In purposelessness, we find purpose

Undeniably, we stand at a tipping point of knowledge work transformation. And it is scary—designs and illustrations can now be commissioned in seconds without a human behind it. It’s making everyone nervous, rightfully so, for their livelihood and sense of purpose. We’ve seen what happened to manufacturing workers not long ago. I can’t help but wonder what this means for knowledge workers.

The painful realization for me is that our own inventions have always been and will always be obviating the need for us. Whether it’s steam engine, robots or AI, they will continue to enable us, replace us, and challenge our sense of purpose and meaning, whether it’s work or hobby.

Some would argue that a meaningful human touch will always be in demand. Certainly, to an extent. An original artwork will always be valued higher than its indistinguishable replicas. But what percentage of us will remain lucky enough to be valued for our “special touch,” when generative work is “good enough” and much cheaper? Do most people purchase handcrafted furniture, or opt for IKEA at a fraction of the price?

While income stability undoubtedly will become a problem of the century, many more of us are also going to be forced to face the same existential question that many retirees face today: “how do I derive meaning from my life?

As we continue to automate away our sense of purpose, what would constitute a meaningful, human life?

To explore that question deeper, I started thinking about the advice that Copper’s uncle gave him in How Do You Live by Genzaburo Yoshino:

If it means anything at all to live in this world, it’s that you must live your life like a true human being and feel just what you feel.

The things that you feel most deeply, from the very bottom of your heart, will never deceive you in the slightest.

You should first know for yourself, truly and deeply, where human greatness lies.

Human greatness lies in yourself. That’s a big statement. But the skeptic in me quickly silenced when I remembered that human behavior, while individually unpredictable, is quite easy to predict in groups. There was a joke that if an alien abducts just one human, they’d learn 99% of what they need to know about humanity.

In other words, our world amplifies our differences, but we’re more similar than we realize. In knowing yourself, you know humanness altogether. Perhaps the answer to what a meaningful human life is starts with what makes us…human. Copper’s wise uncle offers up another hint:

…pain is not unique to human beings. Even dogs and cats may shed tears if wounded, and when they are lonely, they howl piteously. When it comes to physical pain or hunger or thirst, humans are surely the same as other animals. That’s why we experience a keen sense of empathy and feel great affection for other living creatures on the planet, be they dogs, cats, horses, or cows. But that also means that pain alone tells us little about what it means to be truly human.

But among all those miseries, there’s one that pierces our hearts most deeply, that wrings the bitterest tears from our eyes. It’s the awareness that we have committed a mistake that we can’t go back and fix. When we look back on our actions—not in terms of personal benefit but in a moral frame of mind—I’m afraid there’s nothing quite so painful as thinking, What have I done?

It’s truly painful to admit one’s own mistakes. Most people think up any excuse they can to avoid it.

…to recognize it bravely and to suffer for it is something that in all of heaven and earth, only humans can do.

Perhaps what makes us human are the pains that only we can experience. But it doesn’t seem like the whole picture to me. Does pain define us? Where does pain lead us? Suffering?

Copper’s uncle regards remorse as a uniquely human pain. Only humans look past both directions in the isle of time and imagine how their lives would have and could be different. Remorse is not having followed your own moral conscience. It hurts like a fracture of your soul, the thing that keeps you whole. A cousin of remorse is regret. Regret is unfulfilledness, wishing something was done or done differently. Regret is a poison, it hurts deeply, and then it becomes a part of you.

It would seem that there’s another side to this. It is precisely because I understand and feel remorse and regret, I desire to lead a life without them. In other words, my pains reveal what’s near and dear to me.

…when a person is living in a way that’s not normal for a human being, suffering and hardships of the heart let us know that. So then, thanks to that pain and suffering, we can clearly grasp what a human being should naturally be.

Human beings are so great that they demonstrate their greatness by recognizing their own misery. A tree does not recognize that it is miserable.

Human miseries reflect a vision of what it means to be human. Yoshino’s perspective really does seem to light a path to one of the most profound questions we can ponder. As automation obsoletes conventional sources of purpose, what can this misery, the suffering of purposelessness, teach us about how we ought to live? It would seem wise for me to dig deeper into those uniquely human endeavors.

Over the past few months, while I was thinking about leading a life like a true human being, my old mentor parted a piece of advice that etched a lasting impact on me: don’t follow your heart, follow your curiosities.

It became clearer to me that not following my curiosity is a major source of regret. However, curiosity is not uniquely human. Curiosity is a catalyst of intelligence, and many intelligent animals exhibit varying levels of curiosity.

On the other hand, curiosity also leads to play. And play is something that only humans do throughout their adulthood. Dr. Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan wrote:

It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a lifelong residue of emotional immaturity in him.

The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.

While many species of animals play when they are young, only humans retain the desire and ability to play throughout their adulthood. To me, curiosity and play are inseparable. Curiosity encourages playful experimentation. We enjoy the activity for the sake of it, and every so often it leads us to look outside our constructed worldview and discover things that no one was looking for.

Play can be as simple as pretend sparring with inflatable weapons, and as complex as an intricate architecture designed with care. Play can be infused into our work, from where we derive energy and joy. Play makes what would otherwise be a mechanical process of target acquisition into a meaningful experience enriched with emotions.

If the only way to find irreplaceable meaning in our lives is to look inside ourselves and understand what makes us human, then perhaps following our curiosities, and playing to our heart’s content, is as human as it gets. Maybe that is our purpose, to be the universe’s inner child, to discover, to create joy out of the vast vacuum of space, to venture further and further into the possibilities of intelligence.

I became convinced that play is at least one of the pieces to this existential puzzle. In a world where artificial intelligence can accomplish anything faster and better than humans, the only thing left for us to do might be to “enjoy the pointless,” as any child is wired to do.

We can generate an entire orchestra with words, we can also learn an instrument and experience the connection between movement and sound.
We can hire robot movers to build monuments, we can also hit the gym and feel the joy of a strong body.

Why do we climb mountains when we have elevators.
Why do we learn a language when we have automatic translation.

The turbulence was purposeless, but in huge quantities of purposeless turbulence, purpose took shape.

The Dark Forest, Liu Cixin

The answer might be different for you, but if you lend a friendly ear, the inner child residing in you might just have something to share.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *