Book Report 1: Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl

When I first heard about Victor Frankl’s book, I was a bit apprehensive about jumping in.  Even after hearing raving reviews about it, the idea of teleporting into a Nazi concentration camp sounded a bit too gnarly for me.  But regardless, I knew the book was going to deliver and it really did.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust.  He was the founder of logotherapy which helps deal with existential angst. It’s something that loads of people deal with, EVEN TO THIS DAY.  I admit that i’ve had my fair share of existential thoughts upon accomplishing a very big goal of mine about a year and half ago. But we’ll get into that later.

This book, among others, really added much needed perspective and I’ve been able to keep those teachings with me whenever I catch myself straying off my own personal path.  Anyway without further adieu, here are my 5 key takeaways from Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

  1. “He who has a WHY to live for can bear with almost any HOW”

  2. “The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.”

  3. “We need to stop asking about the meaning of life.”

  4. “Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension…”

  5. “When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.”

1. This is probably the biggest takeaway from the book.  And the reason why Victor and the few fortunate were able to survive the tragedy that is the Holocaust.

Imagine if you were forced into a world characterized by violence, torture, hard labor and starvation just because of no good reason.  All of your basic human needs were taken away from you. How would you fair?

It is incredibly hard to imagine, given the conveniences we are so damn fortunate to take for granted.  How did most people fair? Well unsurprisingly, the majority of prisoners committed suicide. And the few fortunate?  How the hell did they manage? Why were they able to survive in spite of immense suffering?

It’s mainly due to one reason.  Most prisoners did not find nor try to cultivate meaning within their suffering.  They just gave up on life because they just saw their situation as a dead end. And when thrown into a situation as dire as a Nazi concentration camp, we can all empathize to a degree than it can be ridiculously hard to mentally pursue an ounce of meaning within that level of suffering.  But people found a way. They saw their suffering as a challenge, that something life presented and you either take it as a challenge or you die.

It’s that reframing of perspective that helps greatly.  Instead of looking at suffering as a hindrance, we should strive to frame it as a life challenge.

One example from my life was when the startup that recently brought me on wanted more beyond the skillset I was already providing.  I was brought in as a creative director and strategist for an online Ecommerce retailer. The company’s bread and butter is largely focused on paid advertising but the world of business success is so much more than that.  As someone who knows the value of creative and how it aligns nicely with content, I was challenged to provide more value. At first, I was a bit hesitant about the type of value I could bring. I didn’t have much of a background in content marketing and SEO.  I kept thinking, people build their entire career from just one of those things, why me? But then, I saw the opportunity. I decided to take it as something that would make me better. I began looking at it as a challenge and a way to prove to myself that I can grow beyond the title of Creative Director.  And truth be told I am, continually growing, failing, learning and doing. And I know i’m better for it because I know i’m moving forward towards a future goal.

“Any attempt to restore a man’s inner stretch in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal.  Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a ‘why’, an aim for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible ‘how’ of their existence.”

2. As part of my morning routine, I started writing on my whiteboard one stoic quote a day and being able to reflect on that a bit before moving onto the next thing.  Coincidentally, as i’m writing this, the quote written before me is “you must live for another if you wish to live for yourself” by Seneca.

And to me, that captures the power of love.  People pit love as some mushy, emotional thing.  But there is real strength in its power and Victor is right that it is the ultimate goal that we should aspire for.

Victor admits that his loving thoughts of his wife were instrumental in his survival.  He even admits that he didn’t even know if his wife was alive, but in that moment it really didn’t matter.  

“Nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved.  Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to that contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her who have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.”

That is powerful.  Now even if you don’t have a significant other, you can always find the power of love with family and with friends.  I remember back to my first half marathon where I dedicated it to my friend who recently lost of his brother. The last 4 miles were full of cramping and breaking down into walks but I just kept remembering that I was running not for myself but I was doing it for a larger reason.  Miraculously in the last mile, my cramps subsided and I received an extra boost and I contribute that to my belief that this marathon was more than just myself.

Finding love in your current friendships is important.  Being able to help each other achieve each others dreams should be something that every friendship should strive to support.  Yesterday, me and my best friend set up weekly accountability check ins. We’re currently pursuing new challenges in life and although we’re taking on our own separate mountains, we will be there every step of the way, coaching and cheering each other.  And it’s through this practice where I believe we’re going to be able to unlock a hidden potential within ourselves. Victor also states this here:

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

3. I feel like maybe most people, at least most Millennials, have this question pop into their heading.  What is the meaning of life? What is the point if we’re going to die in the end? Just me? Oh okay, great.

Just kidding.  What is the meaning of life is a big loaded existential question, and as humans we sometimes like to ask the BIG questions.  Maybe it sounds like we’re asking the right question, when we ask the big question. Well, yes and no. Yes, what is the meaning of life is a big question.  No, it probably is not as important as you think it is.

