Existential Work and the Quest for Meaning

During each semester, I often ask my students what is the most important thing about life? This discussion usually happens during a Meaning of Life discussion/dialectic within our classroom and the students usually come up with all sorts of answers. We may have even just finished discussing Susan Wolf’s article about the meaning of life.

As always, in a philosophy class, I like to give them a little context in order for them to work out the content. My goal is to teach them “How to Think” and not “What to Think”.


I like to frame the question by giving them 3 options that could possibly be the answer as to their life after college and the choices that confront them in this important time. Here are the options and I ask them which is most important:

1) What You Do- Basically, this answer is the actual job you have, the thing you spend the most time on, the bulk of your existence. If we really look at life. Work/Career is probably the number 1 time commitment of most people from the age of 25-65.

2) Where You Live- This is the option for people that want to invoke family, or cultural, or location specific answers. If it is a location, they want the mountains or a beachside town. If it is the family, then they want to live near their parents or their sisters family.

3) The Money- This one is the most interesting, because it brings up a whole host of things to think about within the students. Especially because I don’t put a value on it,so that I can always challenge the students who choose the other options. For instance, if a student say they wan to “work with animals by the beach or live near Aunt Sally, I can respond with a line like “but for $1 Million a year, wouldn’t you become a drug dealer or live 300 miles away from Aunt Sally”.

I think this questions helps to frame up priorities in a truly wonderful way.

It is not clear that we critically think about these decisions. This has to be one of the pre-eminent considerations for life, but often times the students give an instant answer that really hasn’t been critically thought out. Meaning, they will most likely make an uncalculated choice after college. This is not radically novel news, but I would say that it should be avoided.

The Status Quo

I’ll be honest, I think that the usual wisdom is for one to apply for the best job after college and sort of move to follow that path as fast as possible. It seems like this is an effort to justify the money just spent on college.

One of the problems with the status quo (I’m sure there are a lot) is that we tend to pursue that which makes us the most money and also at this point in our lives have no idea how to manage money.

I think the least considered option is “what we are actually doing”. Meaning, we don’t actually care about the job and usually assume but has to be related to what we majored in. We don’t stop t think whether or not the job is actually interesting, rewarding, fun, or some other aspect that might bring us deep satisfaction (see #2 here).

Then, we end up having a mid-life crisis and want to sell everything and move to a mountain town and open a ski rental shop or Bead and Breakfast.

Critical Thinking in Your 20’s

All of this could be avoided if a couple things happened.

  1. We need to not be afraid to fail in our 20’s and 30’s
  2. We need to get our priorities straight a lot sooner
  3. We need to be deliberate in our approach to life
  4. We need to not put too much stock into our “major” and jobs related to it.

This 4th one is such an easy one to realize. If you just ask people that are 65+ what they are doing/did in life, then you will quickly realize that not a huge percentage of people are actually “using” the degree they got.

My other opinion is that that the first 2 are both very important things as you get older. I think people want to be fulfilled in a career that they potentially are going to hold for 25+ years. Not just look back and freak out about it.

So, I’m interested in your thoughts.

How would you answer my question and why?

5 thoughts on “Existential Work and the Quest for Meaning

Add yours

  1. They did a long term study of Harvard students about fifty years ago asking them what they wanted. The top answers were money, fame, etc…
    They followed up these students and the overwhelming distinction between those that were happy and those that weren’t were the quality of their personal relationships. So regardless of wealth, notoriety, etc…, personal relationships are the key to success regardless of material success.

    Liked by 1 person

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