Each of us lives in the epicenter of a dynamic, surreal tension between the forces of tremendous potential and forces that could extinguish our species and render Earth uninhabitable for most life forms. And regardless of how these forces play out, the one certainty each of us faces is death. Our mortality might stretch longer than that of our elders, and we might remain healthy and mentally alert far longer than we’d expected, but at some point the clock will run out.
Whomever and wherever you are, you want to be happier and suffer less. That shared human aspiration holds true whether you’re an affluent person of privilege or a person of color who’s suffered a lifetime of injustices, a liberal, a conservative, or an independent. You wrestle each day with your own hopes, fears, and aspirations, and live with the outcomes of choices you’ve made in response to the contexts and situations in which you’ve found yourself.
And each of us now finds our self, even in the midst of a pandemic unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, facing a number of possibilities for a higher quality of living and working—as well as an increasingly ominous set of threats.
I identify four key groupings of possibilities, each of which will continue to accelerate and interact across this young decade:
- Digital disruption and transformation
- Demographic shifts
- Economic shifts
The wide-reaching impacts of digital disruption and transformation have been accelerated by Covid-19. Myriads of scientific and business breakthroughs are resulting in exponential digital convergence, disruption, and transformation – found everywhere and reinventing almost every daily habit and economic sector through a worldwide Internet of Things (IoT). Understanding this transformation necessitates becoming more knowledgeable about the technology itself, how it impacts the ways we work and live, and how it impacts industries and markets.
This digitization of all spheres of living has crowned data as its sovereign, proclaiming it the world’s most valuable commodity in a class by itself, an inexhaustible food bank for the growth of artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, clean energy, cryptocurrency, material sciences, nanotechnology, networks, quantum computing, robotics, sensors, 3-D printing, alternative means of transportation, and virtualization.
Next, globalization—and the importance of accepting that, for better and for worse, it’s here to stay. Globalization is the process by which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale. Our world is embedded with symbiosis; it functions through a ubiquitous, massive, ever-evolving, sometimes contracting supply chain. Globalization offers tremendous potential, including the ability to easily connect and collaborate with others across the globe (with all of the world’s 8 billion people expected to be online by the middle of this decade), the acquisition of resources, and ongoing learning.
This sets the stage for significant demographic shifts. By 2030, there will be more older human beings across the planet than any other age group, especially in China. In addition, the 2020s will present baby booms in Africa, a near-majority of LatinxX individuals in the United States, and a worldwide increase in the female share of wealth and power.
Finally, there are possibilities nested within massive economic shifts at play in China, India, and Africa. One of these shifts includes the ongoing influx of immigrants from these countries and others—including the highly educated and skilled migrants from Taiwan and Israel—who bring innovation and knowledge with them and foster job creation in both their native and host countries.
Converging technologies will continue to spawn unprecedented automation, new business models, scalability, self-sufficiency, the sharing economy, entrepreneurism, job creation, and upskilling. There’s never been so many resources and efficiencies at our fingertips.
For many of us, but certainly not all of us.
The aforementioned possibilities have also engendered dangers that must be holistically addressed through the intentional actions of persons, governments, and entire societies. I see these threats falling into three broad areas:
- Existential realities
First, inequality. Data-driven technological disruption has intensified industrial ambition and greed, with shareholder or investor value as the ends justifying any means. The result has been constant waves of economic instability, loss of jobs for medium- and low-skilled workers, and widening economic, education, and healthcare inequality; waves that have crested to new highs during the pandemic. 2020 revealed that caste and racism amid white privilege, as well as sexism amid male patriarchy, are alive and well, despite the election of the country’s first Black president and vice-president within the past 12 years.
Next, ignorance. American culture continues to be exposed for its xenophobia, particularly regarding immigrants from certain regions and nations, as well as its disturbing religious intolerance and theocratic ambitions. Subsequent social unrest has erupted in the U.S. and many other nations, unleashing cacophonies of bias, disillusionment, division, fear, intolerance, lack of critical thinking, outrage at injustice, and rhetoric often divorced from facts, rationality, and compassion.
Amid these challenges, democracy itself is endangered. Furthermore, each of us is less “free” and possesses less privacy due to the ongoing expansion of surveillance capitalism and government that leverages many of the technological convergences addressed above.
Finally, looming above this din are existential realities facing our endurance as a species: the prospect of even more deadly pandemics; the continued existence and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction within a world of increasingly unstable governments, populist power grabs, and terrorist cells; and accelerating ecological collapse that includes climate change.
Given these conditions, what the hell is the point? What’s our end goal, or desired outcome, of all of this hard work, learning, stressing, succeeding, stumbling, loving, hating, celebrating, and growing weary, all in the ubiquitous shadow of certain death? Why all of this?
The “why” question is as old as sentient thought, as cross-cultural and cross-generational as any inquiry has ever been. Progress, advancement of civilization, and the ongoing flowering of human genius have yet to sufficiently address this inquiry. Wars, poverty, prejudice, and even genocide have laughed with cynicism at such progress, reminding us that any answers we concoct will be quickly swallowed up by contradiction, irony, enigma…and more questions.
