I Dream of FIRE

In pursuit of financial independence and personal fulfillment

Book review: ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl

This is the first review of one of the many books I plan to read over the coming months.

Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in which he recounts his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II, was  so highly recommended from various sources that I decided to make it the opening book for my studies.

My reviews will be mostly geared toward my interpretation and actionable takeaways, rather than a traditional high-level overview. There are plenty of those out there. Especially for this book!

What is your purpose today?

Throughout “Man’s Search” Frankl talks of the importance of the “why.” He cites Frederick Nietzsche — “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” — as having hit upon the fundamental need.

People can overcome punishing circumstances if they have a crystal-clear greater purpose for their lives, whether that be a responsibility to others or to a creative work.

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual,” Frankl writes. “These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.”

The meaning of life differs from moment to moment, and we “achieve” it by fulfilling the tasks life presents each of us. But how?

“No situation repeats itself, and each situation  calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes he may be required simply to accept his fate, to bear his cross.”

This paragraph jumped out at me. I’ve mentioned how I’m still struggling with the idea that productivity produces something tangible. I still have a need to measure time spent against something concrete, like a to-do list, to feel a sense of accomplishment.

The importance of sharpening the mind

Frankl makes the case that sometimes it is best to “make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way.”

That made me think of the wisdom — erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln — about how if one were given six hours to chop down a tree the first four should be spent sharpening the axe.

Upon looking up that quote, I found an even better one cited by the Quote Investigator and attributed in 1901 to Josiah Strong in “The Times and Young Men”:

“He will see that the necessary time spent in preparation for his life-work is better spent than as if he had rushed into it ill prepared. Time spent in sharpening the axe may well be spared from swinging it.”

There are interesting parallels between those words.

Only you can choose your response

Frankl also talks about the importance of one choosing his outlook on life regardless of the circumstances in which he finds himself.

“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.”

He recalled prisoners who engaged their fellow captives with a positive attitude and who gave away their meager rations to others, despite their own deep hunger. Even in such dire conditions they pressed forward with an optimism that could not be extinguished.

What I’ll take away from this book

Here are the nuggets I’ll try to keep in mind going forward:

  • Circumstances are what you make of them from moment to moment.
  • The “meaning of life” is fluid, and that is not only OK, but expected.
  • Action, contemplation, and resignation are all equally viable options, but for each situation one will be the most effective. Learn to recognize which applies and be comfortable with the answer in any given scenario.

Have you read “Man’s Search for Meaning”? What about it struck you the most?


4 Comments

  1. This book is also on my “to read” list, I think I heard it recommended a few times on the Tim Ferrriss podcast? It sounds like an impactful book – did you find it hard to read?

    • It was definitely among the most recommended in Tribe of Mentors. That pushed it over the edge for me as the first one I wanted to read in this vein.

      It wasn’t hard to read. I mean, the subject matter is horrific, but Frankl really comes at it from more of an observational perspective than trying to recall all the grisly details. But in terms of complexity, it’s not bad. I would say you could knock it off in a couple days with some good chunks of time. I spaced it out over about four or five days.

  2. You inspired me to get the book… from the library 🙂

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