“To put the question [of the meaning of life] in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, master, what is the best move in the world?” There is simply no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent.  The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.”

And it could be immediately just be a reflection of your current life situation.  One characterized by boredom and maybe a lack of direction. Nothing adds more to the feeling of meaninglessness in life than sheer boredom.  And we’ve all been there, although we are too prideful to admit this. “Oh you’re busy? Me too, yeah so busy.”

One example of this from my life happened during the months after I just accomplished a huge milestone in my life.  The year prior was the first year I moved away from home in sunny California across the pond to Thailand. As a digital nomad, I was determined to make the dream work and the only way to do that was to set a massive goal in order to prove how “seasoned” an entrepreneur I thought I was at the time.  Well, after 10 months, I achieved my goal and even marked the occasion by getting a wolf tattoo that summed up the spirit of my accomplishment. (*hint: the birth of NomadWolf) Anyway, the months after that were characterized by lack of direction, and at times boredom. I reached the top of my personal Everest, and I didn’t know what was next.  I knew I had to set a new goal but I didn’t want to set the same goal (it was monetary btw and I wanted something more fulfilling). But I really didn’t know what that “thing” was, and thus I was floundering for a while.

Well, those months weren’t easy.  I slipped a bit and maybe lost a bit of myself as a consumer, but I eventually found my footing.  And the secret that i’ve discovered when I was directionless, was to just go in the direction of what of you think your ideal is, even though it may be a little blurry.

But once you start moving, start learning, investing, seeking the skills, you’d be surprised at the momentum you can build towards that blurry ideal.  It is absolutely true that the best way to counteract this lack of direction is to find something worth pursuing. And I want to be honest, I have no idea what i’m doing, nor who I’m sharing this message with.  But i’m doing it because I think it could help you. (Yes, you the reader of the universe behind said screen. Hopefully we can get coffee sometime in the future.)

I’ve been through my fair share of existential thoughts.  And they still happen, but at least I feel better equipped to deal with them now.  And I think that’s because I’ve clung to a goal that isn’t finite as money (as before) but by clinging to several goals that aim at becoming better versions of myself in every moment, i’m able to keep climbing.  And yeah there’s no finish line to them. Well the finish line is death, and well i’m fine with that. (*i’m still working on the idea of death too)

4.  Mental health is big topic today.  Not sure if you’ve read my top 5 takeaways from the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I go into a bit of it there.

In today’s modern society with technology and all its modern comforts, you’d think that people in this reality would be more optimized and generally happier than their ancestors.  Depression is a still big thing, and thus people on medication as well. Victor states that the reason is due to the fact that us human today have lost most of our basic animal instincts and more people are leaving their traditions by the wayside.  Without those two things, lots of people are left with a whole lot of options to do whatever they want! Sounds great right? Until they really don’t know what they want, so they either just do what everybody else does or they just do what others tell them to do.  In the end, they loss their freedom to choose because they lack the courage find and pursue what they truly want. They cower in the face of the tension that leads to their potential.

As Victor states, “the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology “homeostasis”, i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

It’s a running theme and at times a joke when my friends and I discuss the word ‘potential’.  As we get closer to our 30’s, we feel our youthful 20’s coming to an end and with it an eerie feeling that we didn’t hit EVERYTHING we wanted to do yet.  So thus, we haven’t hit out potential! *GASP* By all means there is still time, because well we aren’t dead yet. That’s the tension Victor speaks of. To have a good life, you must live and be able to deal with a certain level of tension.  We shouldn’t be afraid of it, because we should recognize that this tension is the only way we can truly grow, and become closer to who we truly want to become. When you know yourself, and who you want to be, then dealing with the tension is just a part of the journey of getting there.  That’s all it really is.

5.  Sometimes life is going to deal us a bad hand.  What then? Well you become aware of it and act despite it.  In Victor’s position, along with many others whose misfortune is so much greater than the specks of sand that we might be putting up with, they are forced to change because their fate cannot be change.  The suffering may seem unfair, but that does not mean they havent found meaning within it. This also means that whatever you face, you can find yours too. So “go get some.”

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.  For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.  When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.”

And that brings us back to reframing any sort of suffering as a challenge.  Instead of us questioning why and behaving like the victim, we must act as if life is give us the question and it is up to us to provide the answer, one that we truly desire.  It is then, up to us to write our future.

“In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.”

It’s beyond admirable that Victor Frankl did what he did during, and after the Holocaust.  He admits that he felt compelled and chosen to deliver this message while he was suffering in the camp.  Along with this message, the power of love and the overall meaning that these things brought him during one the world’s darkest days, his writings, teaching and philosophy still leaves an impact on the world to this day.  If you’re caught in the so called “Existential Vacuum,” or just plain bored, I HIGHLY recommend jumping into this book.

Some much needed perspective could be the medicine that you’re searching for.