Okinawans call it ikigai, and Nicoyans call it plan de vida, but in both cultures the phrase essentially translates to 'why I wake up in the morning.'

– Dan Buettner

Week 15 : A Meaningful Life

Viktor Frankl

Victor Frankl writes: "Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

Viktor’s great insight was formed in the winter of 1942, when as a young psychiatrist, he and his wife, Tilly, were among the hundreds of Jews rounded up and arrested in Vienna. At the time, Viktor was already hard at work on a theory of psychological well-being. Anticipating the roundup, the young couple took great pains to save their most cherished possession – the manuscript Viktor was writing. Before the officials marched into their home, Tilly sewed the document into the lining of Viktor’s coat. Viktor wore that coat when the couple was later dispatched to Auschwitz, but on his second day in the concentration camp, he was stripped by the SS guards, and never saw the manuscript again.

In the ensuing three years, at Auschwitz and later at Dachau – as his brother, mother, father, and pregnant wife all perished in the gas ovens – Viktor worked to recreate the text by scratching notes on stolen scraps of paper. And in 1946, one year after Allied forces liberated the concentration camps, those crumpled pieces were transformed into what would become one of the most powerful and enduring books of the last century, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Within those pages, Viktor argued that, “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.


(Excerpt) Man's Search for Meaning/Viktor Frank
Read here


My search to answer the "eternal questions" in the film, The Search for Meaning
Watch here

Question #8

Do you ask yourself the “eternal questions”—or do you avoid them? What gives your life meaning?

(Short answer) Deposit on ICON

In 1968, at the University of Kansas, Senator Robert F. Kennedy gave one of the most beautiful and courageous speeches in American political history. Few Americans remember now what he said, so I’d like to share with you a short excerpt here

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Many of you are familiar with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top.

Interestingly, later in life Maslow wanted to take this hierarchy for the individual and apply it to the collective, to organizations and specifically to business. But unfortunately, he died prematurely in 1970.

The idea has never the less taken hold in some of the most innovative companies. One example is Zappos. Zappos’ CEO, Tony Hsieh has drawn the parallel between business and happiness, and integrated it into the culture of his company.

"So many people when they go to the office, they leave a little bit of themselves at home, or a lot of themselves at home," he says. "And while there’s been a lot of talk over the years about work life separation or work life balance, our whole thing is about work life integration. Because it’s just life – and the ideal would be if you can be the same person at home as you are in the office and vice versa." - Zappos’ CEO, Tony Hsieh

The company’s annually published Culture Book contains hundreds of short essays written by Zappos employees and vendors explaining what makes the culture so special and successful. Says Hsieh: "Corporate culture is every bit as important as the bottom line."

Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), has identified three different happy lives that correspond to these three desires:

  1. The "Pleasant Life" – A life full of positive emotions about the past, present, and future.
  2. The "Good Life" – Using your "signature strengths" to achieve gratification in the main areas of your life.
  3. The "Meaningful Life" - Knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying them in the service of something larger than you are


Can happiness be taught? Martin E. P. Seligman
Read here


A Dream Job – (Iowa Alumni Magazine)
Read here


Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address
Watch here, or text is here

A parting shot of my own – I would like to extend my deep gratitude to the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences for the honor of participating in the spring commencement ceremony (May 17, 2014 at Carver Hawkeye Arena). You can watch it here.

The following is the text of my commencement address. >( I am particularly pleased that my parents were in attendance. We are given few chances to publicly thank the people who impact our lives and I was grateful for the opportunity.


"What if money was no object?" is our closing video of the semester.
Watch here

Journal Assignment #9– Say Thanks

Gratitude really works. In fact according to Martin Seligman, feelings of appreciation enhance well-being and deepen one’s sense of meaning. In that spirit, think of a person in your life who has been kind or generous to you, but whom you’ve never properly thanked. Write a detailed “gratitude letter” to that person explaining in concrete terms why you’re grateful and mail it! (Don’t forget to give me a copy as well.)

(Minimum length: One Page) Deposit on ICON (Source: Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, page 235)

From Here to There Paper

INSTRUCTIONS: Drawing from the videos, journal assignments, and exercises, describe what resonated most with you, and how you see your life moving forward.

