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How to Uncover the Meaning and Purpose of Your Life

Subhajit Banerjee

June 2, 2024

Oh, come on!

A newsletter about meaning and purpose on a weekend? Right when you’re about to dive into that delicious spaghetti carbonara?

Might as well have sent a recording of nails on a chalkboard, right?

And besides, they say finding your purpose is a lifelong journey. So, is it even worth all that time?

Why spend your precious weekends thinking about such heavy topics?

Well, you should—especially if you’re after a happy life (and no, that carbonara, tasty as it is, won’t quite cut it long-term).

Most people have misconceptions about happiness.

They see it as a binary state—you’re either happy or not. They think if they check off a certain number of boxes (usually dictated by popular culture), the happiness gods will grant them perpetual happiness.

And then, they believe they won’t ever feel sad or miserable again. They will never experience pain.

Of course, this is a bunch of lies.

It’s like what Alex Hormozi says—thinking you can eat so well that you’ll never be hungry again or sleep so much that you’ll never be tired again.

Happiness, like hunger or tiredness, exists on a continuum.

Sometimes, your happiness is high on the scale. Then, it slowly fades until you introduce some aspects into your life that boost it back up.

It’s like feeling full after eating and refreshed after a good sleep.

But most people don’t understand this nature of happiness.

They confuse pleasure with happiness and obsess over it. They pursue money, status, sex, and sensory experiences. They chase positive emotions and experiences while avoiding negative ones and discomfort.

The more they do this, the more miserable they become. And then they end up disillusioned and depressed.

So, what are the actual components of happiness? What kind of “top-ups” do you need to become happier when you feel down?

The best description I’ve found is by Israeli-American teacher and author Tal Ben Shahar.

Tal teaches that pursuing happiness is like looking at the sun. The more you do it directly, the more miserable you become.

But when sunlight hits a prism and breaks apart, you can look at the colors and enjoy them without hurting your eyes.

Similarly, happiness can be broken down into five components (Tal calls it the SPIRE wellness model):

  1. Spiritual well-being: through mindfulness, pursuing meaning, purpose, and flow
  2. Physical well-being: through mind-body connection, nutrition, exercise, rest, and recovery
  3. Intellectual well-being: through curiosity, openness to new experiences, learning, and diving deep into topics of interest
  4. Relational well-being: through meaningful relationships with yourself and others
  5. Emotional well-being: through embracing both positive and negative emotions and practicing gratitude

Pursuing meaning and purpose holds a primary spot in this well-being model.

It’s a concept that has been discussed for ages, is a core tenet of all major religions, and is backed by plenty of research.

So, if you want a happy life – you can’t sleep on finding your meaning and purpose.

The Meaning of “Meaning”

“I get that, Subhajit. But where do I find this meaning?”

Here’s a truth most people overlook or choose to ignore: There’s no inherent meaning to anything.

All meaning and value you perceive are your constructions.

They’re subjective and changeable, shaped by our interpretations.

The same object or event can have different meanings to different people. Heck, it can even change meaning for the same person over time.

Let me share a personal example:

If you’ve read this newsletter for a while, you know I have been a people-pleaser for 34+ years.

I was scared of conflicts, didn’t know how to handle them, and always preferred to avoid them.

Conflicts felt threatening to my existence. So, it had a negative meaning for me.

But today, I see conflicts differently.

They can help clarify differences and deepen connections.

I’ve found better tools to manage them. I know how to rise above them without escalating them.

Facing conflicts makes me stronger and better.

So I am not afraid of them anymore and even welcome them. They now have a positive meaning for me.

You see, meaning is tied to survival.

The more threatening something seems the more negative meaning you attach to it.

And the more beneficial you believe something is for your survival, the more positive meaning you give it.

Misery comes not from the experiences but from the negative meanings you attach to these experiences.

Think about the most significant events in your life— what did you decide it meant?

So, does this mean that everything around you, including your life and the universe itself, is meaningless?

Yes, that’s right.

