4 insights from Man’s Search For Meaning

Man’s Search For Meaning is a book I have heard recommended on many podcasts, blogs, and from other authors. In the book, Viktor Frankl, who was a psychiatrist, describes his time as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He describes the suffering and horror that he and his fellow prisoners experienced and does so very objectively. The book also explains the theory of logotherapy which was developed by Frankl and was greatly influenced by his time in the prison camps. It is a fairly short read and worth reading in order to understand the psychology of someone under immense stress and suffering. It is helpful for me to understand how much the human mind is capable of withstanding without breaking. We must grasp what has happened in the past, even events as horrific as the holocaust, so that we can learn from them and contribute to a better future. Below are some of my main takeaways.

“The Last of Human Freedoms”

Frankl describes how there were prisoners in the concentration camps who reverted to self-preservation no matter the cost while there were others who were concerned with the wellbeing of other prisoners and gave up their own food for others. They were selfless even in the harshest of conditions and when there was nothing to be gained. His assessment is that although everything can be taken away from us, we still have the freedom to choose our attitude. We decide how we will act in any given circumstance. This was convicting because I often choose to have a bad attitude and yet the conditions of my life are far better than the conditions of the prisoners Frankl describes. This means I have no excuses. I often say “So and so made me have a bad day because they said such and such.” As Frankl shows, this is simply not true. I choose my attitude. I cannot control what is done or said to me, but I can control my response.

What does life expect of us?

Frankl writes “…it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” His perspective is that we should stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as being questioned by life for our meaning. Each individual has to take the responsibility to answer the questions and solve the problems that life poses to us. I found this to be a helpful mindset. It forces me out of complacency and a victim mindset to be proactive in overcoming difficulties.

No single abstract meaning of life

Most people have thought about the meaning of their life at some point. Frankl makes the case that there is no single abstract meaning for all life. Each person has a particular mission and vocation that is specific to them and can only be carried out by them. You cannot be replaced by someone else. Each of us is responsible for our own life and meaning. This perspective helped remind me that I cannot compare my relationships, career, and situation in life to other people. My life and the things I do have a particular meaning for me and this meaning cannot be transferred to others nor can their meaning be transferred to me. This frees me from the comparison game.

Logotherapy

A blog post about Man’s Search For Meaning wouldn’t be any good without discussing logotherapy. Here is how Frankl describes it in his own words: “According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” These were the three ways that Frankl helped his patients discover the meaning in life. When I think about my own life, I definitely gravitate toward the first method which is discovering the meaning of life based on my work. I realize, however, this can be risky because jobs come and go. If I define my meaning based on what I do, what will I be left with if it is taken away? I don’t have all the answers but realize thinking about these things leads to better clarity in life.

I gained a number of good insights from this book. I would definitely recommend it to friends, however, the descriptions and stories of the Nazi prison camps may be difficult for some people to handle. Although difficult to handle, this does not make them any less important or true.

Accept People as Facts

In the classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are – or, as we are conditioned to see it.” I often think about this truth and have definitely seen it manifest in my life.

We each bring different life experiences to the interactions we have. These life experiences are the lens through which we see the world around us. This can be frustrating especially when we experience interactions very differently from other people. We tend to believe that the way we see things is correct and true while others are diluted and lack our understanding. I am beginning to see how this approach to interactions is problematic and stifles my growth. I am continually frustrated and agitated when trying to conform others to my way of thinking. When I push to hard to change others I either end up more frustrated or alienate them. Instead, I need to learn to accept people as facts.

Robert Greene writes about this in his new book The Laws of Human Nature. He writes, “The problem is that we are continually judging people, wishing they were something that they are not. We want to change them.” Instead, the approach we should take is to accept people for who they are.