(Minimum Length: Three Pages) Deposit on ICON

Here you'll find some of my musings that I think will help support the narrative, and provide some additional information. Check it out here

  • I’d like to close with a personal story… one I typically share only with my students. It is the tale of my nephew, Mike. Mike was a junior at the University of Iowa, and the account begins in the Spring Semester, the Friday before Final Exams. I remember three things about that evening:

    • Mike didn’t touch his dinner
    • He insatiably drank water
    • And he pulled me aside to tell me he was worried something was wrong.

    Over the three years Mike was in college, we developed the type of uncle/nephew relationship I always wanted. Mike shared his college “war stories” with me, confident they would remain safe from his parents. I in turn tried to introduce him to new and interesting things; fully aware I would pick up the tab.

    Mike dreamed of being a journalist, but was willing to settle on teaching English like his mother. His loyalties to the Chicago Cubs and Bears were quickly replaced by his love for the Hawkeyes. My kids and I used to enjoy watching Mike on national TV, banging on the wooden sign that bordered the “Hawk’s Nest”, or taunting opposing players from the sidelines. Every fall he would borrow our sleeping bag so he could be first in line for tickets.

    With only a year left at the University, Mike had begun to step up his call for me to return to teaching. I had taught as an Adjunct Instructor in both the Leisure Studies and Sociology Departments prior to Mike’s arrival on campus. While Mike’s pitch was always a plea to “shape young minds,” my underlying suspicion was that the only thing Mike wanted shaping was his GPA. “How could I face your folks after I flunk you” was my reply

  • That night Mike drove back to his parent’s home in Illinois, and I phoned the next day to see how he was feeling. His mom said he had a slight temperature and was asleep. Over the weekend, I received a voice message from Mike, apologizing for missing my call. The next call came from the Emergency Room.

    My sister-in-law, Cyndi, later told me that Mike arrived to the hospital in so much pain that the nurses were instructed to give him morphine. “He was literally pulling fistfuls of hair out of his head”, she said.

    Suspecting an appendicitis attack, Mike was rushed into the operating room. No sooner had the surgeons opened him up, than they slowly wheeled him back. They were wrong. He had colon-rectal cancer.

    While Mike endured rounds of chemotherapy, and my family defiantly began wearing “Cancer Sucks” buttons, I packed up the belongings of the life Mike had left behind on campus. Within those possessions were the artifacts of all the things Mike loved to do: pink suits and retro hats for trips to the bars, hundreds of worn CDs, a bike prominently placed in the living room for safe keeping.

    I spent much of that summer, in the college town I call home, watching packs of young people plot their futures. It was difficult to be reminded of what Mike was missing. After his diagnosis, Mike never read another book. He never attended another class, never went on another date – never goofed around with his fraternity brothers again. I brought his CD collection home and it has never left my basement.

  • We buried Mike on August 28th – less than four months after his diagnosis. I had sat by his bedside just days before and pretended with him that he’d be returning to campus. “I have football tickets waiting for you,” I lied. Though the idea of ever leaving the hospital was by then absurd, we elected to suspend reason, in favor of the story we wanted to hear.

    As my wife’s immediate family stood in my sister-in-law’s front lawn, dividing up the floral arrangements from the funeral, I took a moment to check my voice messages back home. There was only one call waiting for me, from the Academic Coordinator of the Leisure Studies Program. The message asked if I’d like to teach a course for the Spring Semester. The call went on to explain that the class was about trying to prepare students for a good life. “It doesn’t pay very much,” he said, “but you can make a big difference.” I impulsively accepted without consulting my wife. It seemed like the right thing to do.

    I used to think that Mike’s death was some sort of senseless anomaly, and to a degree it was. But in the years since, I have witnessed challenges in the lives of many of my students. As anyone who teaches knows, a classroom is like a community. In the sea of faces are hidden struggles – big and small - that threaten to disrupt young lives just as they are getting started. I have tried to use my position at the University of Iowa to lend a hand. To take the experience time provides and share it with a generation still trying to see their dreams in color. This group will need to be given opportunities on limited experience, and time to find their footing. The bridges they are crossing are treacherous, and demand more beams every day. For those of you in the midst of this journey, I encourage you to stay strong. We need you. For those already standing on the other side, I implore you to reach back.