Riffing on Meaning and Purpose - 1

Bob Eng |

I want to discuss meaning and purpose. And let me say that this is something that has nothing and everything to do with your financial life.

As a financial advisor, I get into the weeds of clients' financial lives. I ask about expenses, income, assets and liabilities. I ask about plans. My job is to incorporate all this information to develop a way for them to be worry-free about their financial capacity to live life.

But what does “live life” mean? Or better, what does living life fully mean? This is something that most people often don't reflect on. For good reason. There are so many pressing demands on our daily lives that reflecting on meaning or purpose is as distant as the remotest stars. 

Of course, there are occasions when people do examine life’s priorities. The pandemic rocked many of us out of daily routines and prompted us to think about what’s really important. Loss of a family member, friend, pet, job, or way of life can also motivate us to reflect on meaning and purpose.

As a financial advisor I help people bring order to their financial life so that they can live life with meaning and purpose. An orderly financial life in and of itself may not carry much meaning. An ordered financial life cannot be an end. It can only be a means. 

Stuffing more and more cash under a mattress doesn’t bring happiness.  The cash pile isn’t the end. It’s what it can bring that is an end. Perhaps luxury or more things. Perhaps status or happiness.

I would posit that deep, lasting happiness implies meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose have nothing to do with our financial lives day-to-day. Yet they have everything to do with our financial lives.  

Let me start with what I'm talking about when I say “meaning” and “purpose.” The two words are often strung together as if they’re interchangeable or synonymous. They’re intimately related but are distinct. 

They’re a bit like Batman and Robin: we seldom utter one without the other. It’s a poor analogy but you get the idea. “Meaning" and “purpose" are coupled so much that we don’t realize that they differ. And like Batman and Robin, one of the two generally is more familiar. In their case, Batman’s more familiar. 

In the case of meaning and purpose, purpose is more familiar. I think of popular books like Rick Warren’s 2002 The Purpose Driven Life and, in a different context, Simon Sinek’s 2009 Start with Why. It’s also easier to understand purpose in life as, if not a goal then, a direction. It sets a pathway for our life. It doesn't have to be a single purpose, but one generally draws more of our attention than others. This is how we can think about purpose in life.

Here’s an example, borrowed from Philip Goff’s 2023 book, Why? Susan dedicated her life to counting blades of grass. In fact, she was intent on counting as many as possible in her lifetime. She pursued counting grass relentlessly. By the time she died, she’d counted more than anyone ever had. (There’s a curious twist to Susan's story. She didn't enjoy counting grass. I’ll come back to this curiosity.)

Having touched on purpose, let me turn to meaning. Meaning is an experience that relates to connection, belonging, significance, and mattering. It's a feeling or intuition that your being, your existence, makes some difference, even if small. In short, it's the sense that life matters and you matter. I’ll mention Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning here and come back to more about meaning later.

You can see by how I've introduced meaning and purpose why they’re often paired together. People who profess to having purpose in life derive meaning in their lives. Those who recognize rich meaning in their lives can articulate an overarching purpose.

As a financial advisor and fellow traveler, I invite you to occasionally step back and ponder life’s meaning and purpose. It can take the form of journaling, a walk in nature, and sharing with someone who is gifted with open, nonjudgmental, and patient ears. Don’t wait for the loss of a family member or friend’s life, or loss of health or a job to do this.

I’ll return to consider more and entertain how meaning and purpose can talk with one another. For example, what is meaning with and without purpose, purpose with and without meaning, the purpose of meaning, and the purpose of purpose. For now, let’s you and I take a couple of breaths and be.