8 min read

Everything I’ve learned about the purpose of life

I get into a crisis of meaning whenever I can’t make myself do something I should be doing.

I’ve read so much about this topic, trying to make sense of it all.

There seems to be 4 theories on how to live a good life:

  • Theory 1: Set goals, BIG goals, that compel you to action
  • Theory 2: Follow your passion
  • Theory 3: Happiness
  • Theory 4: Systems and themes, not goals

This post will be a sort of summary of everything I’ve learned from the books I’ve read. I’ll also share what I’ve tried and what works for me.

But before that, let me tell you about…

My battle with “laziness”

Everyone (but me) seems to think I am self-motivated and work hard.

I can deal with discouragement, rejection, and feeling fear. But the belief and feeling that I’m lazy always sends me into an existential crisis.

That’s my main reason for wanting a purpose/meaning in life: to make myself do the stuff I’ve deemed worthy to do.

To be clear, I love my current job as a marketer at SoHelpful. I love our team. I get to set my own schedule. And I get to choose how I work, and even what I work on.

My job satisfies the magic ingredients of great work:

  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important.
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do.
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.

…according to the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which is the best understanding science has as to what makes us intrinsically motivated to work.

(reference: So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love)

So anyway, clearly this battle with laziness is an intrinsic thing, not an external one.

Goals 1.1: “You’re not lazy! You just have impotent goals!”

That’s how Tony Robbins summarizes it in Awaken the Giant Within : How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny!

Using goals to motivate you is the most common advice for defeating laziness. I’ve tried setting BIG 5-year goals.

Be a millionaire!

Have visible abs.

Travel to Antarctica!

Many, many times.

But I’ve never stuck with a goal long enough to achieve it. I always forget them. Besides, staring at them don’t make me feel energized and excited to do the work.

Goals 1.2: Dreamlining

An alternative is Tim Ferriss’s dreamline in The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (Expanded and Updated)

This is how most people work until death: “I’ll just work until I have X dollars and then do what I want.” If you don’t define the “what I want” alternate activities, the X figure will increase indefinitely to avoid the fear-inducing uncertainty of this void. This is when both employees and entrepreneurs become fat men in red BMWs.

For example, instead of setting money goals, define “what you want.” What would excite you?

Create a dreamline, 6- and 12-month timelines of five things you dream of having, being, and doing, that really excites you.

Mine included a Macbook Air, month-long traveling, and getting paid to speak. In retrospect, they are not very big dreams.

But they seemed big and exciting when I set them 3 months ago. I was struggling with my business, generating less than $200/month revenue.

The Macbook Air and month-long traveling are happening, but I haven’t done anything about getting paid to speak. I guess I didn’t really believe I’d be a professional speaker in 6 months. Maybe that’s why I didn’t achieve it. Who knows.

Anyway, dreamlining worked slightly better for me. It’s sustained an excitement in me to buy my Macbook Air (in cash) and “digital-nomading” in Vietnam in January.

The worst that could happen wasn’t crashing and burning, it was accepting terminal boredom as a tolerable status quo. Remember – boredom is the enemy, not some abstract “failure.”

I agree. But in my experience, dreamlining still doesn’t solve the day-to-day boredom and feeling of laziness.

Theory 2: Follow your passion

This is what initiated me to stop doing meaningless work for a paycheck, leave the corporate world, and get into business.

Here, your real goal is not to be rich and famous. But you attain them anyway, because you’re just so passionate about what you’re doing. You can’t help but become successful at it.

It also seems to me as just a subset of setting BIG goals. But under the assumption that it’s possible for all work to feel like play.

In theory, work doesn’t feel like work and you can do it all day, since it’s so meaningful to you. In reality, I’ve never met anyone who feels this effortless passion all the time. If you know anyone who feels this way, I’d love to meet him (email me at cokieng.chiara@gmail.com).

Most people resign to saying, “I just have to figure out.”

I’ve tried going to a cafe with a notebook and doing intense self-introspection, journaling, self-coaching, etc.

My conclusion is that most of us feel bad for not having a passion. We assume that everyone else but us have it figured out. But truth is, few have.

Maybe only Mark Cuban and Steve Jobs.

Theory 3: Happiness

Nothing matters anyway, so why not be happy?

Free from worrying and tension? Peace of mind?

That’s my impression of the happiness theory. I don’t read much about happiness, so I don’t really know.

But to non-happiness people, happiness as a goal is shallow and meaningless.

Maybe my problem is that I should look into this happiness thing more…

Theory 4: Systems and themes, not goals

Goals will break your heart.

We work so hard to reach a goal, but by the time we attain it, we’ve already moved on to something else.

While goals-people feel discouraged every minute they fall short of the goal, systems-people feel successful every time they work their systems. Your system/process will likely lead you to the goal anyway.

Don’t aim to lose 20 pounds. Have a system where you move everyday instead. Don’t aim for $1 million in the bank by age 30. Have a daily practice of making your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual bodies healthy instead.

Don’t set goals. Have systems and themes you live by instead.

Life doesn’t mean anything

I agree with Derek Sivers in talk about The Meaning of Life.

He said,


Erase any meaning you put into past events. Erase any meaning that’s holding you back. Erase those times where people said that this means that. None of it is real.

Life has no inherent meaning. Nothing has inherent meaning.

Life is a blank slate.

You’re free to project any meaning that serves you.

You’re free to do with it, anything you want.

I agree. I’m free to do anything I want.

But the freedom to do ANYTHING is what makes it so hard.

If life doesn’t mean anything… Outside of suicide, what should I do on a day-to-day basis?

This is why having systems and living by themes work for me.

It’s the best in terms of dealing with motivation and work. By definition, it guides you on how to live every single day, instead of trying to motivate you to do today’s work by thinking of tomorrow’s rewards. It also doesn’t force you to have an inborn passion and purpose in life.

4 books that heavily influence my thinking on systems and themes:

Your mission in life is something you periodically go to a cafe, with a notebook, and think and reflect on.

While you’re figuring that out, build yourself up. Learn universally-useful skills, build good habits, become fit and healthy, make friends with good and strong people, etc.

You’ll be glad you did, when you finally figure out what cause you want to commit your life to.

Goals are for losers, systems are for winners.

Macro-system: Every skill you learn doubles your odds of success. Learn universally-useful skills like psychology, business writing, overcoming shyness, etc.

Prioritize what you do everyday by maximizing your “personal energy” as a metric.

If you’re feeling unmotivated, it’s probably a deficit in one of these areas: Flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet, and exercise.

For me, I lack the “imagination” part. Maybe this is where having big dreams comes in.

Make your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies healthy by doing the Simple Daily Practice.

Having a mission can be a very powerful force that makes you feel excited to get up in the morning. But you can only uncover it at the “edges” of your industry.

This takes years.

How do you go to the “edge” of your industry? Build “career capital” by engaging in deep practice and becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

Final thoughts: It’s supposed to be hard

I can’t discuss the meaning of life without discussing Man’s Search for Meaning

Many people read it during dark hours of their lives and got lot of encouragement from it. But sadly, I did not get a lot from this book. I’ll read it again.

I did learn that:

  • Our suffering ceases to be suffering the moment we tell a story about what it means to us.
  • We find the answer in action and behavior, not in talk and meditation.

I also learned striving for “happiness” and “peace of mind” doesn’t work because,

Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.

Finally, I should share that I also read What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

My biggest takeaway is that knowing how to spend your life is a serious matter. It makes sense for it to be hard because… Well, serious things are supposed to be hard.

Don’t feel bad when you’re suffering to figure out what you should do with your life.

It’s supposed to be hard.