story, meaning, to do lists, and Viktor Frankl

I hope this doesn’t turn out completely rambling! This post is a little bit of an introduction to some ideas I really want to come back to in the future.

A while back someone recommended listening to a podcast called Beyond the To Do List, and in particular an episode about story featuring Donald Miller.

He is the author of several books, including multiple New York Times Best Sellers. Donald is also the founder of Storyline, an organization that helps people live better stories. He’s helped thousands overcome a sense of meaninglessness by helping them create their Storyline life plan. If you’re struggling with a sense of meaningless, pick up Storyline today.

Miller talks a lot about Viktor Frankl and his studies of meaning in our lives. I remember my mother talking about Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” after his experience in concentration camps showed him that if people have a sense of meaning in their lives they will want to live even under the most horrific conditions.

There are 3 factors in living a meaningful life, according to Frankl (via Miller’s blog).

  1. – have a project that you’re working on that requires your unique skills and abilities. And preferably a project that helps others.
  2. – share your experiences within the context of safe, loving relationships.
  3. – find a redemptive perspective on your suffering and challenges.

Miller said he found Frankl’s work during a period of crisis in his life when he’d had some major success as a writer but didn’t feel like he could live up to what he had achieved so far. He spent too much time inside his head and ended up not being able to write. He was having an existential crisis, wondering what the point of it all was. Frankl found that many people fall into this state of “existential vacuum” especially in the US.

Miller talked in the podcast about creating a new way to structure his day, built around his most important priorities. He took time each day to decide what the most important 2 or 3 things he wanted to achieve were and scheduled the best part of his day to work on those things. He also thought about what he would change if he was to live this day over again (in a kind of Groundhog Day movie scenario). Even before his day began he wondered what he would do differently, what he would regret doing or not doing if he got this day to do over, and modified his schedule to reflect what that told him. In the podcast he offered a free day planner sheet to print out asking these basic questions, but sadly in the months since then that is no longer available. But I believe it was that simple – 3 goals for the day, and what would you do differently? And that process, tackled daily, turned his life around. He wrote a lot more and had more success, created a community of supportive people around him, and reframed some of the challenges he had faced and his attitude towards them. His venture, Storyline, aims to help other people do the same by thinking about the story they are writing in living their lives.

By the way, I’m not writing this to promote Storyline. I have no idea what it is or if it works. I haven’t signed up for the course or read the book.

But it started me thinking about to do lists and how we spend our days, what kinds of goals we set for ourselves and what it means to achieve them or not, and what kinds of pursuits are meaningful and fulfilling and what leaves us empty. We’ve all heard it said that no one wishes on their deathbed that they’d spent more time at the office, but does that mean that work isn’t important and has no value? Our society tells us the opposite – after introducing yourself to someone new the next question is usually “so, what do you do?” and they’re not asking about your hobbies.

Sometimes our work is tedious and meaningless, although most people can find value for themselves at work, whether it’s taking pride in their skills (whether it be customer service/friendliness, efficiency, accuracy, or something really big like actually being able to save lives) or being part of an organization that does something worthwhile in the world. I suspect that people doing factory work making weapons or butchering factory farmed cattle might find less meaning in their work than the average person, but even they would surely look for value in their skill in doing the job, or in providing for their family, to get them through their day. Or people might find their value in their religion, fulfilling the role that they believe their god has set out for them.

Humans search for meaning in everything we do – without meaning, what is there to live for? Depression isn’t sadness so much as an absence of meaning or emotion, a feeling that everything is empty and pointless. That’s why it is such a dangerous condition.

As I said, I don’t know how Storyline uses story to create life plans, but I was thinking about how it might work. The human brain runs on story. Try going an hour without telling a story to yourself or someone else and you’ll see. Story structure is a huge part of the way we think. We all know how a story goes – there’s a person living their life, something happens that messes things up and they have to find a way to overcome that challenge and handle whatever went wrong to get back to the bit where they’re just happily living their life. Usually they come out the other end changed, hopefully for the better. Even if they didn’t succeed, even if they lost the battle in the end (as we all will at the very end), they gained something, some insight or something that made it all worthwhile. Isn’t that how we tell the stories of our lives?

So life is about challenges and struggles. We handle them the best we can and then we explain to ourselves why it was good that we suffered through the hard times. We manage the hard times with the support of the people we love. We work through our difficulties. (No one is really much impressed by or interested in a story where the protagonist is passive and does nothing while everything changes around them, someone who just hopes that everything will settle back down without them having to change or do anything. If you don’t fight for anything how can you claim victory or growth at the end.) We can handle unimaginable loss if we have something to work on and strive towards, people we love who love us (whether present in fact or only in spirit), and a larger purpose to it all.

Challenges are not always bad things either. Some challenges come from our circumstances, but others we set for ourselves. Self esteem comes from achieving something you didn’t think you could do (not from smiling at yourself in the mirror and affirming your true beauty, although the media and some misguided people would have you think otherwise). So setting goals and shooting for something a little bigger than you think you can achieve is an important part of living a more meaningful life.

I started this blog post a couple of weeks ago after I listened to the podcast. I started off interested in the idea of the to do list that Miller described and how I might use that idea in my life. Then I read a little bit about Frankl and decided that his ideas were worth a lot more investigation (I borrowed his book as an ebook from my library and have read some of it). Then I started writing about the wildfires and living a life that had been stripped bare which took me in some other directions thinking about loss and what things are necessary to living a happy life. I followed a link in a P333 blog that was about living a more “full” life and saw myself reflected in some of this blogger’s feelings of not doing enough. I also heard from a friend who was struggling with not being able to follow through with specific athletic goals because of an injury, and then I read an article about a different way to set goals. Just in writing this post I started to spin off into thoughts about the human mind as a story telling machine, which is a topic I am fascinated with. And talking to a friend at the library the other day I started thinking about why her hobby is such a passion for those who take it up and why another former coworker was dreading retirement because she didn’t have any hobbies or interests.

Everything kept coming back to these ideas of Victor Frankl’s. I’m going to be writing a few more pieces influenced by these ideas, I’m sure. Definitely one about the goal setting article I read, and another about what makes a hobby feel worthwhile.

I will also be back with Project 333 stuff – it’s almost time for another end of month review! Can you believe that in a few days tomorrow it will be August?!

Thanks for stopping by,



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4 Responses to story, meaning, to do lists, and Viktor Frankl

  1. Glad you enjoyed the episode!

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