Pursue meaning, not happiness.
Self-actualization must be in the service of some greater purpose
There are two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says:
‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’
The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks:
‘What the hell is water?’
— David Foster Wallace, ‘This Is Water’
The joke never explains is how the older fish knows what water is, when the young fish don’t.
But what makes the older fish so much wiser? We must infer that it is his experience. That is, the older fish only knows about water because he’s been outside the fishbowl.
Maybe one day he was swimming around, and maybe he gets bored or he gets a little startled or something or for whatever reason, he swims up at a tremendous sprint and he jumps up out of the fish bowl and onto the floor or the table or the counter and he’s flopping around and he’s like,
“What the hell is this?”
This is air.
And some kid comes along and see’s him laying there on the countertop, near suffocation, laboring for every breath that dries his gills out a little closer to death. And the kid scoops him up and puts him back in the fish bowl.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh shit!” the older fish thinks. “This is water.”
I teach This Is Water in my engineering business practices course. The lesson we extract in my class is that the only thing we really get to choose is what has meaning (to us) and what that meaning is. The lesson is related to the leadership learning objectives in the course, because making meaning for your organization is the task of the leader.
But the video goes much deeper than that.
Sometimes I ask my students, “Does it make a difference to you to learn that Wallace took his own life?”
And some students say that it does. They think, “How dare he give us life advice, when he so obviously and selfishly failed at his own life!”
According to The Secret of Our Success (Henrich 2015), we are hard-wired as human beings to learn by modelling prestigious individuals in our tribe — what they eat, how they cook, what they wear. Because of how we learn, we really do become the “average of the five people we spend the most time with.” (Jim Rohn). It explains so many otherwise mysterious aspects of human behavior, including why we buy clothing endorsed by celebrities, or why we won’t offer to help strangers in distress (until someone else does first), or why If Johnny Jumped Off A Cliff, I’d Jump Right After Him.
When my students discover that Wallace committed suicide, they feel this disqualifies him from serving as a prestigious model, and therefore Wallace has nothing to teach them.
But that’s not the case.
We can learn from Wallace’s suffering. We can learn from others’ mistakes. We can learn when we step outside out own experience and empathize with others.
I wrote a little bit about this in Empathy is the Foundation of Moral Design. According to Seth Godin, an engineer that can’t adopt the perspective of a fish can’t design a culvert for a fish. Because the engineer is “not a fish.”
When we re-listen to Wallace’s speech with the knowledge of his suicide, it’s possible to hear him — as he implores his audience to understand the suffering of others — it’s possible to hear him saying, “Look at me. Understand my suffering.” His admonitions to avoid our natural inclination to be self-centered may in fact be a confession of his own guilt.
Wallace’s speech sounds like an autobiographical plea about the “difficult work of choosing.”
What is it that he is struggling to choose?
It is meaning.
If really learn how to think… how to pay attention… then you get to decide how to see it. This is the real freedom of education... .
You get to consciously decide what has meaning, and what doesn’t. That is real freedom… .
To Wallace, the real value of an education has “nothing to do with knowledge” and everything to with how to think.
The alternative is unconsciousness. The gnawing sense of having lost some infinite thing. — David Foster Wallace
But why should choosing meaning require an education?
Maslow placed “self-actualization” at the top of his famous Hierarchy of Human Motivation (1943). Navigating between Freud’s pleasure principle and Adler’s power principle, Maslow’s must have sensed that both pleasure and power were valid human motivations, and that something else was missing. He invented the term “self-actualization” to convey a desire human beings share to realize their full potential.
Viktor Frankl, languishing in Nazi death camps at the time of Maslow’s publication, must have sensed the same incompleteness in the dominant psychological theories of the time. Except, instead of “self actualization,” Frankl drew upon his experiences of deprivation in the death camps to discover what I consider to be an even higher motive—meaning.
Shortly after being liberated from the Nazi’s Frankl published his memoir Man’s Search For Meaning (1946), in which he established that human needs do not present themselves in the order Maslow suggests, because human motivation is more complex. While satisfaction of immediate wants can confer a temporary happiness, according to Frankl it is meaning that sustains us over the longer term.
To understand the distinction between happiness and meaning, scholars make a distinction between hedonic happiness and eudaimonic happiness. The former relates to pleasure, for which the modern catchphrase might be “Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll,” but eudaimonic happiness responds to both becoming the best version of your true self, and being of service to others — what the Japanese call Ikigai.
According to one study “Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker,” (Baumiester et al. 2013). Thus, the difficulty with happiness is that it often depends upon the cooperation, subordination, or generosity of others. For example, social status depends on standing within a community hierarchy. Moving up implies that others move down. Similarly, achieving what Maslow calls “a sense of belonging” requires conforming oneself to the norms of the group, or risk excommunication. The difficulty with meaning is that it can be constructed only within a cultural system that values what is the individual has to give (e.g., Baumiester 2011).
Both happiness and meaning require social transactions.
What Wallace fails to explain is that construction of an alternative meaning requires an awareness of the alternatives. When we are trapped, either by our language, or our cultural norms, inside a narrow box of available meanings having never experienced our own power to choose for ourselves a different meaning, construction of a new meaning—nevermind social validation of that meaning—seems like nothing short of a psychotic break from reality.
Like the two young fish who have no knowledge of water, we can be immobilized in our own misery by a lack of awareness of the alternatives. Choosing meaning requires the capacity to conceptualize alternatives—otherwise, there is no real choice.
The path to alternative meanings is through conversations and experiences with people who have lived outside our own cultural constraints. These people, like the older fish who has experience outside the bowl, can bring to us an awareness of alternative constructs for new meanings to our lives.
That is how we empower ourselves to choose.