But hold on before you think I’m a nihilist and hit unsubscribe.

Think how amazing this is!

You have all you need within you to create meaning wherever you choose. You are like a god in this sense!

Sadly, most people don’t use this power.

They create meaning unconsciously, following society’s norms. They assign meaning to money, power, status, and pleasure, feeling good when things go well and breaking down when they don’t.

So, what should you do instead?

A better approach is to identify what you truly value. Figure out what motivates you. Figure out your core principles.

Then, consciously assign meaning to these elements.

This approach makes you resilient. It equips you to handle setbacks as you pursue a life filled with meaning you’ve actively shaped.

The highest purpose of life is to create meaning.

Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.
— Viktor Frankl

The Importance (and the Dark Side) of Goals

So, the next step is clear.

Find your core values and principles and use your newfound power to assign meaning to them.

But here, your increasingly growing skeptic mind asks – wait a minute, but what about goals?

Aren’t they important?

After all, every productivity guru tells you to craft SMART goals.

So you learn the acronym, wrestle a bit on whether R stands for realistic or relevant, and craft some goals.

Then you fail to achieve them and become miserable (I’m sure I’m not alone here in this struggle).

This is what’s wrong with the Western notion of happiness and fulfillment. It tells you to set a goal and postpones happiness in the future.

You assign too much meaning to the goal. You stay miserable, do the grind, climb the summit, experience a peak in dopamine, and feel amazing for a short while! Then you crash as the meaning drains, and the void grows within you.

Your dopamine levels crash like crypto in a bear market, taking days to recover to the baseline.

You become miserable once again – until that next peak.

Misery, brief happiness, and then again misery – that doesn’t seem like the best way to live.

And that’s when you’ve achieved your goals! Don’t even get me started about when you fail.

Your ego doesn’t consider the external factors. It takes your self-esteem down on a free fall.

So, you see – goals are good to have. However, goals not backed by values are a recipe for disaster (cue in the deluded Lambo bros hustling for a Lamborghini without understanding what they value)

They are the root cause of the world’s miseries.

“A man is never happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something that he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbour with mast and rigging gone.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer

So, we come to Eastern philosophy for help, which is all about being in the present moment.

But it ignores the fundamental human drive — to have a sense of progress towards something meaningful.

So what’s the solution here? Are you just doomed to stay unhappy?

Of course not. Enter open-ended goals to the rescue.

Mark Manson calls them “general goals”. August Bradley calls them “value goals”. In the software and management world, they are “Objectives” from Andy Grove’s OKR methodology.

So, what exactly are these open-ended goals?

They are goals backed by core values – that never get completed.

Why are they important? Because they reconcile the Eastern and Western philosophies of happiness.

If SMART goals are like “let’s climb Mt Everest,” value goals are like “let’s go north.”

These value goals help you focus on what you become instead of what you achieve.

You still have SMART goals, measurable outcomes, or key results (the KR in the OKR).

However, they are always linked to a value goal or objective. Setting and achieving these goal outcomes are less important than the state of working towards their overarching value goals.

Human nature is built to pursue goals, not just achieve them. Research says that while achieving goals doesn’t make you happy, the existence of these goals does.

By combining value goals and key results, you get a perennial goal that’s a constant source of meaning and concrete ways to measure progress toward it. You also get the freedom to indulge in day-to-day presence as you work towards those goals.

You get to have your cake and eat it, too.

Amazing, right?

My Values, Meaning, Purpose and Principles

So now you understand the immense power you have been bestowed with.

The power to attach meaning.

If you do it consciously, it has the potential to make you happy. But if you do it unconsciously, it will make you utterly miserable.

So, you must be deliberate when deciding what to attach meaning to.

How do you do that?

You find what matters to you the most – your values, principles, and purpose.

It must be more than regurgitated answers you think you should give.

It has to be things that are core to the fiber of your being, drive and motivate you, and are sacred to you.

It has to be things that you’re willing to sacrifice everything for.

I’ll teach you how to find them in a bit.

