David Heinemeier Hansson

December 24, 2023

Picking a purpose

Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning after surviving a concentration camp during World War II. He observed the outer  extreme of what happens to people who no longer have a WHY to live for. They’d wither and die in the camp. Even the most dire rations and punishing labor could be survived by many, as long as they had a purpose still beckoning, but once that light went out, so did they.

Modern life is rarely that dramatic for most people likely to read this, but Frankl’s fundamental truth is still relevant. A truth he spent the rest of his life trying to teach in the form of logotherapy as a psychotherapist.

Eric Fromm followed the same path of wisdom to additional insights. In The Pathology of Normalcy, he spells out exactly what makes modern man condemned: Getting everything he wanted while having nobody asking him for anything. The satiation of every desire paired with a relief of every responsibility is a psychological death sentence to many.

Dostoevsky knew this too. In Notes From Underground, which I’ve referenced before, he lays out perhaps the most succinct literary case against paradise. That man is less a problem-solving creature than he is a problem-creating one. That he needs the tension inherent in some degree of struggle.

Much of this is an inherent human challenge – to struggle with “the human condition”, as Fromm would say – and its shared between the sexes. But some of it is also at least partly gendered. Chris Williamson, on his show Modern Wisdom, recounts the story of a group of male asylum patients during WWII that had been comatose for years, who suddenly sprung into action when they were desperately needed to drive firetrucks to deal with the Blitz. His guest makes the claim that while women most want to be loved, men most want to be respected (for being powerful and useful).

Stereotypes, sure, but I think regardless of your chromosomes, purpose is both a preventive tonic and a healing potion. And it’s why people who’ve earned a golden ticket to a life of leisure often don’t want to get on the train!

We’re thrown into this world, as the existentialists would say, and we're left with the significant burden of picking a purpose to make sense of it all. We deny that choice at our peril. Staying in the arena is logotherapy in action.

This level of purpose picking is available to everyone. Anyone can choose to be needed, and thus choose to be happy. That’s the counterintuitive point from Alfred Adler’s philosophy that authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga present in The Courage to Be Disliked.

Which, as an aside, I don’t think was written by two Japanese authors by coincidence, who then ended up popularizing this provocative point made by an Austrian psychotherapist in the early 20th century to modern audience. It never ceases to impress me how seemingly everyone in Japan takes a tremendous pride in their work, no matter how lowly or common it might seem to a Westerner.

And I’d love to see some of this sentiment rub off on more people in the West. Taking a renewed sense of pride in their work, as a way of picking a purpose, by committing to competency and its development. I think it would do a lot of people a lot of good.

At the same time, humans are, or ought to be, more than just their work. If you don’t diversify your life, if you put it all on work, you have just one fragile pillar to carry that heavy load of a universal purpose. Develop a few more, and a rainy day in one area of your life won’t spoil the whole parade.

It’s not easy to do this, to pick a purpose. Often it’s hard to even articulate it. I’ve been trying to do this as a conscious, professional effort for a long time, and I’m still not sure I’ve quite hit it. But I’m trying. Trying by working to compress the complexity in my field of speciality, to demonstrate a calmer way to work, and to validate different entrepreneurial path.

There are a million ways to do this. To pick a purpose, either at work or more broadly. But all you need to do to get started with this logotherapy is to find one way, any way. And you do that by deciding it’s important. So decide that it is.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.