The Meaning of Life
I know there is meaning behind every struggle, so long as we are willing to look for it, but how do I motivate myself to discover that meaning? How do I find my ‘why’ without wanting to ‘get out’ of my current situation?
Often, when bad things happen, we wish for things to be different. We pray for our struggles and pains to disappear. However, we cannot undo life. What has happened has happened. Nothing can be done about the past. However, to a certain degree, we do have control over the present and future. We have the choice to make the most with what we have.
To discover the meaning in our lives, we must first realize that the potential for something greater is here. We must believe something good can be made with what is left. This belief will give us the fuel and motivation we need to find the meaning behind our pain.
Once we realize that everything — even suffering — is an opportunity for something greater, what do we do next? How do we find meaning in the rubble left behind? Everyone’s purpose is different. I cannot tell you what your exact path should be. Only you know what can be made from the ashes of your life. What I can tell you is that, in some way, the meaning of all our lives is to leave the world better than we found it. It is to use our gifts to make life more beautiful, both for ourselves and for others.
For some people, they find purpose through their work. For others, purpose is found through their relationships or maybe through raising and teaching future generations. A true purpose is both self-nurturing and generous. It is both an act of receiving and giving. It lights our fire and it also sparks the flames in others. Therefore, when looking for our purpose, the goal is to find something we are both passionate about and that also brings value and light to the lives of others.
To discover a beautiful path, we need to travel down some of the wrong ones first. Realizing what is not for us is just as valuable as learning what is. This is the first step towards finding the people and places that are meant for us. For example, let us look at one of the most successful companies of our time: Apple.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was 90 days away from bankruptcy. They had multiple failing products and their future looked bleak. After a few weeks of being back, Jobs called a company meeting and explained to his team they would be getting rid of all their products except four. To explain his point, Jobs grabbed a magic marker and drew a two-by-two grid on a white board. On the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro.” On the two rows, he wrote “Desktop” and “Portable.” His employees were shocked at first, they could not believe he was letting go of so many of their products; products they had worked extremely hard on up until that point. However, by getting Apple to focus on just four products, the company was saved. Their sales started to climb and they would later become the most valuable company in the world. When reminiscing about this pivotal move for the company, Jobs later said,
“Deciding what not to do is just as important as deciding what to do.”
To find Apple’s four core products, the company needed to experience some failures first, which they did. Once they saw their failings with clear eyes, they let go of what was no longer working and they focused on what was. Like Apple, we must do the same. We need to give ourselves permission to explore and experiment, and when the time is right, we need to be brave enough to let go of our failings. We need to find the courage to follow our true path once it reveals itself.
In my own life, I have experienced many failures — failures that were not necessarily external, but more internal. Before becoming a writer and content creator, I used to be a corporate finance attorney at a large law firm in Manhattan. In law school, I was deeply fascinated with the law, but in practice, the profession felt cold. The truly heart-wrenching aspect of being an attorney was the way my work was measured.
Typically, attorneys at large law firms have hourly quotas they need to meet every month. It does not necessarily matter what you work on, or sometimes even how well you do it, so long as you work long enough. In my opinion, this concept of work was emotionally draining. It destroyed my curiosity as an attorney because the only goal was to bill more hours. When partners or senior associates would congratulate me on my work, it was almost never on the substance of it — it was usually on how many hours I was working.
One week in particular comes to mind. One of our clients, who was a CEO at a large public company, had come to us with a last minute financing transaction that he needed to get done. His company’s quarterly earnings were coming out at the end of the week and he needed this transaction completed before then.
This was already a busy week for us at the firm and our team was short-staffed. Nonetheless, the partner I worked for eagerly accepted. One of the unwritten rules of a large law firm is that you rarely say no to a client, especially when a client wants to hire you for more work.
Two other associates and I were assigned to the case. Most of our work involved due diligence, which basically meant we had to review a lot of documents to make sure they said what they were suppose to say. We also had to compile a few new documents to finalize the transaction. The only problem was that the parties had not finalized the terms of the deal yet, they were still ‘negotiating.’ Therefore, we had to wait around until those terms came in. Once the terms arrived, we would edit the documents and send them to the client. Unfortunately, the negotiating parties were indecisive and they changed their minds constantly, which started the process all over again.
Basically, our entire week consisted of document review, editing and waiting around. In the end, we gave the client a green light on the deal and sent him the final documents he needed. I remember quite vividly that I billed about 90 hours of work on that deal alone. I remember this because the partner I was working for complimented me on my hours. He told me I did a great job and to keep it up.
