What is the Meaning of Life?

This week I depart from my recent series of articles (Have You Heard of the Telephone?, If They Aren’t Available, Should I Leave a Voicemail?, “I’d call my prospect, but I don’t have their phone number.”) on telephone skills. Don’t worry; I’ll be back on track next week with “How to Get Past the Receptionist.”

I write for you. But sometimes I write for me. My sincere hope is that you’ll find value in what I’m about to share with you.

I’ve been thinking a lot about life and death lately. Not in the negative sense, but in the searching for answers sense. This morning, I watched an immensely powerful TED talk, Candy Chang: Before I Die I Want to…” Spend six minutes and do the same. It’s well worth your time.

Candy offers a very comforting notion –giving us permission to talk about the taboo subject of death – when she says, “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”

In my seminars, I offer every audience member the opportunity to ask me any question at all. I give them a few minutes to write their most burning questions down anonymously and pass them up to the front. I do this because I have found that I get better questions. Real questions. Questions that you might be afraid to ask out loud in front of your boss, your peers, your colleagues, or even me. Of course, there’s a comedian in every crowd. Somebody always asks me what I put in my hair or which member of the Village People is my favorite. And, sometimes, there’s a wise guy that asks something philosophical just to give me a hard time.

Recently, one such wise guy submitted, “What’s the meaning of life?” He didn’t want an answer, of course. But I gave him one anyway.

I recounted one of the most influential and inspirational movie moments from my formative years – that oft-remembered scene from City Slickers in which Curly shares the secret of life. Watch it on YouTube here.

“Do you know what the secret of life is?” asks Curly.
“No, what?” responds Mitch.
Curly holds up his first finger. “This,” he says.
“Your finger?” asks Mitch.
“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”
“That’s great,” Mitch says, “but what’s the one thing?”
“That’s what you gotta’ figure out…” Curly says and then rides away.

You see, the meaning of life is different for everyone. Your purpose may not be my purpose. And no purpose is more important than the next.

Maybe life means family. Maybe it means friends. Maybe it means legacy. Maybe it means love. Maybe it means religion. Maybe it means progress. Maybe it means money. Maybe it means making the world a better place. Maybe it means writing a book. Maybe it means writing a song. Maybe it means helping others. Maybe it means helping yourself. Maybe it means traveling. Maybe it means planting a garden, or a tree. Maybe it means building something. Maybe it means tearing something down. Maybe it means solving a problem…and maybe it means causing one.

Curly’s point, as is mine, is that it’s up to you to find your own meaning. Your own answers.

I’ve always thought that the purpose of life is to figure out how to live forever. Not in the physical sense, but in the metaphysical. You live on through the people who you touch. You live in their hearts, in their minds, and in their subconscious. Their actions and their decisions are often a result of your impact and your imparted wisdom.

The problem with my thinking, however, is that it creates an enormous amount of self-induced pressure to accomplish something big. Something memorable. Until recently, I thought I had to be as big as Elvis. As recognizable as Shakespeare. As accomplished as Einstein or as impactful as Abraham Lincoln.

Walt Disney
George Washington
Christopher Columbus
Benjamin Franklin
Steve Jobs
Babe Ruth

You get the point.

While reading Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin Yalom, I realized I had it all wrong. I realized I had been selfish. Life is not about becoming someone, it’s about doing something. And that something becomes your legacy.

For me, the meaning of life is both leaving and living your legacy. What you do influences and impacts those you share your life with and those who encounter your deeds and actions. For instance, if you spearhead or fund a neighborhood park, your name may never be uttered after you die, but your deed positively affects the people who enjoy your park daily.

For now, the thing that gives me comfort and direction is a thought I had while watching the recent Olympics. One night I became fascinated by relay races. I watched baton handoff after handoff until it hit me – life is like a relay. Not your life, per se, but life in the greater sense of human life. Human existence is relay race with, I hope, no end.

Before you are born, you have no control over what happens. You wait at your start line and hope that the runner before you (your parents, your family, your community) sets you up for success. Then one day you’re born. You get the chance to run one lap. That’s it. Then you hand the baton to the next generation. Your mission is to do your best – to run your fastest, to get the lead, and to give the next runner on your team (whether that be your child, your loved one, your friend, or someone you’ve never even met) every advantage possible to make their lap better.

Of course, this is not a perfect metaphor. Life is not a race, at least not exactly. It’s not about how fast you run. It’s about how well you run. It’s about how well you live.

But life is about taking the baton from those who came before you when you’re ready, taking full advantage of what has been handed to you, creating new opportunities and experiences, doing everything possible to help those around you and those who will come after you, and then passing the baton to the next generation.

And, life is about having a good time while you’re working so hard. You can enjoy anything and everything if you have the right attitude.

That’s the meaning of life. That’s what life means to me.

What does life mean to you?

photo credit: odilon dimier


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