I ponder the “why” with increasing frequency here in my middle age, which may or may not be the “middle” of anything measurable in particular. The volume of my inquiry inches higher year over year, and it’s certainly louder than ever as I type these words in the dying days of 2020, a year that has brought uncertainty and anxiety to more human beings en masse than any era in living memory.
While any answer to “why” will never prove fully satisfactory, some semblance of an answer, be it iterative and even rife with contradictions, is necessary for mental health and motivation, for functioning. If we don’t have some sense of purpose, even one we consider rather superficial, it’s difficult to simply get out of bed and kick-start the whole daily routine all over again.
My working “answer” is meaning. Deep down, I want my life to have meaning, purpose, and significance, with an ongoing undercurrent of peace and gratitude.
And if you’ll permit yourself to grow quiet and still long enough, I suspect you’ll also begin to see this deeper yearning for meaning, or whatever word or phrase you use to describe it for yourself, rising to the surface of your awareness, demanding its moment, clawing for your fleeting attention. Beneath all the daily activity and the constant churning of the mind, we are thirsty for what might overflow our cups with meaning and purpose. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, outlived the war and his imprisonment by clinging to a “why” that enabled him to endure any “how.”
Humor me for just a little longer. Okay, the point of all of this daily grind amid certain death is meaning. What kinds of ongoing experiences make life meaningful?
Loving-kindness, Compassion, Empathetic Joy, and Equanimity
Personally, I’ve noticed that life feels the most meaningful when I’m demonstrating four qualities in particular—and is overwhelming, depressing, and even boring in their absence:
- Empathetic Joy
You’ve likely encountered each of these words in various contexts. The specific context that groups them together for me is the Buddhist teaching on the “4 Limitless (or Immeasurable) Qualities,” also called the “4 Divine Abodes” and, in Sanskrit, the “Brahma-viharas.” Here’s how Buddhist teaching defines these four:
Loving-kindness (“Metta” in Sanskrit): Benevolence toward all beings, without conditions, discrimination, or selfish attachments. This is the rare kind of love in which “I” and “you” disappear, and where there is no “possessor” and nothing to “possess.”
Compassion (“Karuna”): Active empathy extended to all sentient beings. Ideally, karuna is combined with wisdom, which in the “Mahayana” school of Buddhism means the realization that all sentient beings exist in each other and take identity from each other.
Sympathetic Joy (“Mudita”): Taking altruistic joy in the happiness of others. The cultivation of mudita is an antidote to envy and jealousy, and a key ingredient for gratitude.
Equanimity (“Upekkha”): A mind in balance, free of discrimination, and rooted in insight. This balance is not indifference, but active—and is fueled by the cumulative practices of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy.
These four qualities that make life meaningful are developed, sustained, and applied through a powerful practice that’s at the heart of Buddhist teaching, a practice that, unfortunately, has become a “buzzword” in western culture: Mindfulness. What is it, really?
Mindfulness, Learning, and Storytelling
Mindfulness is the practice of giving full attention to what’s happening within and around you, without judging yourself or others. It’s both a key component of Buddhist teaching and a unifying thread throughout Buddhism itself, and helps foster concentration, focus, and objective thinking. On a deeper level, extensive mindfulness practice culminates in a gradual awakening to one’s true nature of pure awareness and happiness, and with this the liberation from suffering known as “nirvana.”
As I’ve continued to grow and learn, as I’ve thrived and stumbled through various experiences and seasons of life, I’ve noticed that mindfulness is foundational for two other core practices: Learning (both for the sake of learning and the growth of new thinking and execution skills, including the development of “learning agility”) and Storytelling (both for the sake of experiencing powerful stories and learning to tell them in multiple formats to various audiences).
When combined in deliberate, ongoing application, these three practices of mindfulness, learning, and storytelling are the most powerful, transformative, and relevant muscles to develop for a meaningful life and career. I’ve noticed that when I’m neglecting even just one of these, I feel “off-kilter” and insecure, and the things I normally enjoy appear more pointless and unfulfilling.
We Have Choices
Contemplating, let alone striving to obtain “meaning” through one’s ongoing experiences, is dismissed as naïve foolishness by persons drowning in cynicism, nihilism, or outright despair. To many, it seems that the aforementioned threats have already defeated the possibilities.
But if life has taught us anything, it’s revealed that nothing is permanent or inevitable. There are still choices to be made. While there’s much we cannot control as individuals, each of us does have some measure of latent ability to strive for our own experience of meaning—and achieve it, providing that we’re willing to make an effort. To practice.
My website content aims to teach you to skillfully apply those three practices —in your personal growth, relationships, work, volunteering, and more— to more fully taste a deeper existential meaning flavored by increased happiness and decreased suffering. A taste that makes life worth its arduous journey.
I write first and foremost for myself, as a response to my own wrestling with questions of meaning and purpose, to my own quest for equanimity and peace. I have to write in order to get more clarity on the cascading ideas and emotions inside of me, to more fully “understand what I think.” I hope these tangible products of my own search for meaning amid my private and professional endeavors provide some support for yours, no matter how small their contributions.