There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. – William Shakespeare
We often hear a form of nonsense, enough that we don’t even notice how foolish it is. It seeps into our daily dialogue. We hear this gibberish by the water cooler in the office, outside of church after Sunday service, on the phone with relatives, and in the hallways between classes.
“You know there are no coincidences…”
“Hey, stuff like this always happens for a reason…”
“Well, everything has a meaning…”
People are well-intentioned when they say these statements. They’re offering comfort via clichés. But it’s bullshit. There are countless coincidences every day. Stuff happens for no reason all the time. And, whether we believe it or not, most things are meaningless.
People invest meaning in the things that affect them, yet most things are fundamentally meaningless.
Let that sink in. This concept contradicts our instincts. But if we accept this idea, it can help us conquer our challenges.
Humans love to manufacture meaning from nothing. We naturally assign connotations to common occurrences and mould our behavior from this subtext.
We usually do this immediately at the start of an event. We rush to conclusions on whether something is good or bad. From there, it takes a lot for us to change or remove that label once we’ve assigned it.
But what if we adopted the “life is empty and meaningless” notion? What if we began believing things are just things and not omens? Problems are only problems and not harbingers of misfortune? And events are merely events and not some symptom of destiny?
This idea can be a useful mental tool. When an event occurs, objectively evaluate it, consider it, then assign it a useful meaning instead of a toxic one.
Other people might give it a completely different meaning and behave vastly differently. But what’s important is we are aware that we control the labels placed on events in our lives. We aren’t floating aimlessly in a world of predestination.
If we subscribe to the view that these events are meaningless, then we control the narrative.
Screwing up a big project doesn’t mean we give up on our new business venture. We can assign a label that means we need to refine our operations.
Writing a crappy first draft doesn’t mean we chuck our unfinished novel in the trash. We can assign a label that we should work with an editor and improve on character development.
A bad breakup doesn’t have to mean we should give up on love. We can assign a label to focus on our happiness instead of trying to make somebody else happy.
Maybe we’re too cynical or too cautious. Maybe we’re too optimistic or too numb. These reactions are okay – as long as we’re aware that the events themselves are meaningless and we get to author the aftermath.
Nothing has meaning, except for the meaning we give it. It’s all in our heads.
Let’s say we come home and catch our significant other in bed with someone else. That would most certainly be an event, but what does it mean?
We could assign a meaning that our partner is a lying, conniving [insert expletive], and both they and their secret lover need to get beat down. But then we may well find ourselves handcuffed in front of a judge.
Or we could assign a meaning that our significant other isn’t trustworthy and that we want a partner who remains faithful. So maybe we can dump them and replace them with someone better.
Or we could assign a meaning that they’re a naughty person who does naughty things. That they need to be monitored, but since they bring excitement to our lives, we’ll stay with them even if they do dirty deeds now and then.
See how we can assign different meanings to the same event and how it impacts our reaction? Catching your partner in bed with another has no intrinsic meaning, only what we assign to it. If we have the strength to check our impulsive emotions at the start of the event, then we can decide to react in the manner that helps instead of hinders.
Let’s think about this in the context of the workplace. A mistake is discovered on an initiative for an influential client.
- Do we see this as a tragedy and then scream at staff members?
- Do we see this as a learning experience and then pull together better QA/QC processes?
- Do we see this as an opportunity and then call the client to make a scapegoat out of a rival co-worker?
The choice is ours. People frequently think their job paths are preordained, that they’re drifting about while unseen forces dictate the direction of their careers. But that’s simply untrue.
We make choices as to how we respond to events. We allocate labels to issues and act on those labels. We decide whether our reactions make us leaders, shysters, sheep, or changemakers.
Our careers can be like real-life “Choose Your Adventure” books. We control the narrative.
Even while investigating something we‘re interested in, what appears to be clues that we assign meaning to are merely reflections of our mind, emotions, and biases. Maybe they lead to something in reality, maybe not, but we assign those meanings to them. And how we act on those meanings might trigger vastly different outcomes.
So coincidences do exist. Stuff happens for no reason. And, no, not everything has meaning. In fact, NOTHING has meaning.
We assign meaning to issues in our lives and act accordingly. Therefore, we must think carefully before slapping on those labels. Few people do, which is why few people get the results they desire.
We can control our reactions. We can control the narrative. And we should never relinquish that control.