Nothing Has Inherent Meaning...and That's a Good Thing.
"Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.”
– Joseph Campbell
When I have been invited to speak on the topic of improving performance, and I am done covering the physiological and psychological constituents of it, I lead with a question that gets to the core of philosophical truth. I only ask an audience member “what’s the most important thing to you?”
Almost everyone gives the same answer – “my children.” I quickly point out that their children have no inherent meaning. After all, parents murder or abandon their children every day. Lauren Sardi, an assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University, said homicide is one of the top five causes of deaths for children under the age of 14. The most recent study, compiled in 2004, showed that 311 of 578 children under the age of five, or 53.8 percent, were killed by their parents in the United States. The study says that between 1976 and 2004, 30 percent of children under five who were murdered were killed by their mother, while 31 percent were killed by their fathers.25
Admittedly, when I tell an audience member that their children have no inherent meaning, I am typically met with an incredulous glare. However, my point is that we bring meaning to our children, and it says more about what we choose to value than some biological imperative that children mean “x.” We have chemicals in our system, such as oxytocin, that causes us to want to care for our offspring, but even if a parent had a deficiency there, if children had meaning they would still be nurtured. We decide what everything means, or doesn’t mean. Job gain or loss, marriage or divorce, sickness or health, rain or the sunshine, bring no intrinsic definition relating to “good” or “bad,” but merely provide a circumstance for an individual to put into the context of how they view their purpose.
It does not obscure the fact that we all are existing in imagined constructs, more or less agreed upon by society. Money is a fiction and is only as valuable as we all agree it to be. That fact doesn’t minimize money’s importance, since we need a tool for trading with one another. It can be argued that human beings have risen to the top of the food chain, in no small part, to the fact that we are the only species that trades with one another. If you are good at one thing and I am good at another, we maximize our production by dividing labor and producing more than we could individually. That’s a good thing for prosperity.
However, consider that the foundation of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, is nothing more than a myth. It claims a divine ruler that has guaranteed us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is no biological concept of justice that exists outside of our own imagination. Conflict arises when the masses stop believing a particular myth, so its principles are safeguarded with violence and coercion. It also becomes imperative that society is indoctrinated that the imagined order has been created by great gods or the laws of nature. People must never consider their reality to be anything other than objective fact. Unfortunately but perhaps necessarily, cooperation has to be forced.
Over the millennia we have used philosophy as a thinking model, exploring questions of how to live, what exists, what the essential nature of things are, what counts as knowledge, and what the correct principles of reasoning consist of. It's hard to deal with concepts that are foundational and abstract in nature, so many of us avoid the exercise. Philosophy tends to be reflective in nature, so most often, the reckoning only comes after the event to be analyzed has occurred. Although the study of philosophy has yet to uncover the meaning of life, the universe, or morality, it has undeniably formed much of our thinking in disciplines like politics, mathematics, science, literature, and sociology. It is a subject worth pursuing.
A teacher told her young class to ask their parents for a family story with a moral at the end of it and to return the next day to tell their stories.
In the classroom the next day, Joe gave his example first, "My dad is a farmer, and we have chickens. One day we were taking lots of eggs to market in a basket on the front seat of the truck when we hit a big bump in the road; the basket fell off the seat, and all the eggs broke. The moral of the story is not to put all your eggs in one basket."
"Very good," said the teacher.
Next, Mary said, "We are farmers too. We had twenty eggs waiting to hatch, but when they did, we only got ten chicks. The moral of this story is not to count your chickens before they're hatched.
"Very good," said the teacher again, very pleased with the response so far.
Next, it was Barney's turn to tell his story: "My dad told me this story about my Aunt Karen. Aunt Karen was a flight engineer in the war, and her plane got hit. She had to bail out over enemy territory, and all she had was a bottle of whiskey, a machine gun, and a machete."
"Go on," said the teacher, intrigued.
"Aunt Karen drank the whiskey on the way down to prepare herself; then she landed right in the middle of a hundred enemy soldiers. She killed seventy of them with the machine gun until she ran out of bullets. Then she killed twenty more with the machete till the blade broke. And then she killed the last ten with her bare hands."
"Good heavens," said the horrified teacher, "What did your father say was the moral of that frightening story?"
"Stay away from Aunt Karen when she's been drinking!”
Where can we start? While there are multiple branches of thought, including Metaphysics (what’s out there?), Epistemology (how do I know about it?), Politics (what actions are permissible?), and Esthetics (what can life be like?), this book is focused on Ethics, or the study of action. A proper foundation of ethics requires a standard of value to which all goals and actions can be compared to. If we use our personal lives as the norm, we start to explore what makes them livable. Since there is no biological need for happiness or striving for success, we must examine what really causes our well-being and happiness.
The answer to that question reveals our ultimate standard of value and the goal in which a leader must always strive toward. We arrived here by the examination of our biological nature and recognizing our strange and unique needs. A system of ethics must further consist of not only emergency situations but the day to day choices we make regularly. 26
We learn more philosophical lessons from challenging assignments, losses, crises, mistakes, setbacks, and ethical dilemmas than any other event categories. These adversarial circumstances leave the one facing them with a myriad of choices with only two outcomes probable – growth or death (figuratively and literally). These experiences do produce advantages for those who make it through the crucible, and this Return on Investment (ROI) comprises mastery, versatility, and transfer of proficiency. The ability to enhance skills, broaden experiences, and share those acquired competencies across an organization typically manifests itself as a result of overcoming obstacles. Whether in nature or the board room, an organism’s ability to be resilient may be the most important factor in ensuring longevity. It allows people to weave their challenging experiences into a larger sense of purpose and meaning.
A leader’s ability to handle life’s “permanent whitewater” – career setbacks, personal trauma, problem employees, and downsizing- culminate in the desirable characteristics of self-assurance, empathy, malleability, and a sense of when to exercise power and when to delegate or back-off.