The Meaning of Life: Intro
June 19th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina
What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Is there a God or isn’t there, and if there is a God, what is its nature? Of all the world’s religions, which one is the most correct? Is there an afterlife? Are we primarily physical beings or spiritual beings?
People have struggled for millennia to tackle these questions. Wars have been fought over them. But as much as these questions cause people to lose their heads (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally), the bottom line is that these are very practical questions.
Behind the Wheel
The way we answer these questions will provide the ultimate context for everything else we do with our lives. If we place any value on our lives at all, we must give some consideration to these questions.
Let’s say you have your life organized around goals, projects, and actions. You set a goal like starting a new internet business. You break it down into projects like writing a business plan and launching your web site. And then you break those projects down into actions like going to the bank to open a business account and registering your domain name. Fair enough.
But why start the business in the first place? What’s the point? Why pick this goal vs. any other goal? Why even set goals at all?
What determines the goals you set (or don’t set) is your context. Your context is your collection of beliefs and values. So if the values of money and freedom are part of your context, you might be inclined to set a goal to start a new business. But with different kinds of values — a different context — you may be disinclined to set goals at all.
The most significant part of your context is your collection of beliefs about the nature of reality, which includes your religious, spiritual, and philosophical beliefs. Your overall beliefs about the universe will largely determine your results. Context dictates goals. Goals dictate projects. Projects dictate actions. Actions dictate results.
Within a certain context, it will be virtually impossible for you to achieve certain results because you’ll never set the required goals that will lead to those results.
Your context works like a filter. When you are inside a particular context, you lose access to the potential goals, projects, and actions that lie outside that context. For example, if your context includes the belief that criminal behavior is very bad, then you aren’t likely to work towards becoming a future leader in organized crime.
Walking in My Shoes
This is a long personal story, but I think you’ll find it interesting. If you take the time to read it, I want you to notice how my beliefs (my context) shifted over time and how dramatically they changed my results.
For half of my life, I’ve been searching for the context that would give me the best possible life. Of course, this is a strange pursuit because it requires searching for a context while at the same time always being stuck inside of one. In other words, the definition of “best possible life” is also part of any context, so I have to find a context that both defines that term AND provides a means to fulfill it.
This pursuit began almost accidentally for me, but eventually I began pursuing it consciously.
For the first half of my life, until the age of 17, I was Catholic/Christian, baptized and confirmed. I went through eight years of Catholic grammar school followed by four years of Catholic high school. I was a boy scout for several years and earned the Ad Altare Dei award. I prayed every day and accepted all that I was taught as true. I went to Church every Sunday with my family. All of my friends and family were Christian, so I knew nothing of other belief systems. My father was an altar boy when he was young, and his brother (my uncle) is a Catholic priest. One of my cousins is a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. In high school I went to optional religious retreats and did community service, both at a convalescent home and at a preschool for children with disabilities. I expected to be Catholic for life.
But near the end of my junior year of high school, I went through an experience that I’d have to describe as an awakening. It was as if a new part of my brain suddenly switched on, popping me into a higher state of awareness. Perhaps it was just a side effect of the maturation process. I began to openly question the beliefs that had been conditioned into me since childhood. Blind acceptance of what I was taught wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted to go behind the scenes, uproot any incongruencies, and see if these beliefs actually made sense to me. I started raising a lot of questions but found few people would honestly discuss them. Most simply dismissed me or became defensive. But I was intensely curious, not hostile about it. My family was closed to discussing the whole thing, but I did find a few open-minded teachers. My high school (Loyola High in Los Angeles) was a Jesuit school, and the Jesuits are very liberal as far as priests go.
I was disappointed though. What I found was that regardless of their education and their much greater life experience, very few of my friends and teachers ever bothered to question their beliefs openly. And that really gave me a huge shot of doubt. I thought, “If everyone is just accepting all of this blindly and no one is even questioning it, why should I believe it?” Over a period of months the doubt only grew stronger, and I transferred more of my faith from my Catholic upbringing to my own intelligence and senses. Eventually I just dropped the whole context entirely, and in the absence of any other viable contexts to choose from, I became an atheist.
