[This post is the fourteenth in a multi-part series called Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning is Wrong. To be in touch about it, you can always reach me at [email protected] or visit me at https://ericmaisel.com/. Please enjoy the series!]
I’ve been identifying meaning opportunities as discrete and separate categories. But, of course, in real life, things connect. Service, good works, and ethical action all relate, as do pleasure and contentment. We’ll look at these shortly. Here, let’s think about two golden meaning opportunities that are naturally related: achievement and excellence.
We are built with an ego, powerful desires, and the drive to excel and achieve. Even if we have decided to live in a detached, phlegmatic, and philosophical way, we may still cherish achievement and excellence. A cloistered monk may still want the wine he produces to be excellent and maybe even win awards. Those desires remain golden meaning opportunities for him, even if he views his own attachment to excellence and accolades a little wryly.
We may happily congratulate ourselves for staying the course, for building a name for ourselves in our field, for completing large-scale projects. Along with those well-earned congratulations may come moments of meaning or even long-lasting meaning. That is, having achieved something significant, we may experience a feeling of meaning for just a fleeting instant, or that feeling may last and last. If it lasts, that is the exact equivalent of life feeling meaningful. Moments of meaning strung together is the same as a meaningful life.
There is nothing paradoxical about holding “just being” and contentment as meaning opportunities while at the same time holding excellence and achievement as meaning opportunities. You might sit contently by a pond for an hour, soaking up the sun, and feel meaning bubble up; then, an hour later, having returned to your work, you might achieve a breakthrough and feel meaning from that. In life, there are both “just being” meaning opportunities and “actively doing” meaning opportunities.
A good example is a retreat week at a workshop center. You might come for both the rest, the relaxation, the yoga, and the chance to unwind, and for the intense workshop you’ve chosen to attend, one so taxing that to complete it amounts to a kind of achievement. One moment you are bathed in meaning because you are looking out over the ocean, an hour later meaning attaches to the powerful workshop exercise that has led you to a big insight.
We are built to “get something” from achievement. But many people fear trying to achieve anything because they are pre-disappointed in themselves and doubt that they can achieve what they hoped to achieve. They do not see achievement as a viable meaning opportunity: they have consciously or unconsciously crossed achievement off their list of meaning opportunities. To add it back on will require a deep, gentle, and fruitful conversation of self-encouragement. If that chat does the trick, the lucky result is that they will have added opportunity to their life: the opportunity to achieve and the opportunity to experience meaning from their achievements.
A related meaning opportunity is excellence. As children, we start out with two energies, both of which appeal to us greatly: we love to experiment and we love to excel. Soon, though, because we’re pressured to get things right, we start to lose our taste for experimentation; and because much of what we do doesn’t rise to the level of excellence, we begin to fear that excellence isn’t in us.
Out of this dynamic arises a middle-of-the-road approach to life, where we don’t experiment and we don’t try to excel.
But both experimentation and excellence remain available to you as golden meaning opportunities. If you want to, you can decide to bite into something rich, important and difficult and do it really well. Maybe you’ll flounder at first; maybe you’ll make some heroic messes. But excellence might just be the end result. And if it arrives, isn’t a feeling of meaning likely to come with it?
How good that will feel!
I’ve worked with many clients who’ve been bolstered by one particular achievement, something that has worked for them as a sort of reservoir of meaning, a place they can tap into when they need a meaning boost. Maybe it was the novel they got published; maybe it was the song that a well-known recording artist covered; maybe it was the staged reading of their play; maybe it was the suite of themed photographs shown in a high-end gallery. The very memory of these achievements caused meaning to surge up.
Consider that possibility. You might experience meaning while you are doing some excellent work. But you might also experience that certain feeling months, years, or decades after the fact, when, sitting by the fire and recollecting, you remember your achievement and feel that feeling of meaning again. Excellence and achievement can be the gifts that keep on giving, existential events that reward you long after the work is done.
Give achievement and excellence a chance. You may discover that they have been sadly missing from your menu of meaning opportunities—and now you get to put them back on the menu. That may prove a meaning treat!
READ PART ONE HERE: Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning Is Wrong: The Even Harder Problem
READ PART TWO: On Craving the Feeling of Meaning
READ PART THREE: Why ‘Is Life Meaningful?’ Is the Wrong Question
READ PART FOUR: Meaning Has Its Reasons
READ PART FIVE: The Cost of Meaning
READ PART SIX: Meaning Has Its Rhythms
READ PART SEVEN: Robbed of Purpose
READ PART EIGHT: Meaning as Nature’s Motivational Tool
READ PART NINE: Your Golden Meaning Opportunities
READ PART TEN: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Stewardship
READ PART ELEVEN: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Experimentation
Read Part Twelve: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Self-Actualization
Read Part Thirteen: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Appreciation
This post is republished on Medium.
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