But for now, let me share what conclusions I’ve reached on my core values upon countless hours of introspection:

What drives and motivates me? What do I value?

  • Satisfaction of being of service to my family and friends and the entire world to help them thrive
  • Need to connect deeply with the people I love and resonate with
  • Curiosity and thirst for knowing how the human mind and body works
  • Need to establish stability and predictability financially, in family life, and my immediate environment
  • Satisfaction of building energy-efficient systems that propel me toward my purpose
  • Pursuing new sensory experiences (visual, olfactory, audio, gastronomic, and tactile)

Where do I find meaning? What’s my purpose?

  • Building a sustainable business that helps me create maximum impact in the world and empower people to realize their human potential
  • Nurturing and empowering my family and friends
  • Realizing my human potential by pushing my physical and mental boundaries through learning and experimentation

What foundational core principles will I adhere to while pursuing the above?

  1. Courage/Honesty: Cultivating this principle has been crucial in overcoming my people-pleasing tendencies. I consider it the holiest of them all.
  2. Diligence (Daily, untiring efforts, Never giving up or cutting corners, Grit, Perseverance, Tenacity, Resilience) I have suffered every time I took a shortcut—whether in growing a business, an audience, my career, or my relationships. So, diligence is my second non-negotiable. Staying true to my values allows me to stick to this principle effortlessly.
  3. Openness/Curiosity/Playfulness Staying open, curious, and playful helps me avoid the rigid traps of ego, learn from my mistakes, and connect deeply with others.
  4. Love/Empathy/Kindness/Compassion/Patience (to myself and others) These principles help me remember the oneness, non-duality, or Advaita nature of all human beings
  5. Temperance or Dao (avoiding extremes) All extremes beget misery. Life will teach that to you daily if you allow it to.
  6. Gratitude Creating, sending, and receiving gratitude rewires your mind for happiness. There is too much data to ignore it.
  7. Detachment or Vairagya This principle has been the last piece of the puzzle for me. It ties to the concept of Value Goals, stops me from attaching too much meaning to goals, makes me resilient to setbacks, and enables me to follow my second principle easily. It protects me from fear, anxiety, pride, anger, hopelessness, and worry and helps me to stick to my 3rd principle. And finally, it allows me to stay true to my 4th principle – to be loving and caring towards my family, friends, and clients – without getting entangled in the drama of their lives.

This list is by no means the final one. I constantly renew and refine it through my review cycles.

But for now, I’m happy with where I am.

Do you see how much clarity this brings to you?

As long as you’re alive, you need to make choices. And as long as you make choices, you must decide what you base your choices on.

With your values, purpose, and guiding principles in concrete form before you, every major life decision becomes a walk in the park—all you need to do is consult these principles.

If something falls in line with these – you pursue it.

If something doesn’t, you let it go – it doesn’t matter what popular convention or society thinks about it.

As you might have already realized, getting there isn’t easy. It takes time, energy, and effort.

But the benefits – the clarity, the satisfaction, the joy, the connectedness, the peace – are nothing short of magical.

When you live your life aligned to your higher ideals like this, you don’t need to worry about whether or not it would be meaningful. You’re free to be present in every moment.

And you give yourself the greatest gift of them all.

You get to look back on your life on your deathbed – and see it full of meaning instead of regret.

Life Operating System – the Silver Bullet?

At this point, I’m sure you must be feeling overwhelmed.

“Yeah, a life aligned to your highest ideals sounds amazing, but it sounds too much work.”

How do you even go about creating a life like that?

I don’t blame you for feeling this way. Until recently, I felt the same.

My only approach was to tackle tasks with relentless tenacity.

But eventually, as my energy drained through unseen negative feedback loops, I felt overwhelmed, guilty, regretful, and hopeless.

This quote by Brett Eric on X/Twitter gets right to the point:

“Tenacity builds momentum. Systems scale”

I was blind to this underlying mechanism.

I didn’t understand what system thinking was or how pervasive systems are.