I entered my senior year of Catholic high school as a 17-year old atheist. Oh, the irony. Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect, but soon I found the context of atheism to be incredibly empowering. Having shed all my old beliefs, I felt like my brain had gotten an intelligence upgrade. I could think so much more clearly, and my mind seemed to work much better. I also felt more in control of my life than ever before. Without a belief in God, I assumed total responsibility for my results in life. School was easier than ever for me, even though I was taking all the school’s most challenging classes, most of them AP courses. I was so good at calculus that my teacher actually gave me a special test, different from the rest of the class. And one time my AP physics teacher came to me before school to have me show him how to solve a difficult physics problem. I especially found math and science classes so easy that I began looking for new ways to challenge myself. So I’d try to do my entire homework assignment on a 1″ by 1″ square of paper, or I’d do it in crayon on the back of a cereal box cover, or I’d color in my polar graphs with colored pencil and turn it into artwork. People thought I was wacky, but I mainly did these things to keep it interesting because the problems themselves posed no challenge. You haven’t really lived until you’ve done calculus in crayon.
I made no secret of the fact that I was an atheist, so when taking religion classes, I’d regurgitate all the raw data needed to ace a test, but whenever there were open-ended essay questions, I’d address them from an atheistic perspective. I’m grateful the Jesuits were as liberal as they were and tolerated my behavior. I have to give them a lot of credit for that.
My family was not happy about all this, especially when my subscription to American Atheist magazine started coming in the mail (I got good at intercepting the mail early). But I was doing so well in school that it was hard for them to complain, and they didn’t want to openly address any of my questions, even though I’d have been happy to do so. They did force me to keep going to church though, which I tolerated for a while because I knew I’d be moving out in a year anyway. But eventually I started sitting in a different part of the church and would sneak out the back and go for a walk and return just before it ended. But one time the mass ended earlier than expected, and I got back too late. My family was already at the car and saw me walking down the street. Whoops! They drove off without me. But instead of walking the two miles home, I stayed out the entire day and didn’t return until midnight. Aside from weddings and funerals, that was the last time I ever went to church.
Despite these conflicts, my senior year in high school was by far my best ever. I aced all my classes and was accepted into six colleges as a computer science major: Cal Tech, UCLA (partial scholarship), UC San Diego (full scholarship), UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Harvey Mudd.
I opted to go to UC Berkeley because at the time, its computer science program was the highest rated in the country. I was very happy to move out and finally be on my own. In the fall of 1989 I moved to Berkeley and lived in the freshman dorms.
Then things got weird.
While at Berkeley my atheism context was further molded. No longer surrounded by Catholics, I met a lot of interesting people there with a wide variety of belief systems. I quickly made a lot of new friends who were very intelligent, and some were open to discussing the nature of reality. I think my Catholic upbringing was like a coiled spring — as soon as I left behind the environment that kept the spring coiled, I immediately shot to the other end of the spectrum. But I went way too far with it. I not only shed my old religious beliefs, but along with it went my whole concept of morality. I was like the guy in Mark Twain’s short story “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” a story about a guy who kills his conscience.
I started embracing all the stuff that was basically the opposite of my upbringing. I completely lost all interest in school and hardly ever went to class. I really didn’t care at all about getting my degree. I went to parties almost every week and drank a lot, one time doing about 14 drinks in a row and waking up with no memory of how I got to bed. I had to ask friends to piece together pieces of the previous night. To this day I’m certain I drank more alcohol before the age of 21 than after (and I’m 34 now).
I also started shoplifting — a lot. The first time I did it simply because it was something I’d never done before, something I could never do as a Catholic. It was like a task to be marked off a checklist. But I soon became addicted to the emotional high of it, and I kept doing it more and more, eventually to the point of doing it several times a day.
I virtually never stole stuff to keep it. I’d give away most of what I stole to other people, or I’d just throw it in the trash afterwards. About a month into my first semester, I got arrested. 4 months probation. I took about a week off and went right back to it, although I became a bit more cautious about it. One week after the probation period ended, I got arrested again and ended up with 40 hours of community service. I did the service, and soon went right back into stealing. But I refined my methods even more, making it much harder for me to get caught. A few close calls only gave me more confidence.
