“The world only exists in your eyes. You can make it as big or as small as you want.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
We are looking for meaning in the images we see all day long. Much of the time what we are seeing is something on the surface that we use to draw a quick conclusion about. Seeing something in others that we wish we had ourselves is common but can lead to a case of meaning mistaken identity. Here are 5 key personal meaning questions you can use to help ensure you’re pursuing what is most meaningful to you.
What Am I Really Seeing?
I was driving home from the gym last Thursday morning and I stopped at a traffic light in the center of town across the street from a small bakery. The first thing I noticed was a beautiful black 1960’s Chevy Corvette parked right in front of the bakery. It looked like it was freshly waxed and was in great condition. Behind the car I noticed a man sitting at a table in the large window of the bakery having a coffee and a pastry while reading a paper. He looked like he might be in his late forties or early fifties. Certainly younger than a typical retirement age. He must have been the only one in the shop. The light changed and I pulled away, but the image stayed with me. I was noticing something meaningful, but I realized that it wasn’t that I wish I had certain aspects of his life, which had been my first thought. What I was seeing struck a chord with me, but it was because what I was seeing was speaking to something deeper, to what I find personally meaningful.
To find and connect to something that’s personally meaningful is a great thing, it helps by establishing a goal to work toward and a plan for achieving it. As in my example, it might not be that you want to pursue the exact thing you’re looking at, just as it wouldn’t be meaningful for me to set a goal to find and buy a black corvette. It all starts with distinguishing the image in front of you from what you are truly perceiving.
So, the first key question that will help you see and realize your personal meaning is to ask yourself, “what am I really seeing?” You may be surprised that it is rarely the same as what you are looking at. I am looking at a man enjoying a cup of coffee on a weekday morning in a local bakery with a beautiful classic car parked outside. What I’m seeing is deeper than that though, freedom maybe? Achievement possibly? Maybe even a personal sense of peace?
How Do I Feel About This?
After identifying what it is you’re really seeing, you can move on to the second key question, “How do I feel about this?”. To answer that question for myself I needed to check in with my meaning types - to find the meaning beneath the image. Specifically in this case it’s the Feelings meaning type I need to start with. Different people are going to feel different things – and even how I felt at that moment might be different if it were a different day or time of day. Some might cringe at the display of excess having a car like that might indicate, others might see privilege, others still might see many different things. None of those things are right or wrong because there is no way we can know the reality of that situation from our vantage point. What is important here is to connect to what you are feeling about what you see, not what you’re looking at. Seeing freedom, achievement, or peace in life might make me feel content, excited, even energized. Whatever the feelings are you need to know them and identify them because they tell you something important about what you’re personal meaning connection is here.
What Is Meaningful To Me About What I’m Seeing?
When you’ve identified your feelings about what you’re seeing you’re ready for the next key question, “what is meaningful to me about what I am seeing?”. Keep in mind your answer to the first key question “what am I seeing?” here because this is not about determining what is meaningful about what you’re looking at. This is about finding and connecting to what you find personally meaningful. How slowly or quickly this happens is going to depend on a few factors including how practiced you are at this (it is a skill and will improve with practice over time) and the complexity and depth of the meaning you’re connecting to. Let’s use my example of the man with the car at the bakery on a Thursday morning. And let’s use peace and freedom as what I’m seeing. Exploring my feelings has helped me identify that I am reacting positively to what I’m perceiving (what I’m seeing) and connecting to the meaning might show me that peace and freedom are personal values for me.
So, knowing now that I am feeling positively about peace and freedom in my life, that those are what I can say I am connecting to in my personal meaning when I feel good about what I’m seeing, helps me focus on that meaning. If I don’t do that, I might identify that it is owning a car like that or reading a paper with coffee and pastry at a bakery are my goals. Then when I achieve those goals and they don’t bring me the deep fulfillment that I thought they would I won’t understand why not. Instead, focus on what is personally meaningful to you and pursue that in your life.
How Can I Boost This Meaning In My Life?
That brings us to the fourth key question, “how can I boost this meaning in my life?”. This may feel like a big question to answer. It’s a pretty consequential thing to work toward obtaining what you personally find meaningful. We’ll break this down into something smaller with the fifth key question, but first we need some direction. Consider the difference between a strategic direction and a tactical approach. Strategic is about “where are we going”, while tactical is about “how are we going to get there”. This fourth key question can be thought of as the strategic direction. What does this personal meaning you have identified potentially look like in your own life? Try to stay away from the evidence of it and focus on it directly. For example, “I would be famous” and “I would live in a multi-million-dollar home” are examples of being rich and famous – a common desire. What is behind the desire for fame and wealth though? Security, acceptance, love, being valued? People are picture-oriented, so envisioning what is meaningful to you and what that looks like in your life is a great way to form a meaningful goal. Then you move on to the fifth key question to help you realize your personal meaning, “What small thing can I do now?” to move my life in this direction.
What Small Thing Can I Do Now?
“Peace is a journey of a thousand miles and it must be taken one step at a time.”
Lyndon B. Johnson
This final key question is about determining the tactical moves you can make to move closer to the strategic direction you determined with your last answer. Let’s say that it’s peace that you’re working toward. Maybe you determined that one way that you could strive toward peace in your life is to be debt free. That’s a good one, and what a difference it could make in your life, but with the mortgage and the credit card bills and rising prices and the kids going to college in a few years (or currently) and on and on, it might seem too far out of reach. That can lead to putting off working toward it (“I’ll really focus on that after I get my next promotion” or “as soon as the kids are through college I’ll be able to take care of all of this debt”) or abandoning hope (“Debt is just a necessary part of life” or “There’s just too much to tackle”). In order to make this meaningful goal a reality you need to work directly on the tactical execution, not directly on the strategic plan. The strategy will get realized more and more as the tactical gets taken care of. How do you work on the tactical? You make it smaller. So, the fifth key question you need to answer is, “what small thing can I do now?”. You may not be able to tackle all of your debt now, or even soon, but you could focus your efforts on paying off one credit card, right? Whatever the meaningful goal you’ve identified is, there is likely a very small step you can take now that will lead to another, and another, and another. The progress toward realizing your goal will build and often provide benefit along the way. For example, someone with a goal to lose twenty pounds is going to lose five before they lose twenty. And, while five isn’t twenty, it is a benefit to weigh five pounds less, and a step on the path toward your meaningful goals.
Using these five key questions to see and realize your personal meaning in life is a great way to understand what it is that you would find fulfilling in what you see that you want, and to start you on the path to achieving your goals. It can also prevent you from the lost time and empty results of misplacing focus and effort on things that may not bring you what you thought or hoped they would.
5 Key Questions:
1. What am I seeing
2. How do I feel about what I’m seeing
3. What is meaningful to me about this
4. How can I boost this meaning in my life
5. What small thing can I do now?