I didn’t realize that the default systems that developed around me were perfect (as all systems are) at generating outcomes. They were just not the outcomes I wanted or expected.

They were designed to generate feelings of overwhelm, guilt, regret, and hopelessness.

But I thought I just needed to work “harder” and do “better,” and I kept falling back into a cycle of self-criticism.

Thankfully, I found August Bradley’s work.

It introduced me to Systems Thinking, and now I see small systems at play everywhere.

Once I grasped the need to build systems intentionally, I dove into learning and building mode. I invested significant energy in creating a Life Operating System that helps me focus on high-priority tasks (like writing this newsletter), track my daily progress, and conduct regular reviews to stay aligned with my goals and purpose.

I drew heavily from the PARA and Second Brain framework by Tiago Forte and the PPV (Pillars Pipelines and Vaults) Framework by August Bradley, combining them to create a custom Life Operating System tailored to my needs.

This system has freed me from the internal negative loops of self-criticism and low self-esteem.

Self-esteem stems from integrity and from keeping promises to yourself. A well-designed system enables you to do this continuously.

I have been enjoying the benefits of this system for several weeks now.

They include:

  • Unmatched clarity and focus, guiding me with what’s most important at any moment
  • A routine that captures the power of setting intentions at the day’s start and the satisfaction of ticking off tasks
  • A sense of control and power to set order in the chaos of daily life
  • The joy of living a meaningful life aligned with your values and principles
  • Peace in knowing that every day and hour moves you toward your true potential
  • Mental freedom to stay present and appreciate the simple beauty of the world

I don’t know about you, but to me, this sounds a lot like the happiness everyone talks about.

How to Create a Meaningful Life

Should you embark on that journey, I want to give you the principles that will guide you in crafting a meaningful and the best possible life.

(I’m here to help if you don’t want to do it alone. Book a free strategy call here, and we’ll figure out the details.)

So here’s your roadmap to a meaningful life:

Find your values

The first step is to peel back the superficial layers and discover your core values. The things that drive and motivate you and the fundamental principles you want to adhere to.

There are many methods to achieve this, but I’ve found two frameworks the most effective:

August Bradley’s Method

Set aside some time in your calendar for a focused work session. Then, write down the answers to the following questions:

  1. What experiences, good or bad, have most significantly impacted your life?
  2. Who are the people who have had the most significant impact on your life, for better or worse?
  3. What places have left the most significant imprint on you?

Separate the positive from the negative experiences. Identify the times, places, and experiences you are most thankful for.

What do you regret the most? What challenges have you overcome? What are you proudest of persevering through and achieving?

Start by examining these impactful scenarios throughout your life. Then, zoom in on the daily challenges and frustrations that bother you.

Document all the mini-wins, mini-losses, and mini-frustrations.

Organize them by biggest to smallest, good and bad. Lay these all down on a loose timeline. Review it to identify patterns and feedback loops.

Once you’ve done that, answer the below questions:

  • What has improved your life and felt rewarding?
  • What events, experiences, people, and places stung?
  • What events felt good at that time, but looking back, do you regret them?
  • Things that felt unpleasant but over time became meaningful?

Once you have these answers with you, try to condense them into concise bullet points and then answer these 3 (now-familiar) questions:

  1. What drives and motivates me? What do I value? (2-5 bullet points)
  2. Where do I find meaning? What’s my purpose? (2-5 bullet points)
  3. What foundational core principles will I adhere to while pursuing the above? (2-5 bullet points)

Feel free to look at the answers I reached to for inspiration.

Leo Gura/Teal Swan’s Method

Another simpler (but less effective) way is to use a free-form questionnaire that I compiled from the works of Leo Gura and Teal Swan.

Write down the answer to these questions:

  1. What would you do if money, time, or responsibilities were no longer a concern?
  2. What impact and legacy do you want to leave behind?
  3. What would you choose if you were forced to do something every waking moment of the day?
  4. If you knew you were going to die in two years, what would you do with those two years?
  5. What makes you so engrossed that you lose track of time?
  6. What sacrifices are you willing to endure to do what is important to you?”
  7. What problem in the world would you pick to start solving?
  8. What did you love to do when I was a child?
  9. What gift do you have to give to this world?