There are years of life and experiences that have gone into shaping a person into who you see before you today. Why insist that one conversation with you or I will change them? That is unrealistic. It is true that people are not rational but the same can be said about you or I now and again. As Greene says “Work with what they give you, instead of resisting and trying to change them…You will stop projecting your own emotions on to them. All of this will give you more balance and calmness, more mental space for thinking.” It helps to remind yourself that everyone is striving for fulfillment in his or her life. It is possible they are doing so irrationally, however, they do not think so at this moment. Work with what they present to you instead of working yourself into frustration and creating a gap between you.

Law 9: Win Through Your Actions, Never Through Argument

My church has a code or set of values that we seek to understand and apply in our lives. The eighth value is “We eat the fish and leave the bones.” I found myself applying this principal as I read this book. Just because someone has published books, has done a lot of research, has an extensive amount of knowledge, and has delivered content which is true, does not mean that I need to apply everything they teach. This was the case as I read this book by Robert Greene The 48 Laws of Power. Although I thought all of the history and stories he provides in the book are very interesting, I cannot apply all of the laws to my own life because some of them go against the values that I hold as most important.

In the preface of the book Greene makes a very good point as to why it would be worthwhile for anyone to read this book. “Power is a social game. To learn and master it, you must develop the ability to study and understand people… An understanding of people’s hidden motives is the single greatest piece of knowledge you can have in acquiring power.” Although I may not be willing to make use of all of these laws personally, I can definitely use them to understand what may be driving those around me. I can use these laws to recognize deception and manipulation in those I encounter, even if I am unwilling to practice those same laws. I can use and apply what I find to be helpful and leave the rest.

Law number nine I found to be especially helpful. I may write another blog post about some of the other laws but for now wanted to focus on law nine. Law nine is “Win through your actions, never through argument.” Here are some of the main points from this law:

  • “It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.”
  • Everyone believes that they are right and arguments rarely change another person’s mind. Arguments only make others feel insecure and inferior in what they believe. “Learn to demonstrate the correctness of your ideas indirectly.”
  • When you win through your actions you display power because you can prove your point without offending others.
  • In an argument you may communicate something completely unintended. People will interpret what you say based on their own feelings and insecurities.
  • “When aiming for power, or trying to conserve it, always look for the indirect route. And also choose your battles carefully. If it does not matter in the long run whether the other person agrees with you – or if time and their own experience will make them understand what you mean – then it is best not even to bother with a demonstration. Save you energy and walk away.”

This law also agrees with an idea from one of my favorite books How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I recommend this book all the time and actually have the audiobook on my phone so that I can listen to it whenever I want. In the section called How to win people to your way of thinking, Carnegie makes similar points to those made by Greene. For Carnegie the way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it completely. One of the quotes from Carnegie’s book which I particularly appreciate is “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The problem with an argument is that if I hurt someone’s feelings or pride it is very difficult to maintain their goodwill. Since leadership and success have a lot to do with influence, keeping a person’s goodwill toward you is very important. I will not have much influence over someone who harbors negative feelings because of how I have made them feel in the past. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Another realization I have had about arguments has to do with how they make me feel. I often get into arguments at work where I feel that my position is very logical and makes sense. However, when the other person criticizes my position and does not see my logic, I can easily get frustrated. This frustration often contributes to me letting my emotions get the best of me. It can take me lots of time after an argument to “cool down.” This time is wasted. I am not able to be efficient and productive as I stew over the point that I was trying to make. How can someone hold an opposing view? Don’t they see the logic of my perspective? How can they ignore my justification? Continuing to think about an argument and these questions does not really help me progress. In fact, if anything, this habit holds me back.

As I have learned about how arguments make people feel, it has helped me work on changing myself. I want to learn to avoid arguments more often, to let things go, and perhaps most importantly not be so defensive and sensitive. As Greene’s law points out, it is always better to show others the truth of your perspective rather than argue with them. Although I have a long way to go in regards to this law, I am very happy to be moving in the right direction.

