Man’s Search for Meaning – Summary and Insights

Below are some of my key takeaways from reading the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. If you are interested in my detailed notes from this book, please email me.

Man's Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning

Synopsis:

A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

“This seminal book, which has been called “one of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought” by Carl Rogers and “one of the great books of our time” by Harold Kushner, has been translated into more than fifty languages and sold over sixteen million copies. “An enduring work of survival literature,” according to the New York Times, Viktor Frankl’s riveting account of his time in the Nazi concentration camps, and his insightful exploration of the human will to find meaning in spite of the worst adversity, has offered solace and guidance to generations of readers since it was first published in 1946. At the heart of Frankl’s theory of logotherapy (from the Greek word for “meaning”) is a conviction that the primary human drive is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but rather the discovery and pursuit of what the individual finds meaningful. Today, as new generations face new challenges and an ever more complex and uncertain world, Frankl’s classic work continues to inspire us all to find significance in the very act of living, in spite of all obstacles.”

Insights:

Lessons From Extreme Suffering

Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning based on his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The book reflects his thoughts on the primary purpose of life, the quest for meaning, which he believed essential to survival in the camps.

Frankl witnessed a lot of suffering in the camps. It made him question how a person’s life could have meaning when it was filled with such a large amount of pain and agony. Ultimately, he observed, it was up to each individual to determine how they would respond to life in the camps. Frankl observed his fellow prisoners and noted that their survival was often associated with their response to the physical and psychic stress of life in the camps.

In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.

This ability to choose how to respond to life’s successes and challenges is a critical aspect of his philosophy. Despite the terrible conditions in the camps, he believed that each person still retained free will, an “independence of mind,” that they controlled. Frankl writes:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This concept reminded me of stoicism. Stoic philosophy encourages individuals to differentiate between things they can influence and things they can’t. We can’t control what happens in life, but we can control how we respond to situations in life.

Frankl builds upon this idea throughout the book. No matter the situation, each individual has the freedom to choose how to respond to that situation. Those decisions are what lead to the discovery of each individual’s unique meaning in life.

The Greatest Task

Frankl notes that “the greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” Frankl rejected the idea that individuals should search for a universal meaning of life. Instead, he flips the concept and states that life questions each individual by presenting them with unique situations.

As each situation in life represent a challenge to man and presents a problem from him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.

Each situation life presents is a unique challenge to be solved. There is no abstract meaning in life, it’s unique to each individual based on the actions they take in response to life’s challenges.

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

Therefore, each individual must take responsibility to find the right answer to life’s challenges. We find meaning in life as a result of responding to life’s challenges. This emphasis on personal responsibility is key in logotherapy, a school of psychology and a philosophy that Frankl developed.

The Essence of Existence

Each individual is responsible for actualizing the potential meaning of their life. Thus, logotherapy considers responsibleness the very “essence of human existence”. It’s up to each individual to discover meaning in their individual lives by deciding on how to respond to life’s tasks. Meaning isn’t discovered within our own psyche, it requires interaction with the world at large.

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:

  • Creating a work or doing a deed
  • Experiencing something or encountering someone
  • By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

It’s interesting how these reflect Ray Dalio’s principles of “meaningful work and meaningful relationships.” Frankl’s unique experiences in the concentration camps taught him that people can also find meaning through intense hardship, though suffering isn’t necessary to find meaning.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task: his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden

While most of us won’t experience suffering on the same level as Frankl, we can reflect on our pain and suffering in order to learn from our mistakes and better understand ourselves.

In Ethics, Spinoza writes:

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

Pain and suffering alone are meaningless. Through reflection and action we give them meaning.

I also thought the emphasis on finding meaning through work to be compelling. These deeds don’t have to be associated with our professional careers, but some people will discover their life’s purpose through their profession. In Measure What Matters, John Doerr says that one of the benefits of a clear and transparent goal-setting process for an organization is that it enables each employee to understand how their individual actions directly contribute to the organization’s objectives.

Setting a Worthwhile Goal

There is no general meaning to life, each person has a different task and purpose which only they can pursue. Each person is responsible for identifying and fulfilling that task. According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in an individual. So how can we capitalize on that innate desire to discover our own unique meaning in life through work, relationships, or suffering?

Frankl advocates for goal setting to guide individuals in their own unique path of discovery.

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task

That goal needs to be precise and clear to drive focus and action. Another point is that these goals should not be focused on success and happiness specifically. Instead, the goals should be developed so that they result in success and happiness.

The Impact of Automation

Given my work in the technology industry, I thought Frankl’s views on automation were interesting. He believed that technology was making life too easy for people, resulting in boredom. This boredom, or “tensionless state,” caused people to feel like their life was void of meaning.

Frankl writes,

These problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.

In their free time, people will reflect on their lives and feel a void of meaning. Frankl advocates for this void to be filled by logotherapy.

People regularly fear the impacts of technology, and rightly so. Technology is an amoral force. It’s the people who use it which determines if the technology is used for a worthwhile cause. While it is true some technologies will make our lives more convenient or potentially take the place of some jobs performed by humans today, technology will also give individuals unique capabilities to pursue their goals in ways not previously possible.

I feel there’s a slight disconnect between Frankl’s perception of the impact of technology and his core belief that individuals are responsible for how they respond to life’s challenges.

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment

I believe in Frankl’s core thesis that it’s up to each individual to find their unique purpose and meaning in life. The impact of emerging technologies is more or less out of control of each of us. In the end, it’s how we respond to life’s challenges, enabled by technology or not, that determines whether we find the meaning we seek.