While I’m no reading fanatic by any means, over the last few years I’ve crushed through a hell of a lot of books.
When I look back at that time now, there are four books that really stand out to me and the takeaways that I got from them.
Let’s dive straight in…
The first and most influential book I have ever read is “The Art of Happiness” by the Dhalai Lama. This was the first book that ever really left me saying wow. Left me a different person.
My biggest takeaway was the importance of understanding your inner dialogue. How we talk to ourselves. How so much of our suffering is created in the mind.
The Dhalai Lama made it super simple. Notice when you have a negative thought > flip it around into something positive. Cultivate positive thoughts and positive thinking. Practice it like a skill and train your mind to be a positive place to live.
This has influenced all of my most important themes I write about. That the most important relationship you have in life is the one that you have with yourself, which is why you should practice self love, get weird (self expression), become less reactive (observe how you respond and become a better person) – this all comes from that book. That core fundamental principle of being aware of how you think and how it influences the life that you live.
This set the foundation for a good calm healthy mind. It paved the way for the next book to arrive and be properly absorbed.
The next book on this list is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
If I had to summarize Sapiens quickly, it’s the story of human evolution. How we have evolved as a human race over time and the mechanisms that drove that evolution.
It talks about how humans were the most successful species largely because of our ability to communicate together. This helped in hunting, but then eventually in creating stories. Stories passed down from generation to generation that told the tale of where they came from and what they have learned along the way.
These stories and lessons eventually then became the rules that were setup for society to function properly. To have law and order. Stories became collectively agreed upon narratives which then became rules and laws.
Then those rules gave rise to larger and larger societies. This created more of an ability for us to continue working together and build cities and have systems that regulate the laws that we have built for society. This allowed us to continue to flourish to where we are today.
Really at the core of it all – is storytelling. Narratives. Laws aren’t actually laws like the law of gravity, a law is a narrative that we all agreed to be true and said “yea let’s make this a rule. This makes sense.” Society thus, is largely just built on collective narratives.
I love this book because it lifts the veil on so many aspects of society. Is this actually a rule/best practice, or is this just a commonly held narrative that influenced my decision making?
Take marriage for example – there’s a commonly held narrative that there’s “the one” out there and you meet that person and have kids and build a family. That’s the societal narrative of what we should do – but is this actually true? Is this actually the best way to live a life, or is this just an out of date narrative that no longer serves its purpose?
University is another quickly expiring narrative. That you have to get an education at a university to succeed in life rather than reading books and learning things online.
How we work is another one. Over the last 5 years and then accelerated by Covid we’ve seen a huge rise in remote work. The narrative about how we can work together and where we need to physically be is a quickly shifting narrative.
I could go on and on, but across all of society and culture you start to see these narratives. From how we work to how we love and how we maintain relationships and exercise and everything in between – narratives underpin it all.
Then bringing back The Art of Happiness from above – narratives are also the stories you tell yourself. The way that you talk to yourself and your inner voice. The “narrative” story of your life and how you explain who you are. What type of character you have painted yourself to be? What do you tell yourself about your abilities and talents or deficits?
New narrative? New outlook. Feeling down about a situation and find a new way of viewing it that gets you to connect with gratitude and suddenly you feel better. The narratives we tell ourselves influence how we feel and operate in the world.
The stories we tell ourselves influence us just as much or even more than the external narratives of society do.
Sapiens was really the book that got me thinking about the narrative nature of society and the narratives I tell myself – and then help me to take an objective view of what to do with it all.
This is so so so important because it allows you to see through the veil. See the narrative objectively instead of taking it as fact. Decide for yourself if you agree about that narrative.
Because of this book I’m always quick to find the common narrative. The belief that people are commonly clinging to – and then question that narrative. Dissect it and break it down to evaluate it properly. It’s made me a much better thinker, less reactive to the collective impulses and trends of society.
This then brings us to book #3 – Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
This book tells the story of a man surviving the Holocaust. In this tale he depicts that the people who survived were the people who had something to live for. Something to fight for. Meaning. A purpose or a goal of something to look forward to when they get out. If they had something that they were fighting to survive for.
Give up on your meaning and lose desire to fight? People quickly dropped off thereafter.
This gave rise to “Logotherapy” – or the need to create meaning in one’s life. That meaning in fact, is a huge determinant of what we get out of life, our sense of fulfillment and how happy we are. How meaning helps us through difficult times and struggles. How having a strong sense of your own internal sense of meaning, purpose, and intrinsic motivation is really the foundational piece to why you take action at all and what you receive from your experiences.
To blend the previous two books – the narrative we create in our lives around our own sense of meaning and purpose determines both our happiness and ability to withstand difficult times.
This was an influential book more from a sense of reaffirming what I already knew to be true. I’ve followed a very unconventional path in life, but I’ve done it with a strong sense of meaning, purpose and values along the way. I always had a reason to buckle through and get things done, and I now realize I did that because I was operating with a mission in mind that powered me through.
It’s an essential ingredient of living a happy life. We must have meaning and purpose defined for ourselves if we want to squeeze the most juice out of life.
No narrative in your life around meaning and purpose? Rest assured you will wander aimlessly and suffer as a result. We have to be proactive in our meaning making so that when difficulties arise we already have the meaning that will help us to power through.
