Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life

There’s nothing sadder than a wasted life.

Thoreau’s maxim that, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is as true today as it was nearly 200 years ago. And it will be equally as true in another 200 years. I remember working in downtown Denver for years and seeing the endless parade of worker bees sleepwalking their way into the office every day, heads lowered, making as little eye contact as possible. Every one of those people was a child with dreams and aspirations. Most have had those dreams crushed by a daily grind of work, financial struggle, and exhaustion. They’ve stopped pursuing their dreams in an act of passive hari-kiri that a psychologist might call “learned helplessness.”

Like I said, there’s nothing sadder than a wasted life.

I won’t pretend I have it all figured out. But no one does. What I have done is carved out a niche for myself and organized my non-work time around the activities that give me the most fulfillment. It’s the process of discovery and growth that provides meaning in life, not the job title or anyone else’s opinion of what you do.

In a way, the choice to live a meaningful life is like the choice to run a marathon. You need to plan and you need to persist, but with a little motivation and consistent effort, almost anyone can do it. Ultimately, the marathon, like most goals, is just an arbitrary goal, but the very act of deciding that you want to do something, and then doing it, yields a powerful sense of accomplishment.

The choice to live a meaningful life, by contrast, is anything but arbitrary. Rather, it’s the most important choice you’ll ever make. And the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from running a marathon pales in comparison to the joy that comes from living a life of your own choosing.

Here’s how to get it done:

Key #1: Decide what matters to you. Then, remind yourself what it is over and over again..

Think about what you want from life. Think about what you value. Write it down. It can be family or soccer or music or travel or starting a business or yoga or helping the homeless or whatever you want. But you must decide what is essential and engrave it into your conscious and subconscious mind.

There’s a great story about Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon. Early morning in the office at his day job as an engineer as a young man, he would repeat to himself, “I, Scott Adams, am going to become a famous cartoonist,” in front of the mirror in the men’s room. Long before he created one of the world’s most famous syndicated cartoons, he envisioned it as a path for himself. Now, becoming a professional cartoonist is about as challenging a career path as there is. Only a handful of people worldwide do it for a living. But he pulled it off, in part because of his laser-sharp vision.

Fulfilling a dream is rarely an accident. It takes commitment and focus. By repeating your vision to yourself every day, you focus your energy toward that goal. And if you can condense your vision into a concise statement that you can and do repeat to yourself every day, you’ve made a great first step toward making it happen.

Key #2: Do what matters first, every day.

Now that you’ve decided what’s important, you have to do it. Every day. No matter how busy you are. No matter how many things creep onto your to-do list. Make what’s essential the top item on your to-do list. Get it done before you check your email or Facebook. Before you deal with the onslaught of other people’s problems.

It’s easy to allow other people’s agendas to shape your own. Life will concoct a new batch of problems every day – that much is certain. Your car will break down, your boss will freak out, and your clients will create drama for you to resolve. But today’s problems, whatever they might be, rarely matter. Almost none of the things that preoccupy your mind today will matter in one year – much less in five, ten, twenty-five, or after you are gone.

Keep today’s drama in perspective.

Address your own agenda first. Then attend to everyone else’s.

Key #3: Purge the crap from your life.

Once you’ve figured out what’s essential, you have to purge your life of what isn’t. Alcohol, drugs, gossip, TV, checking Facebook, and obsessing over other people playing professional sports. They’re all part of the same phenomenon: escaping life. There can be grace in watching an athlete perform at the highest level and there can be joy in sharing one’s life with others over social media. A bottle of wine can offer a fleeting moment of pleasure. But more often, these choices are about escape rather than joy. And over time, their consumption leads to emptiness and lack of fulfillment rather than a sense of accomplishment or joy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no puritan. Live life to the fullest. But don’t let your vices become habits, or they will stand in the way of your dreams.

As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Choose your habits wisely, and you will live a fulfilling life. Choose them poorly, and you will do the opposite.

Key #4: Do what matters even when you’re scared. Especially when you’re scared.

The surest path to feeling like a failure is to let your life be governed by a fear of failure. It’s tough to put yourself out there. But as Woody Allen said, “80% of success is just showing up.” If you don’t put yourself out there, the result you hope to avoid, failing to achieve your dreams, becomes a certainty.

Put yourself out there again and again and again. Learn from your mistakes. Grow. And do it again.

Kay #5: You already have what you need to be happy..

There is a TV commercial about saving for retirement that asks, “What’s your number?” In the commercial, men and women near retirement age walk around with a number showing the amount of retirement savings each would need to retire comfortably.

The implicit message is: Save for this number, and you can stop worrying and be happy.

But let me tell you a secret: there is no number that guarantees happiness, security, or contentedness. I chose my first job out of law school because it paid the most money. I earned 15 times what I had made in my previous job teaching English as a foreign language in Barcelona (where I was very happy). But rather than stop worrying about money, I focused on it more than ever. I checked my bank account a half a dozen times a day just to remind myself of how much money I had. I observed the partners at my firm who were making 10 times more money I was making; they were 10 times more obsessed with money than I was! I was never more miserable, and my numbers had never been anywhere near as big.

