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.

Can’t Hurt Me ~ What I learned from a Navy SEAL

Can’t Hurt Me is a book that has challenged me to be stronger mentally, to push myself further, and to not give up. David Goggins’ story is so inspiring you will have a hard time putting this book down. This is not a book that will make you “feel good.” This may sound negative, but trust me, as Goggins steps on your toes in this book it will cause you to make positive changes in your life. This book is not for everyone. There is a lot of cursing and Goggins tells it like it is as he shares his story with very raw details. However, if you read this book, I can guarantee you will learn something from this incredible man. He is the only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller. He had to lose 100 pounds in 3 months to get accepted into Navy SEAL Training. Goggins has run many ultramarathons and pushed is body to extreme limits. Here are some of my big takeaways.

The Accountability Mirror

Goggins came up with what he calls The Accountability Mirror to motivate himself and hold himself accountable to achieve his goals. This is how he described it: “I set goals, wrote them on Post-It notes, and tagged them to what I now call the Accountability Mirror, because each day I’d hold myself accountable to the goals I’d set.” When I am comfortable and inspired by something, it is easy for me to set goals for myself in my head. As soon as I write a goal down and have to look at it every day, it changes from a vague desire to something that convicts me daily. I have to ask myself: what is limiting my success? Am I in my own way? In answering these questions I need to take ownership, responsibility, and overcome obstacles. Setting goals and being reminded of them daily is a habit that many successful people use.

Seek Resistance

Goggins has a very unconventional approach to dealing with resistance in life. Rather than the typical advice (and probably human nature) to seek the path of least resistance, Goggins lives a lifestyle of seeking out resistance. He sees obstacles, setbacks, and challenges as training. Rather than shy away from challenges, he focuses on how overcoming them will make him better. His challenge is that we should all figure out what we don’t want to do but know will make a positive impact in our life and then do it. Goggins also shows through his lifestyle how pushing yourself to the limit physically can help you overcome mental challenges. I found this approach very convicting. I have started to see how challenging projects at work which have many difficult components are not something I should complain about but rather I should welcome them. These difficulties train me to be a better engineer. As my life and schedule have been changing lately, it has been harder to run or workout in the evening. I hate waking up early to run, however, reading about Goggins lifestyle has helped motivate me to see it as a challenge to overcome each day. I heard somewhere that taking cold showers is good for your nervous system, especially in the morning, so I started taking cold showers even though I hate them. This might be a little excessive and inconsequential, but it helps prove to myself that I am not weak mentally.

The Cookie Jar

Everyone has faced challenges and obstacles and overcome them at some point in their life. This is where Goggins’ Cookie Jar concept comes in. In his own words, “…the Cookie Jar became a concept I’ve employed whenever I need a reminder of who I am and what I’m capable of. We all have a cookie jar inside us, because life, being what it is, has always tested us. Even if you’re feeling low and beat down by life right now, I guarantee you can think of a time or two when you overcame odds and tasted success.” When facing current challenges you reach into the cookie jar and use previous accomplishments to overcome new challenges. These don’t have to be huge accomplishments. All you need to ignite change in life is a spark. I have been using this strategy at work when facing difficult situations to remember a time in the past when I faced something similar and overcame it. This gives me the assurance that this new challenge will not destroy me either.

The 40% Rule

The 40% rule is easy enough to understand but definitely hard to put into practice. This is how Goggins describes it, “Sadly, most of us give up when we’ve only given around 40 percent of our maximum effort. Even when we feel like we’ve reached our absolute limit, we still have 60 percent more to give! I call this The 40% Rule…” I have heard other variations of this with different percentages but the underlying concept is the same. We have the ability to stretch past where our mind tells us that we have nothing more to give. For myself, I’ve realized I don’t need to overcome the entire 60% right now. Each time I am faced with the temptation to quit I can choose to push myself 5% further. These small increments will add up and eventually I will raise my ceiling further than I ever imagined.

When your effort seems meaningless

Sometimes when you are working harder than others by setting goals, stretching yourself, and pushing yourself to the limit it can feel like your effort is not making a difference. Maybe you were expecting a promotion, a raise, or some recognition and it doesn’t come. Goggins wrote about how he was always pushing himself because he was training for opportunities that didn’t exist yet. He wanted to be an uncommon man among uncommon men. He wanted the drive, the mental callousing, and the overcomer mentality to be a habit and a lifestyle. He wanted to live there constantly, not just go there sometimes. I found this perspective encouraging and I strive to emulate it. I want my growth to be sustainable and I feel like Goggins approach is a good way to make this lifestyle stick.

Setbacks

A theme in Goggins’ life is how he experienced setbacks and failure and how he dealt with them. He views challenges and setbacks as a training ground for life. Rather than see failure as a definition of who you are, see it as information that must be reviewed and learned from. We cannot let setbacks shatter our focus, take over our brain, and sabotage our progress. Recalculate, adjust, and work on your weaknesses. As an engineer and leader on my team at work, I often feel criticism and negativity directed toward me. Every time this happens, I cannot internalize that negativity. If I do I will eventually be an emotional wreck and will be no good for my team or company. By no means have I mastered this area of my life but I am working on it. The reality is any time you stand for something, you will experience opposition and criticism. This isn’t evidence that you should quit but evidence that you are saying something important.