The reason I am telling this story is because, surprisingly, the amount of hours I worked did not actually bother me. What bothered me was what I worked on. I spent 90 hours and felt like I had nothing to show for it. We produced one small document for the client, which basically involved editing the names and terms of a basic form. In addition, we found nothing out of the ordinary during our document review. I felt like there was no need for the review. The world would have been no different either way. This was not an isolated incident either. Most of the work that I did as an attorney was eerily similar.
As a caveat, this does not apply to all the legal work I did or that other attorneys do. There were certainly some meaningful projects that I worked on as an attorney. I also know of other attorneys who spend most of their time doing meaningful things. However, on the whole, I did not feel this way. The way my work was structured — the fact that it was almost solely based on how long I worked instead of how good my work was — crushed my spirit. It felt like rocks were being thrown at the birds in my heart; it felt like someone was yelling at them to stop their incessant singing.
Deep down, I had a feeling being a lawyer was not for me from the moment I started working. I remember feeling out of place when I walked into the large, marble tiled waiting room on my first day. After taking pictures for my identification card, I remember looking at the card and thinking how funny I looked wearing a tie — I never liked ties. Even though I had a sense this was not the right path for me, I was hesitant to move on. I wanted to make sure I was not making a mistake. Eventually, I realized you never really know what is a mistake and what is not until you take the next step. The only thing that can guide you is that feeling in your heart — the one that pulls you this way and that way.
Once I realized all of this, I told my best friend at the time, who was an attorney at a different law firm, I was planning on quitting. The look on his face was one of complete shock. I had never seen his eyes larger in my life, they were almost bulging out of his eye socket. He told me I probably had a bad week and would feel different in a few days. He grabbed me lightly by the shoulder, almost in a sobering way, and told me if I was serious that I should give myself time to think things over. He reminded me that if I left “big law,” I would not be able to come back. Large Manhattan law firms, or “big law” as attorneys call them, are like high school cliques — they never want you to leave and if you do leave, you are usually never welcomed back.
I knew all of this, but hearing my friend say it made the situation even more real. At that moment, I felt like the world had been put on pause. It was almost like the entire city of New York was standing still. I started to imagine I was standing on top of a skyscraper. I imagined I was looking down at a bird’s eye view of my future. The possibilities for what I could one day become started to flash before me. When I was in law school, I envisioned becoming a venture capital attorney. Atop that skyscraper, that vision started to fade away. I realized that story was maybe never meant to be told.
Sometimes we know the decisions we need to make but we are scared to make them. Sometimes we are afraid to give up the accomplishments we have accumulated, accomplishments we worked so hard for. Sometimes we are deeply hesitant to let go of the people and things we thought would be ours forever. Surprisingly, this is the way it is suppose to be. Life is precious, and being reluctant to move on means we realize this. We realize this might be the last time a certain tide comes our way.
Real maturity is when we no longer feel imprisoned by the preciousness of life. It is when we no longer stay just because we are afraid of never being allowed back. It is when we make decisions from a place of bravery, instead of fear. Being mature does not mean we are not scared — it means we are scared, but despite it all, we have decided to live.
We will never know when it is the right time to let go or to hold on. Our only guiding light is the heart. A courageous life is measured by our willingness to follow our hearts. It is measured by our understanding that what is meant to be will be, so long as we have the courage to make it be.
Sometimes our hearts are going to lead us to painful places. Sometimes we are going to question our heart’s reasoning — we are going to wonder whether our heart was right. However, as the famous French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal once said,
“The heart has reasons that reason does not know.”
I like to add the word ‘yet’ to the end of Pascal’s quote. I like to say that, “The heart has reasons that reason does not know (yet).” Like in a good book, the meaning becomes clearer the more chapters we read. As time goes on, we start to realize more and more the reasons our hearts feel a certain way. One day we will see with clear eyes that certain things were meant to happen. We will realize that every experience was leading us somewhere — somewhere more beautiful than we could ever imagine. Our only job is to gather the courage needed to follow that path; we need to find the confidence buried in all of us to make our destiny a reality.
We are all destined to find the meaning behind our lives. We are destined to meet certain people and to visit certain places. However, whether we discover our destiny is our choice. I like to imagine that one day, when our story is over, we will be shown a picture of the beautiful people we were meant to become. We will be shown a picture of the potential we had all along. The point of life is to become twins or best friends with these people — it is for us and them to become one and the same.
To be continued…
Part II of this newsletter will be shared next Sunday. In it, I will share how I found meaning in my life after leaving law and advice on how you can too. Stay tuned, my friend! — AA
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