Whether you’re a 16-year-old girl, a 39-year-old executive or a 62-year-old divorcee who’s fighting with the bottle, this is probably your most persistent question: What is the meaning of life?
Like me, you’ve no doubt asked it at various low-points in your life, but your subconscious is asking it every hour of every day. With each decision, each interaction, every little fork in the road, it’s looking for its purpose. A point to it all. Meaning.
But our brain hasn’t always behaved this way. Early man didn’t question his life the way we do. His life’s purpose was obvious: nourish the body, procreate and stay upwind of the animals with sharp teeth.
The quest for life’s meaning (religion notwithstanding) is a modern one. The industrial revolution and the consumerism it spawned lit the flame, and the Internet and social media fanned it to a point where we now have healthy people in prosperous nations suffering record levels of anxiety and depression.
I’m going to be 51 soon, and I’ve crammed quite a bit into the first half of this adventure. If someone made a movie about my life, the trailer might include things like:
- Starting ‘businesses’ before I reached puberty
- Being bullied in senior school
- Wetting the bed till I was twelve
- Getting dragged into, then pulled out of, the Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Spending countless days down the beach and up in the mountains
- An obsession with drums, then motorbikes and then cars
- Flying through the desert on the outside of a helicopter, 10 feet off the deck
- Tearing down the road at 300 km/h with my hair on fire
- Selling stuff I don’t believe in, then selling stuff I do
- Wanting to be ‘the decent guy’ but getting crushed by girls over and over again
- Chasing money in jobs and business
- Being cheated on (multiple times)
- Losing everything
- Gaining everything
- An epiphany (or three)
- Reinvention, then peace
Like all of us, I see everything through a unique set of filters. The hit list above is a small sample of events that shaped mine. And all of my experiences over the last five decades affect the way I show up in the world, including the things I value, the beliefs I hold and the things, events and people that attract or repel me.
So with all those caveats covered, these are the nine tenets that best describe, for me, the real meaning of life.
1 | Freedom & autonomy are worth more than status or position.
Eventually, you realise your life will end soon and that you’re spending way too much of it away from your family. People weren’t designed to live this way; it’s an invention of the industrial revolution, itself a tiny fraction of our history.
But technology is smashing paradigms every day, as men and women reclaim their independence and escape Cubicle Nation. If you value time more than money, then start making freedom a priority and you’ll soon find you have more of it.
2 | There’s more joy in doing than having.
Consumerism is rampant in western culture, and now it’s bleeding into developing nations, too. But when we’re dying, we don’t mourn the loss of our big screen TV. No one does. Instead, we want to hold our kids once more or walk on a beach again. We want to feel the dawn light on our face or laugh over a glass of wine at a family BBQ.
Chasing ‘stuff’ is a recipe for endless dissatisfaction, and keeping up with the Joneses is an un-winnable game. Instead of chasing ‘me-too’ possessions, take a road trip with your family, solve a problem for someone or start a project you care about.
3 | You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Like it or not, every decision you’ve made – or not made – has landed you right here in this moment. Whether it’s in the shit or on the mountaintop, you couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. So embrace it. Roll with it. Make adjustments if you have to, but don’t bitch about it. There will always be aspects of your life you can’t control (where you’re born, your parents, a hereditary illness, etc.), but it doesn’t change this fact one jot.
No one cares about your ‘problems’ (most of them aren’t real problems, anyway) because they have their own ones to worry about. Embrace the present, then use it to inform your next step.
I never planned to be a single dad to my two angels, but that’s exactly what happened. I later remarried and had another child (Tommy, now 7), but my love for these two girls is stronger than it’s ever been.
Despite all the earlier relationship turmoil with their mum, my girls remain two of the best things that ever happened to my life.
4 | Don’t undersell your most finite and valuable resource.
Guard your time like a lioness guards her litter – it’s the one thing you can’t manufacture. People will try to steal it if you let them, but they’re not just robbing you, they’re stealing from your kids and your partner, too. Control your time. Become a master at it. Always ask yourself, “Is this the most useful thing I could be doing right now?”
