A guest post by Kent Thune of The Financial Philosopher
“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I’m not a fan of lists, primarily because they only satisfy the brain’s desire for instant gratification – they often help in the present moment but fade in usefulness in the moments to follow. I hope, however, that this list will inspire your own search for meaning so you may move beyond inspiration and into action. For the best possible experience, I hope comments from readers (you) will illuminate specific ideas and sources of information that will extend upon the theme and help others.
With that, I share with you some of The Greatest Thoughts for Your Path to a Meaningful Existence:
1. Place meaning before money, material wealth and social status.
“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” ~ Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl, in my humble opinion, was (and still is) absolutely right: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task, to Frankl, for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Meaning comes from within. No one can give it to you and no one can take it away from you; and it certainly will not come from physical things.
2. Do not improve. Uncover & Discover!
“One’s own self is well hidden from one’s own self; of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
The self is already in its highest form; therefore it cannot be “improved.” Your greatest task, therefore, is to discover (or uncover) yourself. This can be done by first turning from outside influences (social conventions, media noise) and turning inward to align your actions with your core values. Be and know (and act as) your authentic self. From this perspective, there is no such thing as “self-improvement” – there are only degrees of self-knowledge.
3. You are only human.
“Man has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he has acted through most of his history.” Ayn Rand
Knowing yourself as a human is the first and most fundamental level of self-knowledge. Volumes of books and articles have been published on this subject. To begin knowing yourself, know your brain. To put it briefly (and unscientifically), your brain is powerful and selfish. Knowing what it wants (pleasure, safety, efficiency, routine, and pattern recognition, to measure by comparison) is essential to pre-empting its self-destructive tendencies.
4. You are unique – not weak.
“I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics that is my physics.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
Knowing yourself as a personality is the second but most important level of self-knowledge. There is much talk of “knowing your strengths and weaknesses.” This is a dangerous path.
What makes something strength or a weakness is too often defined by social conventions.
If, for example, you are terrible at math, does this mean you are “weak in math?” No. The only act that makes you weak is saying you are weak. There is no such thing as strength or weakness – there are only degrees of self-knowledge. Think about that.
5. Be master of (not mastered by) language.
“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” ~ Martin Heidegger
This extends upon the immediately preceding thought: If you accept the meaning of words as delivered by social conventions and you fail to define them for yourself, you risk following in the path of others or, at a minimum, having no direction at all. How do you define strength? How do you define weakness? How do you define the words rich, poor, success, failure, productivity or happiness? What is freedom? What is truth? Can you see how you can be led or misled by the failure to define words, especially those words that are central to your life goals, for yourself?
6. Be mindful.
“Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.” Zen Proverb
This summarizes self-knowledge and extends into self-awareness. Bad habits derive from what the brain wants. Good habits derive from what the mind wants. Understanding yourself as a human and as a unique individual, you will know why, when and how you may react (or under-react) to given circumstances and will thus be enabled to bring yourself back into balance.
If you are a “procrastinator,” for example, this does not indicate a weakness (as discussed above) – it indicates a personality trait that means you do not worry about deadlines.
If, for example, you have to be somewhere at 7:00pm and it takes 30 minutes to get there, you will depart at 6:31pm! You must be mindful of your tendencies.
In this example, you must include “getting lost time” or factor in potential for heavy traffic and depart at 6:15. Think with your mind – not your brain! Be mindful.
7. Be content.
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~ Lau Tzu
This requires no additional words.
8. Find your own path.
“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” ~ Basho
Teachers, mentors, experts, parents, gurus and any other source of information and guidance in your life can be useful; but if you follow them directly, you will not find the same success that they did unless you find your own path. What works for one person may or may not work for others. If a path already exists, it’s not your path!
9. Be patient.
“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
This extends upon all other previous thoughts given here. Being patient, however, does not just mean “waiting for something good to happen.” Patience overlaps with contentment. It is the willingness to accept and embrace the way things are now – to give little or no concern to things that are beyond your control and to embrace change.
10. Be humble.
“The fool doth think he is wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” ~ William Shakespeare
Humility may be the greatest of all virtues. This extends upon self-knowledge. Awareness of your own ignorance is the foundation of wisdom. Know (and act as if) there is much that you don’t know.
11. Be a perpetual student.
“You are led through your lifetime by the inner learning creature, the playful spiritual being that is your real self. Don’t turn away from possible futures before you’re certain you don’t have anything to learn from them.” ~ Richard Bach
Education should never end. Learning new things keeps your brain healthy and expands your mind. Go back to school, stay in school, join study groups, read books (the older the better) or teach others.
If you are not learning, you are dying. Often, and most importantly, educational pursuits illuminate ideas or opportunities you would have never thought of – something you didn’t plan.
Education inspires new direction. It is food and exercise for thought and growth. Education, however, is not limited to the institutional kind. Be open to new experiences. View the world as a student, as a child.
12. Enable opportunities.
“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This speaks to the potential detriment of trying to force things or “make things happen.” Humans are terrible at predicting the future and what will or will not make them happy.
There is nothing wrong with planning but be careful not to predict or to follow plans without considering unplanned opportunities. The greatest discoveries are often accidental. Remember this.
I could go on with more thoughts but I would love to hear from you. Let’s continue in the spirit of teaching and learning. What are some of your favorite quotes? What are some great resources for self-knowledge? Do you have any examples of any of the above thoughts?
I’ll offer some of my own sources of learning opportunities in the comments.
Read more by Kent Thune on his blog The Financial Philosopher.