Which now brings us to the fourth and final book – How to define meaning. How to make meaning making practical and easy to implement – The Hero with a Thousand Faces aka the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is essentially this – Whether we’re talking about Jesus, Buddha, Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter – their lives all follow the same path and outline. They all are actually the same story, just told in different ways with different characters involved.
What is that outline? What is the “Hero’s Journey”? Here’s a quick summary.
- THE ORDINARY WORLD The hero, i.e. you or me or Dorothy or Rocky or Luke Skywalker, is introduced in his or her regular, normal world. But beneath the surface, powerful currents of change and transformation are already in motion .
- THE CALL Some outside event (or it could be internal) breaks in on the hero, alerting or even compelling her or him to take action and leave the Ordinary World behind.
- REFUSAL OF THE CALL The hero always balks, at least for a moment. Rocky turns down the chance to fight the champ, Odysseus feigns insanity to get out of going to the Trojan War.
- THE MENTOR APPEARS Hello, Obi Wan-Kenobi! Or the mentor may arise internally, in a dream or a vision. The hero is infused with courage and overcomes his or her fear of launching into the unknown.
- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD Hero says goodbye to the familiar, sets out into the Extraordinary World (or, in Blake Snyder’s very apt term, the Inverted World.) Dorothy leaves Kansas, Conan the Barbarian sets out from the Wheel of Pain.
- TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS, FRIENDS AND FOES Huck and Jim fend off rednecks, crackers, peckerwoods, mob attacks, not to mention the King and the Duke. The Inverted World tests our heroes, but sends allies and teachers as well.
- PRIMAL ORDEAL The hero enters the Lair of Evil, comes face to face with her “heart of darkness.” Theseus confronts the Minotaur in the belly of the Labyrinth, Indiana Jones goes after the golden statue, Bogey makes his all-or-nothing play for Ingrid . . .
- THE PAYOFF Hero succeeds! But wait
- GETTING OUT Bad Guys rally. They cannot let Jason get home with the Golden Fleece! Indy flees. Dorothy bolts. Odysseus escapes Circe (not to mention the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, etc., sails for home.
- RESURRECTION One final, hellacious test. The hero, in Christopher Vogler’s phrase, “is purified by a last sacrifice,” achieves a moment of rebirth in which the initial internal issue that was tormenting her is at last resolved.
- A GIFT FOR THE PEOPLE The hero returns to the place from which he originally set forth. But he does not come home empty-handed. He brings a transforming wisdom, an “elixir,” that he donates to the wider community, to save it and bring it peace.
Circling back to this question of conscious and deliberate meaning making – I believe that this is a great framework of how to do exactly that.
As we learned from Sapiens, it’s all about the narratives that we create. Then from Man’s Search for Meaning, Life has meaning because of the meaning that we give to it. It’s the narrative that we attach that gives us the meaning that we create out of our lives.
The Hero’s Journey is then the framework of how to get meaning out of life. Examining first and foremost, “what is the call?” What do you feel called or inspired to do. Better yet the word I like – curious. What are you curious about and what do you want to explore?
Equally what are your goals? What type of life do you envision for yourself? What are your values and principles in life to live by?
I look at all of these as the call as well. The things we feel called to do. The life we feel called to live. The values we feel called to uphold and honor for ourselves.
Applying Logotherapy means mapping all of this out for myself in advance. Creating that vision of my own Hero’s Journey and what I want to accomplish in life. Using that to then help me live a life of meaning.
(I’ll also quickly add here that a few more awesome exercises for this goal of mapping out your life vision are 1) The Passion Recipe 2) Maps of Meaning 3) The Life Book and 4) This Podcast with Tim Ferriss and Debbie Millman)
Then as you go through the path of executing on your life’s vision and moving through the various stages of the Hero’s Journey, using that framework to understand where you are in your journey and what stage you are passing through, and by understanding the stage you are passing through you now have meaning to attribute to that difficulty which helps you to get through it all.
I’ll also add here that part of my life’s philosophy is “do difficult shit”. Challenge yourself. Do things that you suck at and keep doing it over and over again until you get it. Doing that with the purpose and meaning that this is good for me to learn and that I’m doing this with the overall narrative of becoming the best version of myself possible.
Accomplishing that task then feels incredibly rewarding. Knowing that you put in the hard work necessary to overcome your previous limits and do what you thought to be impossible. The proverbial slaying of the dragon – feels really fucking good and is probably the most gratifying feeling life has to offer.
Part of the Hero’s Journey is this process of feeling the call to challenge yourself and then doing it and feeling how good it feels to overcome challenges and difficulties. Every new skill/habit/sport that we learn can be looked at as a Mini Hero’s Journey. A smaller Hero’s Journey in the larger narrative.
The Hero’s Journey has really become my map of meaning. The framework for becoming the best version of myself and a set of pre-defined narratives that help me to understand the learning process and the path one must follow.
Get through it all to the end? Tell your story and share your medicine with the world. The Hero then returns to share the gifts of their glory. Then go meditate on the peace you have created for yourself and the meaning you have given to your life!
So that’s how four books shaped my entire philosophy on life. Look inward and observe the mind. Understand that the mind is just creating stories. Use those stories to create fulfillment in life and better overcome struggles. To do all of that in mind with the understanding that this is the journey we all follow.
But hey – some people never even get started. Some people never look inward at the thoughts they have, never dissect the narratives they tell themselves, never create meaning that will give them the fulfillment they seek, never become the Hero of their own story.
What will you do?