On the flip-side, be generous with your time for those who benefit most – your children, your partner, your parents and those who truly need you.
Two of the best things I ever did to regain control was to work from home and to check email just three times a day. There are many others, but these two decisions changed my life.
5 | You become the average of the people you associate with.
Never let your friends choose you; you must be the chooser. If you want to be more empathetic, more productive, more positive, more giving; surround yourself with those who hold the same values. Don’t gratify your weakness with the weak; lift yourself up with good people and make sure you do the same in return. The effect compounds over time.
And if mentors are hard to find, get yourself some virtual ones. I’ve drawn from the wisdom of great thinkers through books, videos and courses for decades.
I wouldn’t be the person I am if it weren’t for people like Steven Pressfield, James Allen, Viktor Frankl, David Schwartz, Thomas Stanley, Chris Guillebeau, James Altucher and Seth Godin. They have each informed important decisions in my life and framed the way I view the world and how I fit into it.
6 | Money is neither good nor bad.
Money is neutral – it buys baby food and weapons; clean water and heroin. Money is a bill of exchange and nothing more. How you use it is entirely up to you, but most people are a slave to it instead of its master. They spend weeks learning about the car of their dreams but almost no time to learn how to multiply their money.
Earning more is less important than what you do with it. The law of compounding, and the patience to make it work allows ordinary wage earners to become multi-millionaires. Kill your old paradigms, get over your money hang-ups, and learn how it really works.
When you have more money, you can do more good with it. As you work towards financial independence, you’ll also reduce stress, gain confidence, and become a better person along the way. You might even learn how little money it takes to be happy and secure.
7 | Give, give, give.
There’s plenty of scientific and anecdotal evidence to prove that givers are happier than takers. When you learn to give without expectation of reward, your happiness is almost assured. Give your knowledge, your time and your money, and before long, opportunities will chase you like a puppy.
And while we’re on the subject of giving, make time to engage fully with your family – especially your kids. They’ll value your undivided attention more than the latest iPhone.
8 | You’ve made your life too complicated.
We’re ruled by distractions that deny us more than they give. Remove all the crap from your life – the possessions, behaviours, people and practices that muddy the waters and keep you from being present. Become intentional about everything. Learn to sit quietly with yourself. Meditate, read, move, breathe.
Unlearn old habits, let go of your attachments and stop identifying yourself with things.
You are not your social following, your house, your clothes or your car. The most beautiful things are often the simplest, so simplify your life until only the best bits remain. Then tell me it isn’t better.
9 | There is no meaning of life – except what you give it.
People are so hung up on the meaning of life, they craft platitudes, opinions and beliefs in a desperate attempt to define the indefinable; like someone’s going to test them later.
Here’s a tip: you don’t need to define any of it.
My life and your life are each one-in-four-hundred-trillion gifts, so attempting to analyse them is pointless. You’re a very lucky fluke and that’s all. Enjoy your gift as you would any other. Don’t pick at it, don’t try to figure out why it’s here, or where it came from or what its plan for you is – there isn’t one. Just enjoy it while you have it because, before long, it’ll be gone.
Revel in the magic of your brief time on this planet and all its incredible splendour. Don’t ever forget how lucky you are just to participate in this complex and wondrous experience. Slow down and look around you. See it, smell it and hear it all. You could have been a tree or a centipede, or bacteria. But you’re human.
Pretend all of this was created just for you because, in a way, it was. If you weren’t here to see it, it would be as though it didn’t exist. And no one will ever experience it the way you do, so live while you’re alive.
How weighed down are you by this unspoken burden to uncover or define the meaning of life? How would you feel if you abandoned this pursuit and just started living with your eyes open?
What if you made a deliberate choice to stop complicating things?
What if, like the pursuit of happiness, you realised there is no end-game; no destination?
What if you had the wisdom to acknowledge once and for all, that there is only the dance? If you did, you’d know that your job – your real job – is to dance while the music is playing.
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