I grew so accustomed to this behavior that I could steal without my heart skipping a beat. No fear. So I had to keep upping the dosage. At first I started setting little goals, like seeing how many large candy bars I could fit in my pockets at once (13), or trying to steal every bottle of white out from the student store in one day (over 50 bottles). Then I just gave away all the candy and white out to fellow students.
I wasn’t doing well in school and was put on academic probation too. They do that when you don’t show up to class. I can’t say I really cared much though.
But things went from bad to worse when I met another student who was about as morally corrupted as I was, and we became fast friends. I stopped doing the (risky) shoplifting, and together we planned and implemented a two-person theft where the odds of getting caught were very low. It worked again and again, and we both started making some actual money from it. To play it safe and not keep hitting the same locations over and over, we expanded our circle to go way beyond Berkeley to an almost 100-mile radius, from San Francisco to Sacramento to Fresno. Over a period of about a year, we gradually escalated each theft to a dollar value that was now well into the grand theft range (at the time any theft above $400). I think our weekend record was about $2400 worth of stuff.
Shouldn’t Have Done That
Eventually I got caught again, this time for grand theft. Not good. Before this arrest I had discovered that because of my priors, I’d be looking at about two years in jail if I got convicted of grand theft. Not good at all.
And to make it even worse, I was arrested in Sacramento, about a 2-hour drive from Berkeley. But my partner couldn’t wait around and expose himself too, so he drove back. I was stuck sitting in the county jail for an ID hold. I never stole with ID on me, and I gave the police one of my many fake names, but they of course didn’t take my word for it, so I had to wait in a cell while they ran my fingerprints trying to figure out who I was.
So there I was… 19 years old, sitting in jail on Superbowl Sunday 1991. Expecting that I was about to lose my freedom for the next two years.
That was the sound of reality crashing down around me. For the first several hours, I was in shock, unable to think straight. Maybe it was the orange clothes. But with nothing to do but sit and think for an indefinite period of time, I started asking all the big questions again. What the hell was I doing here? Was this really me?
But now my answers were very different. I realized that this context was all wrong. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to spend the next couple years in jail, but I also knew that I had changed permanently and that this way of life had now ended. Two years in jail… this would be a painful lesson. But at least I had learned it. I didn’t have a complete replacement context yet, but I began to plant the seed of one. That seed was the realization that no matter how bad things seemed, in the future they could be better. I knew I would eventually recover and rebound. It might be a number of years before I was back on my feet again, but I knew with certainty that I could survive it. Although I wouldn’t have labeled it as such at the time, this was the moment when the idea of personal growth got planted in me. It was the idea that no matter how bad things are right now, I still have the capacity to grow through them and to emerge in a better position in the future. That idea was all I had, but it was enough to allow me to cope.
Three days later I was released. They’d succeeded in identifying me. I was given a court date and sent on my way, charged with felony grand theft. It was around sunset. At first I walked around the Capitol building and garden in Sacramento, just enjoying the fresh air and happy that I’d at least have a few more months of freedom. Jail is extremely boring, and I was just in the county jail, not prison. Unfortunately I had a more immediate problem to deal with. I had no ID, only $18 cash on me, and I had to find a way to go 120 miles to get back home. As luck would have it, I was able to take a late night bus to Oakland for only $16, and from there my (ex) partner gave me a ride home.
Upon returning to my apartment, I found in the mail a letter from UC Berkeley stating that I was expelled. They do that when your GPA starts with the decimal point.
A Broken Frame
For the next few months while waiting for my court date, I was in a bit of a funk. I didn’t do much of anything at all. I slept a lot, took long walks, and played a lot of video games. It’s hard to set goals when you expect to be going to jail for a while.
Eventually I got a lawyer and met with him to discuss my case. Before I could open my mouth, he said, “Well, I’ve reviewed your case, and since this is your first offense, I’m pretty sure we can get it reduced to petty theft, so you’d only end up with some community service if we plead no contest. I’m on great terms with the D.A. so I’m pretty sure he’ll go for it. I strongly advise against going to trial, as the evidence against you is overwhelming, seeing as you were caught red handed.” First offense? Huh?