If you treat the above exercises with the respect and seriousness they deserve, you will arrive at answers that reflect your core values.

Don’t expect them to be perfectly accurate at this point. Finding and refining your core values will take a lifetime of effort.

But this does count for a bloody good start.

Craft your purpose

Remember our discussion about life’s purpose?

It’s about creating meaning in your life.

When you design your life around the core values and principles you identified earlier and adhere to them to the best of your ability, meaning begins to emerge naturally.

However, being kind and patient with yourself is crucial during this process.

Understand that your life’s purpose might not be immediately apparent and will likely evolve.

Don’t let your ego rush you into settling on the first idea that comes to mind—it can be deceptive.

Set aside time for self-reflection, to explore, and to engage in new activities.

Finally, seek support from coaches, mentors, or communities who can guide you on your path.

Create Meaning in Your Life

How do you create meaning in your life?

The answer is the same as how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

To create meaning in your life, create meaning every day.

It will roll up to a meaningful week. The weeks will accumulate up to a meaningful month.

The months will build up to a meaningful year, the years to a decade, and decades to a lifetime.

That’s your blueprint to a meaningful life.

So how do you achieve that?

The answer is the Life Operating System I described above. Let’s get down to the brass tacks.

Create a Life Operating System for yourself

Teaching you how to craft your own Life Operating System goes beyond what we can cover in this article.

It might require a course or two. (If you’re interested in building your own, I recommend checking out August Bradley’s “Focus and Alignment System” playlist on YouTube.)

I built mine using Notion, drawing on my background in software development and databases. However, you can explore a variety of tools, such as Obsidian or Roam, depending on what suits you best.

You’ve already made a great start by identifying your core values and guiding principles.

Next, break down your life into areas or pillars based on these values and principles.

Define the Objectives (value-driven goals) you want to pursue, informed by your purpose from the earlier step and the pillars you’ve established.

Identify clear, measurable outcomes (Key Results) to help you achieve your objectives.

Plan projects that will enable you to achieve these key results.

Establish your habits and routines to progress towards these outcomes or objectives.

List tasks necessary to complete your projects. Focus on what motivates you and delegate the rest whenever possible.

Prioritize tasks that are most crucial for each day (I even narrow it down to the most critical task for each hour).

Regularly track and record your progress every hour and day.

What gets measured gets done.

Regular Reviews to keep you on track

And finally, establish regular review routines to ensure you stay on track.

Daily Review: At the end of each day, evaluate your progress on action items and plan for the following day. This keeps your tasks aligned and manageable.

Weekly Review: Each week, assess how your projects are progressing. Use this information to plan your activities for the next week, making adjustments as necessary to stay on course.

Monthly Review: Once a month, take a step back to look at the outcomes or key results you’re achieving. This is an excellent time to reflect on the effectiveness of your efforts and the impact of the habits and routines you’ve established.

Quarterly Review: Evaluate your progress towards your objectives or value goals every quarter. This broader view helps you see patterns you might miss in the weekly or monthly reviews and adjust your strategies as needed.

Annual Review: Review your progress and overall purpose at the end of each year. This ensures that your daily actions and broader goals align with your core values and long-term vision.

You create a structured approach to continual improvement and purposeful living by embedding these regular review routines into your life.

Now you have a complete roadmap to create a meaningful life.

Go ahead and enjoy that carbonara, but I bet you won’t be relying on it for happiness anymore.

You now have all the tools and strategies to craft a life filled with meaning—a constant source of joy and fulfillment that even the best carbonara can’t match.

I know this might seem like a daunting journey to undertake.

But I urge you to get started.

That first step is always the toughest. But this journey will prove to be the most satisfying endeavor you’ve ever embarked on.

A life backed by core values and principles life is a gift that keeps on giving.

So do yourself a favor and take that step today.

A lifetime of meaning awaits you.