Proactive not Reactive

One of the most impactful books I read in 2017 was Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s development & explanation of Habit 1: Be Proactive was worth way more than the price I paid for the book, which happened to be $0.99 at Goodwill. The difference between being proactive and reactive is an idea I wanted to spend an entire blog post on. That is the intent of this post. However, for those who have not read the book or need a refresher, here are the 7 habits:

Habit 1 Be Proactive

Habit 2 Begin with the End in Mind

Habit 3 Put First Things First

Habit 4 Think Win/Win

Habit 5 Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Habit 6 Synergize

Habit 7 Sharpen the Saw

Here is how Covey defined the word proactive. “It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.” Covey then goes on to dissect the word responsibility – “…the ability to choose your response.” Covey admits in the book how hard it can be to accept these ideas on an emotional level since many of us, myself included, have explained our behavior away due to external factors. The truth is we have far more control in our lives than we pretend we do. Victimizing myself is always the easiest way to justify my behavior but it is never the path to growth.

I have found applying this principle at work and in my relationships is challenging but very effective. I findthat I am often a reactive person. I allow my emotions to be controlled by my environment, the behavior of others, or the circumstances that I find myself in. If a group of co-workers and I go out to eat and I suggest the restaurant but find that one of them does not like it and criticizes it, I feel like they are criticizing me. I am allowing that person’s criticism to affect my mood. I then feel I have to defend the restaurant and by doing so I am defending myself. I must decide whether to let my co-workers criticism affect me or to let it go. If I head out the door on my day off from work with fun plans for the day but find my car battery is dead, it is easy for me to allow my circumstances to ruin my day. In that moment I must make the decision whether or not to let the dead battery destroy my day or to take it in stride and figureout how to salvage the rest of the day.

The key words here are “allow” and “decide.” It has been hard for me to come to terms with this, but it is true. Too often I decide and allow feelings, circumstances, conditions, and other people’s attitudes to govern my internal status. On the other hand, the proactive person is someone who is driven by strong internalized values. Proactive people have thought through the values they hold and choose to react based on those values. Here are some examples of values that I have thought through and have been seeking to apply in my own life:

  • Maintain a positive attitude. The man who wins is the man who thinks he can.
  • Have a growth mindset. My intelligence and abilities are not fixed. I accept feedback to improve myself. I crave feedback.
  • Believe the best about people and put them first.
  • Accept responsibility. Look out the window to applaud success and in the mirror to accept responsibility for failure.
  • Everyone I meet is my superior in some way. Learn that from them.

Everyday as part of my morning ritual I read these statements as well as others in order to remind myself of my values. I have found this to be very effective in reminding myself what I stand for. The truth is that although I value responsibility, putting others first, and hearing feedback, because of my reactive nature I often do not live each moment as if these are values that I hold. The apostle Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote in Romans 15:15 “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” By reminding myself daily of my values I make use of the concept of accessibility that says that the information you use often is easier to recall. This habit equips me to remember my values when I need them most and I am tempted to be reactive.

Circle-of-influence-and-concern

Another concept that Covey discusses in relation to proactive and reactive tendencies is the difference between our Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence. This concept has been very helpful for me to understand how to best focus my time, energy, and thoughts. There are many things that each of us as individuals are concerned about like our health, our parents, our spouses, politics, poverty overseas, etc. As you look at these things you could draw a circle, which encompasses these concerns, and call it your Circle of Concern. Once you start to look at the things in your Circle of Concern you begin the realize that there are some things you have no real control over but other things you can take some action on. You could draw an inner circle around the things you can control and call it your Circle of Influence. Proactive people focus their time and effort on things within their control and enlarge their Circle of Influence. Reactive people, on the other hand, focus on what other people think, other people’s weaknesses, the problems they see around them, and many other things they have no control over. This focus results in blaming and victimization and leads to shrinking their Circle of Influence.

It is up to each of us whether we want to be proactive or reactive people. I find it very easy and convenient to blame and accuse other people and circumstances for the problems I face, however, I am trying to cultivate a growth mindset. I hope to develop into someone who does not immediately blame or accuse when faced with a problem but focuses on things that I can actually control. I want to be more proactive.