In July of 2011, I found myself heartbroken, jobless, and without a place to live. Desperately wanting to find meaning in life, I casually started asking friends, then acquaintances, then total strangers how they found meaning in their own.
Then, a radical idea occurred to me — one that has changed my life forever. I would ride my bike across the United States and ask everyday citizens about the secrets to life. I then would apply what I learned to my own life. There were only two problems with my plan: first I didn’t own a bike and second, I hadn’t ridden one in 15 years.
The book I wrote is about my life changing ride. It is about how everyday occurrences became miracles and how the simplest, most common of activities turned into profoundly deep and enlightening life lessons. And since the point of my quest was to understand just what a meaningful life looks like, after 3200 miles, 22 flat tires, and 415 interviews with total strangers, I have come to some conclusions about how to live a meaningful life. Well, 6½ to be exact.
First, people who lead meaningful lives have their basic human needs met: principally food, shelter and safety. For the vast majority of the world, finding one’s next meal and living without the constant fear of danger is the harsh – and unfair – reality of simply existing. For most people, to contemplate meaning is a luxury and, often, an impossibility. For the much smaller percentage of us, specifically in the West, who do not have to live with these daily fear of survival, it is my opinion that contemplating meaning is not only possible, but also a responsibility.
Second, people who lead meaningful lives spend considerable time cultivating that which makes them them. We all are born with innate, distinct talents. People who live meaningfully dedicate considerable amounts of energy in fostering that uniqueness. For some this may manifest as being a good listener, a riveting storyteller, a doctor, or a good mom. For others it is manifest in their art, their mathematical abilities, their cooking, or their entrepreneurial skills. The list truly is infinite. What is important is that whatever skill, talent, or ability you have (and every person has something), time and effort must be spent toward its mastery.
Third, people who lead meaningful lives serve the world by sharing their uniqueness. Many people on my journey shared with me that helping others brings them a sense of meaning in the world. I would agree, but I’d also add that such service must be commensurate with their individuality. To volunteer and give of yourself is noble. But to truly find meaning, people must share who they are with the world, giving away their talents and their uniqueness.
Fourth, people who lead meaningful lives belong to something greater than themselves. Oftentimes this manifests as being a member of a religious group, though not always. People who live meaningfully look to be a smaller part of a larger whole, a constituent of something bigger than themselves individually. This can manifest in other ways, too, such as in societal groups, clubs and the most poignant of all, life partnerships.
Fifth, people who lead meaningful lives train themselves to be vulnerable to the world. Indeed, they actively seek moments to expose themselves to, and be exposed by, life. Rather than isolating themselves from the world in the protection of their comfort zones, people who live meaningful lives assertively seek out ways be affected by life and all of its pains, sorrows, joys, and happiness. Knowing that the only constant in life is change, people who live meaningfully let life move them,and search for ways to be shaped by the world. Not surprisingly, those who let the world touch them also approach the world with a childlike awe.
Sixth, people who lead meaningful lives are grateful and find reasons to give thanks for even the most quotidian and mundane of tasks.
And, finally, the half.
People who live meaningful lives, actually do two things at once: first, they fully participate in life. And second, they fully observe it. Knowing that the juice of life can only be extracted by fully engaging with it, people who leave meaningfully actively look for ways to participate fully with life. That said, they are also diligent observers, always aware of themselves in time and space. As such, people who live meaningfully perform a carefully orchestrated waltz with themselves and the world: they reside on both on the balcony and dance floor of life at the same time.