Immediately my brain filled with thoughts like, “Why does he think this is my first offense? Doesn’t he know about my priors? And if he thinks this is a first offense, will the rest of the court also think it’s a first offense? Should I correct my lawyer on this oversight?” After mulling it over in my mind for a few seconds, I decided I’d damn well better keep my mouth shut. It might backfire on me, but there was a chance that it might frontfire too. I figured that worst case, I’d have an angry lawyer to deal with. But the best case was too good to pass up. Grand theft was a felony; petty theft was only a misdemeanor. I had to take the risk. Of course, taking risks was something all too familiar for me.
Several weeks later we went to court. My plan was to keep my mouth shut as much as possible and only say the absolute minimum. Outside the courtroom I reviewed the court’s basic info about the case. They had indeed connected me with my real identity, but they also had my fake name listed too. No priors were listed. My best guess is that someone screwed up and searched for priors based on my fake name instead of my real name, even though the case was going to court under my real name. Human error? Computer error? Who knows? But one big error either way.
Sure enough when we got into the courtroom (a place that was becoming increasingly familiar), the court remained under the assumption that this was a first offense and processed it as such. I plead no contest to the reduced charge of petty theft and got 60 hours community service. I did those 60 hours like it was a dream job, knowing that it could have been 17,520 hours.
My head was spinning. What had just happened? The next two years were now mine again.
Construction Time Again
Soon I moved back to L.A. and got a nothing retail sales job for $6/hour and took a few nothing classes on the side. I’d had quite enough excitement over the past couple years, and I just wanted to enjoy a quiet normal life for a while… spend some time below the radar. I reconnected with old high school friends who were going to UCLA and hung out at their fraternity house at times, but I usually stayed clear of the parties. I played a lot of frisbee golf, tennis, and computer games (especially the Sierra adventure games which were popular in the early 90s). I tried to keep life very simple. I spent a lot of time analyzing my experience at Berkeley, needing to understand it so as to be able to prevent myself from ever going down that path again. But I kept my thoughts about all this to myself.
I knew I had a lot of personal rebuilding to do, but I also knew that I couldn’t go backwards. The morals and beliefs by which I was raised were broken, but living without a sense of conscience clearly wasn’t an option. Was a belief in God required to live by a code of ethics?
I became aware that despite how negative my experiences seemed, they forever changed me in a good way too. By going through those experiences, I had unlocked access to a part of myself that was previously dormant — my courage. Although I had done things that were very foolish, they also took a lot of courage to do. I learned to act in spite of fear again and again. And this conditioning stayed with me. Because I had already faced the prospect of going to jail, any failure that would have a lesser negative consequence than jail wouldn’t phase me. To this day fear of failure has very little power over me. I just say to myself, “Hey, if it’s not going to land me in jail, how bad could it be?”
Of course I had to learn how to temper this courage with some sense of morality and common sense. So during this year of quiet reflection, I gradually shifted my context to create a new personal code of ethics to guide me. But instead of being rooted in religion, I built it in a more humanistic manner, integrating values like honor, honesty, integrity, humility, and fairness. It was a very deliberate and conscious rebuilding process that would continue for at least a few more years. But even during this time of 1991-92 as I was just beginning, it gave me some stability and gradually became my most empowering context up to that point. It didn’t take me long to realize that the courage I had developed could become a powerful asset for me if I learned how to use it intelligently.
I was ready for a new challenge.
Nothing to Fear
In the Fall of 1992, I decided to go back to college, starting over as a freshman. This time I went to Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN). The computer science program wasn’t impacted, so all I had to do to get accepted was to apply. I moved into the dorms at age 21. But I was no longer the same person I was at 18. I was still an atheist religiously, but now I had a strong collection of personal values to guide me. I wanted to see what I was capable of and what these new values might do for me, especially the value of integrity. There would be no cheating, no stealing, no drinking. For me it was all about setting goals and taking action and pushing myself to do my best. My courage was like a new power source, but now I had a strong harness on it. My Berkeley friends had said to me, “If you’d put all the energy you put into criminal behavior into your studies, you’d get straight As.”
But I knew I could get straight As. I’d done that in high school taking all honors classes. That wasn’t a big enough challenge. So I upped the bar my first semester, opting to take 31 units (10 classes). The average student takes 12-15 units per semester. Unfortunately the dean of the computer science department wouldn’t approve my extra units. She was the gatekeeper, and she thought I was either joking or nuts. I talked her up from 18 units to 25 units, but there she stood firm, and even then she still thought I was probably joking. So I took 25 units at CSUN and enrolled in another six units off campus, for a total of 31 units. That was against the rules, since the extra unit approval was technically inclusive of off-campus units too, but I wasn’t going to let pointless bureaucracy stop me.