Men and women of all ages and demographics experience stress, anxiety, worry, and insecurity. No amount of money will take that away. Nothing is guaranteed, no matter how wealthy you are or what your social status is. And if you think that joy and freedom from worry will only happen because of some distant event in the future, you may discover that someday never comes, and you are always pushing that opportunity for fulfillment down the road.

Key #6. Don’t compare yourself with others.

The brilliant H.L. Mencken once said, “a wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

This saying hits at two underlying values that will lead to envy and misery. First, that wealth equals success and happiness (see key #5). And second, that success and happiness are defined in relative terms to others.

Yes, Picasso and Matisse and Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe are amazing painters. And yes, you probably will never be able to do what they do. But you have unique gifts and talents, too. If you focus on what’s special and unique about your own talents, rather than worrying about how intimidating or impressive someone else might be, you may be surprised to find out what you can accomplish.

Key #7: What you do and how you do it matters more than what you have or what you get.

Meaning comes not from wealth or external validation, but from fulfillment in what you do. And there are two ways to achieve this. First, you must organize your life around meaningful activities and experiences. Second, you must treat all activities, regardless of their purported meaningfulness or “fun factor,” with equal amounts of attention and concentration. All tasks, even the routine and ordinary, especially the routine and ordinary, must be done with attention and passion.

First, choose what you do carefully. Then, whatever you do, give it your full attention.

This may sound glib, but it is impossible to separate your mental state from what you are doing at this moment. That is literally who you are. If you are fully engaged in all the moments of your life, you will be fulfilled throughout your life, because you will never wish or hope to be anywhere else. If you are not engaged, you will be disappointed, disconnected, and over time, disaffected. The investment banker who makes millions may live a meaningful life, if she is fully engaged in each moment. But most choose to be investment bankers as a means to an end. This person will never be happy, no matter what the number says. It is the engagement, and not the wealth, that generates the meaning.

Conversely, if you don’t have healthy habits, and you aren’t fully engaged, no amount of wealth or externally validated success will give you what you need. You’ll always have a missing piece and the slightest reversal of fortune will send you reeling. The musician who cares about music first will lead a meaningful life. The one who cares about money, fame, or external recognition will never be satisfied, because these things are all fleeting, and even when they come together, they will never be enough unless you find meaning and purpose in what you do.

Key #8. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.

It’s easy to talk about a meaningful life. But not everyone’s life is one where they can paint pictures, dance ballet, or write philosophy all day long. Some people work in coalmines or dig ditches for a living. Many others suffer from depression. What about them?

There is no simple answer for the least fortunate among us. There is no easy answer for mental illness. Some live lives of greater luxury and opportunity than others. Some will struggle mightily with real and traumatic mental and physical illness.

The best answer I have found when faced with pain is this: If you have your faculties at all, you can make a list of the things you can control. And do them as well as you can.The very act of choosing anything carries with it great power. You can choose to smile. You can choose to react with kindness, rather than anger. You can choose what you do with the little free time you might have. And these little decisions add up to something incredible over a lifetime.

Whenever pain, anger, or misery comes (and they inevitably will), just remember one mantra, “what action can I take now to make this moment better?” And then get to it. It may not be feasible to eliminate the pain of the loss of a job or a family member. Pain is a part of life. But it may be possible to turn pain into a small bit of kindness or joy into someone else’s life. And that, in turn, will help everyone, including yourself.

Key #9. If in doubt, do something small to brighten someone else’s day.

If in doubt, if struggling, or if depressed, the closest thing to a panacea to life’s problems I have found is this: do or say just one kind thing to someone else. This doesn’t cure depression or fix life’s greatest ailments, but it will get you out of your own head for a brief moment. And by applying your energy to solving someone else’s problems, rather than worrying about your own, you will see the value in putting your energy to constructive use. Whatever is going wrong in your life, there is almost certainly someone out there who has it much worse. And no matter how bad you have it, someone else is out there crying for help.

The next time you’re stressed and your mind is spinning, if you stop, pause, and give your spouse a kiss or hug your mom or fill up someone else’s parking meter, rather than lashing out in anger, you will have made the world a kinder, happier place. And regardless of how others react to you, that will make your world a better place, too.

Key #10. Embrace the struggle.

You cannot control your status in society. You cannot control whether you are rich or poor. You cannot control if you are handsome or homely. From weather to governments to wars and markets, life deals you new cards every day.

The ever-present reality is that your actions are your only possessions. If you take every such action consistent with your most closely held values, and appreciate the roller coaster for the wonderful adventure it was meant to be, you will always be moving your life closer to what you want it to be. Your life to date, and your life at the time of your death, will be the result of millions of such decisions. If you make all the decisions between now and the time of your death consistent with your most closely held values, you can be assured of living a meaningful life.

Life isn’t about becoming a famous cartoonist or a rock star or achieving any arbitrary goal. Not everyone can be rich and famous. But when you focus your life on what matters to you, and let go of the things that do not, you will be able to relax on your deathbed knowing that you did the best you could in a life of your choosing, without regrets. And there is nothing more meaningful than that.