Welcome to the 3 quotes series, where we take one of our favorite (or recent) reads and we discuss, analyze and break down the three most impactful quotes from the book and how these ideas can change the way you approach life, work, and your mindset.
The first book we chose for this series is Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. We cannot think of a better book to kick off this series.
It is a foundational piece of how to approach adversity and the power of choice told by the story of Frankl’s time in the concentration camps of World War 2.
His book focuses on the idea that meaning is at the center of the purpose of life.
He describes meaning as coming in three flavors: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.
Courage in the face of difficulty.
That last one may be the most difficult, but also the most powerful motivator of meaning. After all, most of us can find meaning in love, family and doing purposeful work. But, when confronted with adversity, setbacks, and catastrophe – it’s often hard to find meaning.
Frankl saw first hand in the concentration camps how some prisoners responded to their circumstance and how others were victims of their environment. It was through this lens he developed his understanding of meaning through adversity.
This brings us to our first quote…
…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Frankl calls the ability to choose your response to any situation “the last of the human freedoms”. In ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he calls it the last freedom because everything else is stripped away from the prisoners.
Even in the most gruesome circumstances – ones that almost none of us will face in our day to day lives, Frankl observes that power of choice.
In fact, this same idea is echoed in history from the stoics. Marcus Aurelius said:
Lesson learned: You have very little control over your own circumstances, but you can always control how you respond. Instead of being a slave to autopilot and responding without thought, you can create a gap in your thinking and purposefully choose how you want to proceed.
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
Frankl’s second quote flips the script on how most people approach and challenge their life, especially their work life. Most of us think in terms of “what we need” from life:
Frankl’s point of view is that life is not responsible for providing answers to your problems – that you are in fact responsible for finding answers to its problem. Life is going to put obstacles in our way, whether we like it or not – we have to constantly attack and take care of these problems to create meaning and progress in our lives.
This is no way meant to diminish people’s external circumstances. It goes without saying that some people are born, live and will have to continually fight their place in life. A fish out of water cannot reframe their way into being able to breathe – but the only thing they can do is try their damndest to get back in that water.
The larger point, however, is that even in the direst circumstances, there are opportunities for us to rise to life’s challenges, choose how we respond and reframe what we focus on. We are in complete control of how we interpret life’s adversity.
Lesson learned: Instead of focusing on how unfair life can be or being envious of other people’s circumstances, we need to focus on what we can control and what is within our own ability to respond better and rise to the challenge.
Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
There are certain things in life that the more you pursue, aim and work towards the more they feel like they slip through your fingers.
Isn’t crazy that people who get most obsessed with finding happiness, generally are the most unhappy?
And the people who try hardest to be cool, tend to not be so cool?
Mark Manson in his book ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ wrote:
“The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
Frankl’s and Manson’s quotes are both great examples of what Alan Watts called The Backwards Law.
The Backwards Law is that the more you focus on certain ideas like happiness and success, the more your focus becomes a constant reminder of how you’re not happy or how you’re not currently successful.
People get caught in this trap all of the time.
We all think we need to find a passion in life. That we need to have a plan to get happy and constantly pursue success. But we have to stop chasing outcomes.
Lesson learned: Instead of getting so stuck on the outcomes or the “I’ll be satisfied when…”, we must instead figure out how to cultivate the necessary conditions that will create the most opportunities in life to find happiness or success. Don’t try to be happy, figure out small decisions in your life that overtime will unlock the door to happiness.
Wrapping up, we cannot recommend ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ enough. It is both a harrowing look at the experience of concentration camp prisoners and an insightful look at the power of choosing your interpretation of the world.