The celebrated psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Vikor Frankl is best known for his perennial masterpiece, Man’s Search For Meaning. But Frankl had been obsessed with the question, “What is the meaning of life?” long before he was sent to the concentration camps. He studied psychology and philosophy in his youth and even gave a speech titled On the Meaning of Life, while he was in high school. In college, he was disturbed by the spike in suicides among students when final grades were reported. Frankl set up an initiative that provided free counseling to students, and within the first year of the program, student suicides in Vienna fell to zero.
Frankl then became the head of the Vienna Psychiatric Hospital’s female suicide prevention program, where he developed his theory of Logotherapy — founded on the belief that humans are motivated by the pursuit of meaning and purpose. During his time there, he helped save the lives of thousands of women on the brink of suicide.
Then came 1938. The Nazis invaded Austria. And Frankl’s life began to change.
As the reach of the Third Reich spread across Europe, Frankl saw what was bound to happen. He entered a lottery to receive an American visa and — with an incredible stroke of luck — won. The visa, however, only applied to Frankl. Leaving Austria would mean leaving his parents and siblings behind. And knowing that his family’s fate would almost certainly be in a concentration camp, Frankl struggled with the question of whether to stay or go.
When the Nazis burned down the Frankl family’s local synagogue, Viktor’s father went through the rubble and saved a single piece of stone from the Ten Commandments. The piece of stone read, “Honor Thy Father and Mother.” Frankl saw this as a sign and forfeited his visa and stayed in Austria. In 1941, Frankl and his wife, along with his mother and father, were arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Frankl continued his work at the camp, running a clinic and helping new prisoners cope with the unbelievable terror of their new lives. He set up a suicide watch and spread his message of meaning. Frankl was soon moved to Auschwitz where he and 1,500 others were stored in a shed built to hold 250 people. They were forced to squat for days with bare feet and lived off bread crumbs as they waited to be sent into labor or the gas chamber. It was in Auschwitz that Frankl summoned everything he’d learned and applied it to his own life. He found meaning and purpose in the idea that, should he survive, he’d use this terrible experience as a lesson to help others. He’d prove what Nichetze had said, which was that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Frankl wrote of this in a later book, The Will to Meaning:
“I repeatedly tried to distance myself from the misery that surrounded me by externalizing it. I remember marching one morning from the camp to the work site, hardly able to bear the hunger, the cold, and pain of my frozen and festering feet, so swollen… My situation seemed bleak, even hopeless. Then I imagined that I stood at a lectern in a large, beautiful, warm and bright hall. I was about to give a lecture to an interested audience on ‘A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp’ (the actual title I later used…) In the imaginary lecture I reported the things I am now living through. Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, at that moment I could not dare to hope that someday it was to be my good fortune to actually give such a lecture.”
Frankl believed that meaning in life could come through love, courage, and doing purposeful work. And through his incredible story of hope and survival, proved that meaning is the ultimate antidote to despair.
Frankl found this purpose not by asking, “What do I want from life?” but by asking, “What is life asking of me?”
Our longing to be productive is connected to our primal urge for ambition. Our impulse to add value, produce, and be useful members of the tribe goes beyond our basic need for survival. To feel and act upon our ambition is what it means to be human. Ambition alone, however, does not create purpose. And without purpose, ambition becomes trigger-happy productivity — taking aim and firing at anything that moves.
There are many forces in the world today trying to convince us that life is nothing more than a series of experiences to be had, memories to be made, and adventures to document. We’re all just monkeys on a rock, spinning around a dying ball of fire, right? There are times when leaning on this idea can be comforting. It can certainly lighten the mood when we find ourselves holding the reigns of life too tight. But when we go on believing that life is just a collection of random experiences, devoid of any real meaning or magnitude, we end up lost in the tornado of movement — spread thin by options and jerked around by the fear of missing out.
I’ve gripped the reigns of productivity to the point of burnout. I watched as it happened and I told myself it was all in the name of freedom. “Why do you work so hard?” If you had peeled the layers of my answers, you would have found that eventual freedom was the North Star of my ambition. I pointed my laser of focus toward the things I thought would provide money, security, and room to be free. But I’d fail to ask myself the most important question of all: What good is freedom without purpose?
A lifetime of being a productive human should provide more than freedom. It should provide fulfillment. Our hours of output and effort should be a vehicle that delivers connection, courage, and love. Without purpose, freedom is an arrow without a target.
Viktor Frankl knew that he and the other prisoners needed something deeper than the basic impulse to survive if they wanted to make it out of Auschwitz. They needed a purpose that lived outside of themselves — a calling that connected them to a greater good. Frankl found this purpose not by asking, “What do I want from life?” but by asking, “What is life asking of me?”
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
I wish I could offer a paint-by-number process to “find your purpose,” or “discover your passion,” but the truth is, that journey is unique to everyone. I do, however, believe that if you follow the lessons in this first section — if you reconnect with yourself and the bigger picture of what it means to be human — you can clear the static from your line. If you untangle the stories, walk toward self-awareness, stay open to the world around you, find your sense of play, and be willing to change your mind, you give yourself a chance at being amazed. You give yourself a chance to hear the call.
Some people find their purpose through small acts of selflessness that produce big shifts in how they feel. Others time-travel back to their childhood and reunite with an activity they used to love. Remembering what used to occupy your imagination and tame your bedroom boredom is often a key piece of information in the search for meaning and purpose. There are also those who keep a steady stream of new passions in their life by simply pulling the threads of what makes them curious.
But no matter how one approaches finding purpose, one thing is certain: Purpose follows action. You won’t find waves of inspiration unless you’re in the water paddling. Try new things. Explore different ideas. Turn curiosity into a verb and you’ll discover new interests, passions, and a sense of purpose.
If you’re someone who is just beginning their search for purpose, first be aware of the possibility. Know that there is something waiting for you. An outlet that will feed electricity into everything you do. Stay vigilant in your search, and remember that the search itself is part of the reward. Life can be spent waiting for death or searching for truth. Find what is meant for you.
And if you’re lucky enough to already know your purpose, hold it close. Don’t allow the static of hustle and grind culture steal your connection. Remove the blocks that stand between you and your escape from the ordinary world. You don’t need to wait for a global pandemic to hit, win the lottery, or watch your country get invaded. Life is calling out to you right now.
Pick up the can.
Pull the string tight.
Answer the call.