good beer. Time ownership is very important; you’ll need it to both pursue your life’s work as well as have one helluva time.
So I’ve added a third part to my decision-making framework. You guessed it, time. To me, I define time in the following way:
- Ability to spend that free time in ways that yield the most personal value
Owning your time means you own your life. Whether you want to invent a new form of space flight or go skiing in the Alps, it always helps to have the maximum amount of free time - which is the amount of time you have available to spend how you see fit.
The beauty of this definition of time is that it doesn’t say how you should spend it, only that you spend it how you want. And when you spend your time how you want, it takes care of the experiences needed to either find your life’s work or accumulate the skills needed to be successful in your life’s work.
In essence, there’s a symbiotic relationship between your calling and your time: increasing your free time and spending it in ways that derive value will help you find your calling. Then, once you’ve had your fill of the Swiss Alps, you’ll have the time to pursue your calling.
For me, I now have a complete framework to help me reduce my existential angst and make the right decisions for my life. Every major decision or action should directly or indirectly increase my impact, increase my legacy and increase my free time. If not, what’s the point?
I think it’s time each of us get intentional about our decisions and actions. We may not know our destination, but we do know our desired direction.
By defining your decision-making framework, you’re once step closer to your life’s work and your ultimate purpose. After that? Well, it’s nothing more than experiences, experiences, experiences - all of which fit inside your framework.