I devoted myself to the study of time management and learned to use my time very efficiently. I aced all my classes and took my straight-A report cards from both schools back to the dean, now asking for 39 units for my second semester. This time it wasn’t hard to get her approval, but I think she was a bit scared of me when I left. I aced that semester too. Then in the summer of 1993 I did full-time contract work as a game programmer and also went vegetarian. No summer school. In my third and final semester, I added a double major in mathematics (which was pretty easy to get, since there were so many courses in common with computer science), and I took 37 units while continuing to work full-time. I graduated with a 3.94 GPA and ended up receiving an award for the top computer science student each year. Two degrees in three semesters.
This experience gave me a deeper appreciation of the power of context. I would not have even attempted such a thing as a Catholic. I would never have set the goals I did. I’m not sure anyone can truly understand how different reality seems from the perspective of different contexts if you’ve never switched contexts. If you subscribe to a disempowering context, you may be absolutely crippled in your ability to effectively tackle certain challenges no matter how hard you try (if you even try at all).
In the year after graduation, I started Dexterity Software, met my future wife, and continued to explore different belief systems. But now I was doing it very consciously. I was driven by the idea that if one context could open the door to previously untapped potential, then what could other contexts do? Might there be a better context than my current one? My experiences at Berkeley and CSUN were totally opposite, and I knew it was because of my different belief systems. One “religion” nearly sent me to prison; the other allowed me to successfully tap into potential I never knew was within me. I absolutely had to learn more about this.
Over the next decade I experimented with agnosticism, various new-agey belief systems, Buddhism, objectivism, and more. I even tried Scientology for a few months just to see what it was like. I wanted to assimilate a variety of different contexts, experience them from the inside, and then back off and compare their strengths and weaknesses. This produced a lot of instability in my life but also tremendous growth.
I was like a chef trying different ingredients to discover what recipe of beliefs would lead to the best life. And again, the definition of “best” is part of the recipe itself, so my understanding of the meaning of life was also in flux.
Many times I found that a new context set me back, and my results began to decline. Other times my new context was more empowering, and I again started to surge ahead. In the long run as I integrated new empowering beliefs and shed disempowering ones, my life began to improve across the board. For the past year they’ve been fairly stable, and 2005 has by far been my best year ever.
Our beliefs act as lenses. These lenses can help us see things we can’t otherwise see, but they can also block us from seeing parts of reality. I see a huge part of personal development as the study of these lenses — these belief systems. There are an infinite number of lenses, so the quest never ends, but the more lenses you examine personally, the more you understand about the nature of reality and your role within it.
I have not experienced any organized belief system that is not disempowering in some way. The problem is that they all have a fixed perspective. If you look at reality from any single perspective, you are only perceiving the projection of reality onto your belief system, not reality itself. The more rigid your perspective, the more detail you miss (detail which doesn’t fall upon your projection but does fall upon others), and the less of your true potential you’re able to tap.
For several years I would have described my religion as a field and not a fixed point. It was multi-contextual. I kept the context floating and tried to see reality from multiple perspectives. At first this was unsettling and made it hard to set goals and take action, but I found it worthwhile because it gave me much greater clarity. I began seeing patterns in where certain perspectives would lead, both for myself and others. Just as you might imagine where a life of crime will ultimately lead, you can also gain a subtler understanding of where a belief in a certain type of God will lead and how that path compares to other choices. This is complicated because we aren’t dealing with fixed points for either the starting point or the destination. It’s about fields of possibility leading to fields of potential. For example, a life of crime can begin and end in many ways, but you can still see some general patterns in the pathways from start to finish. You can make some generalizations that will be fairly accurate.
