Not Exactly Anxiety
Ever feel like you are just going through the motions? Feel like you were meant for something more grand?
Worse yet, do you feel like you know what would give your life greater verve, greater purpose, but it just isn’t practical for you to do in the here and now?
Is it healthy to dream?
Sometimes I wonder. I feel like on days I’m caught working a long day at a job that supports me and future retired-me just fine (thank you very much) but puts days, months, and years of practicality in the way of purpose, I would be better off blissfully waiting for football season, something I could count on.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
– Kahlil Gibran
I’m not here to moan. I’m fine with a life of pursuit, of getting a little bit better day by day. But when you dream big, when the object of your quest is far in the distance, anxiety can build.
Well not exactly anxiety. It is what I call existential angst.
In Chip Conley’s book “Emotional Equations,” he gives clear relationships among different emotions, starting with his thoughts on meaning based on Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
“I would recount the story of Man’s Search for Meaning to friends and colleagues, yet most couldn’t understand why I was so fascinated with it. In spite of their blank stares, I kept reading Frankl’s book and began to distill its wisdom down to one simple equation:
Despair = Suffering – Meaning
In other words, despair is what results when suffering has no meaning”
– Chip Conley
Simple and distinguishable as a distilled version of Frankl’s Logotherapy, Chip Conley’s equation soon became a hit within his company and on his speaking tours. Chip challenged his friends in the business community and psychologists that he interviewed to develop further emotional equations. He discovered Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, a color wheel of emotions radiating from Plutchik’s idea of the principle human emotions (joy, anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, and acceptance) into combinations like joy plus trust yielding love.
Chip Conley started in earnest to better develop the arithmetic of emotions. He has equations for dealing with difficult times, getting the most out of your work life, defining who you are, and finding contentment. Some of my favorite equations include:
Calling = Pleasure / Pain
Flow = Skill / Challenge
(Where the goal of flow is 1.0, in other words, optimize flow.)
Happiness = Wanting What You Have / Having What You Want
In these examinations and simplifications of the different facets of life, Mr. Conley strikes a chord. These lessons challenge us to relate our most fundamental emotions with the most profound objects in our lives. In these simple relationships, we can gauge our dynamic relationship with our hoped-for future.
“What does all this mean for you? The Latin root of the word “emotion” means “to move.” Or Emotion = Energy + Motion. Emotions are vehicles for transforming or moving your life. They’re not steady or stagnant states. The weather is an apt metaphor for this: sunshine or rainstorm, neither is stationary. They come and they go. Every weather condition is a function of a variety of ingredients such as barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, and elevation that help cook up the specific weather you’re experiencing at any moment. That’s also true of emotions. Disappointment might be a combination of surprise and sadness. Joy can be bittersweet.”
– Chip Conley
Back of the envelope equation
So what is existential angst? Is it an emotional state previously plotted by Plutchik or calculated by Conley? Was it related to anxiety or calling? Is it a state of finding flow or a failure to find happiness? Is it just me?
As I walked the halls of my unfulfilling work, I pondered what it was that made this tick… well tock. What were the components that kept me aching for more while some of those around me seemed blissfully ignorant of the same examined life plight. The examined life is the only one worth living for me, but the results of this critical eye on how I am living my life and if I’m on my proper place on the path riddles me with unhappiness.
So I took the form of the happiness and of the calling and mashed them together in order to understand the onset of the emotion that causes me discomfort when I’m not achieving my calling or when I am not grateful for where I am – when where I am is more important than the process of becoming.
existential angst = awareness of purpose / living your purpose
existential angst = dream clarity / living your dream
I really love both of these equations in their ability to strike a chord with different audiences. The executive types or those that might think of God’s purpose are likely to gravitate toward purpose presence and living in accordance with that vision statement to reduce existential angst. On the other-hand, artists and mystics will examine their lives in the subconscious, in the music they make, and in a noble quest to achieve a more transcendental object and then share their process with posterity.
The equation needs some explanation. I think there is a bound on awareness of purpose or dream clarity at 1 (unity in math-speak!). That is, you can only achieve 100-percent clarity of vision. The range is 0 to 1.
Of course, many people live a life blissfully ignorant of the examination of the examined life, have little or no future-directed thought and live happy and impromptu lives. Existential angst goes to zero as future-directed, purpose-driven strategies goes to zero.
But how can we diminish the angst of examination, of our lives not measuring up? By living our dream as much as we can, striking out on our mission with a desire to create, care, and continue in the face of adversity.
Maybe the denominator should be (living your purpose – living practically). There is certainly a draw to doing what you need to do for the responsibilities you have — but this can be a cop-out, an easy way out. Living your purpose could fail while living practically, while not foolproof, is a smoother path.
Of course, living our purpose is never easy. Thankfully, we have learned how to practice at it… and, in a clever turn of fate, our practice makes not only perfection, but also purpose!
Transcendent Virtuous Cycle
By setting up a life design utilizing the simple tools from strategic planning, as outlined in Geoff Colvin’s wonderful book “Talent is Overrated”, everyone can get in the Transcendent Virtuous Cycle of:
- longer times in the zone
- greater desire to practice…
But why go to all of that trouble of practicing long hours to get into the Transcendent Virtuous Cycle? It is my contention that we’ve been looking at the purpose of life all wrong. Your purpose is not something you just write down and refer to on occasion, it should be an active part of your life. The hero’s life both defines and is defined by the object. Neo and the Matrix, Luke and the Force, King Arthur and the Grail, Odysseus and home — all the objects make the hero and change the object’s relation to the quest, its final resting place, and the storytelling afterward.
Practice Makes Purpose
So life design starts similar to strategic planning, you determine the object of your quest, your purpose in life. In my forthcoming book, Meaning in the Multiverse, I describe a metaphysical framework — common to Lao Tzu and Plato — supported by the most advanced theoretical physics and neuroscience — that shows that the multiverse promotes transcendent states, being in the zone. The zone doesn’t arrive without energy or entropy, nothing in the natural world does, but tapping into the Transcendent Virtuous Cycle is what our consciousness best synergizes with the universe to do.
For example, if you select as your purpose to become a top-rate photographer; have goals and strategies that will ensure you are measuring success, creating strong feedback loops, and enabling long-term development; all that is left for you to do is go and take photos, learn about improving your techniques, and try and set your eye to find something worthy of your purpose-driven life. Along the way, you will update your feedback loops, change the ratio of photography-to-study-to-mindfullness, and set new goals when you achieve them, but these activities will be done at a much lower rate than photography, feedback, improvement, and the greater time in the zone and loop back to stronger desire to practice that it brings. It is not planning that makes purpose, it is deliberate practice. The purpose you started with is not the one you end with, while photography seems to be the aim, the object is really the time spent in the transcendental state called flow or the zone.
Finding Joy in the Examined Life
So much of finding happiness and love – finding joy in life is about spending meaningful time together, sharing profound experiences. Our time is both a finite resource and a relative one. We know that if we are mindlessly waiting in traffic, time seems painful; but if we are performing a favorite activity, practicing on our purpose, time is not only enjoyable, it seems expansive, inexhaustible. Taken in this way, if we actively notice each moment, each moment grows in intensity… in vitality. This not only brings joy to our lives, but enhances the process of projection that is fundamental to the multiverse. It is an all-natural meaning for your life, your connection to the vastness of the mental and material world.
And of course, it reduces existential angst to its lowest… go ahead and breath a sigh of relief.