As a result of this introspection, I was able to shed certain beliefs and strengthen others. Some beliefs I found consistently disempowering, meaning that if I adopted them, I would be denying myself access to valuable potential. These included the belief in heaven/hell and the belief in a higher power. That second one may seem surprising, but I opted to let it go because I consistently found it less empowering than a belief in a lower power. An example of a higher power would be a consciously aware God or gods such as found in Christianity or Greek mythology. A lower power would be like a field that is able to respond to your intentions, sort of like “the force” in Star Wars or what some people refer to as “source.” You can pray to either type of power, but in the first case you’re asking, and in the second case, you’re declaring. Many people, myself included, have noted that declarative prayer works better than no prayer and better than asking prayer. I see it mainly as putting out an intention.
So in deciding which beliefs to embrace and which to drop, I keep going back to the concepts of empowerment and potential. I strive to dump beliefs that curtail my ability to access my potential while strengthening beliefs that unlock more potential. If one form of prayer doesn’t seem to work at all, but another one works often, I’m going to adopt more of the latter context.
World in My Eyes
My overall religion has effectively become a religion of personal growth. Every year I continue to tweak my beliefs to try to bring them into closer alignment with my best understanding of how reality actually works. The better we understand reality, the more potential we unlock. Just as understanding a new law of physics can allow us to do things we could never previously do, beliefs about reality work the same way. If you’re stuck with a belief in a flat earth, it’s going to limit your potential actions and results. Similarly, if your religious beliefs are too great a mismatch for actual reality, you’ll be doomed to spend your life only tapping a fraction of your true potential. In my “religion,” knowingly leaving my potential untapped is sinful. Personal optimization is deeply embedded into my sense of morality. Not growing is morally wrong to me — it runs contrary to my understanding of the purpose of life.
The only reliable means I’ve found for discovering what beliefs are empowering is to test them and compare them to other beliefs. This is something I initially fell into unconsciously and in a very destructive manner. But when done consciously and intelligently, it can give you a whole new perspective on life. Just as people who travel a lot report being changed by their experiences of other cultures, you can also expect to be changed by experiencing different belief systems.
I don’t expect everyone else to subscribe to my religion of course. It was a very personal choice of mine and has been undoubtedly shaped by my unique experiences. Yet choosing my beliefs consciously has allowed me access to parts of my potential that I’d never have been able to tap with other belief systems. In most cases I’d have been stuck being way too passive and would have failed to push myself. I’d have been more inclined to accept my given lot in life instead of consciously co-creating it. Because my religion is based on working actively on my personal growth and helping others to do the same, I am driven to take action. Good thoughts or intentions aren’t enough.
Another part of my religion is to strive to become the best me I can become, not a copy of Jesus or Buddha or anyone else. This means spending a lot of time learning about my own strengths and weaknesses and figuring out where I can grow and what I may have to simply accept.
Do your current beliefs empower you to be your best, or do they doom you to live as a mere shadow of what you could be? Can you honestly say that you are doing your best or very close to it? Are you living congruently with your most deeply held beliefs? Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, how well do you practice them? Do you walk your talk?
On Monday as I walked around the Las Vegas Strip, I saw a downtrodden homeless man sitting on one of the overhead walkways asking for money. As over a hundred people passed by him each minute, no one even stopped to give him a kind word or a smile. I thought to myself, “Where are all the Christians?” If Jesus is the model for Christian behavior, what would Jesus do in that situation? What would other role models do? What would you do?
By their words I hear that most Americans are Christian. By their actions I see that most aren’t.
If you really believe something, you will act in accordance with that belief — always. If you believe in gravity, you will never attempt to defy it. If you claim to hold a belief but act incongruently, then you don’t actually believe it. You’re only kidding yourself. Casual faith isn’t.
Actions, not words, reveal beliefs. If you want to understand what you truly believe, observe your actions. This may take some courage to do, but if you follow the trail of your actions, it will lead you to a more congruent belief system. And once there you can begin consciously moving towards new beliefs that empower you, while your actions and beliefs remain congruent along the way. But you’ll make no progress as long as you claim to believe one thing but consistently act in violation of it. Most people in such a situation will spend time trying to get their actions to better reflect their so-called beliefs… and meet with nothing but frustration. I say first get your beliefs in line with your actions and reach the point of being totally honest with yourself, doubts and all. Then you’ll find it far easier to move forward. Don’t be afraid to do this — no divine being is going to smite you for being honest with yourself. And if one ever happens to show up, you always have me to use as a scapegoat.