Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 28 2024

Meaning Requires Meaning

I was watching a homemade recording of Troy Polamalu’s interception in the 2008-2009 AFC Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens from the stands and had one of those existential moments where you realize that millions of people are watching that play and having extreme emotional reactions to it. Staring at it objectively, I was thinking about how no one who understood the game of football—the uninitiated, aliens, etc.—would know why everyone was screaming. That reminded me of an important point about meaning that everyone needs to understand.

The title of this post, “Meaning Requires Meaning”, is an intentional play on words of the multiple definitions that words can have. I had a debate at work the other day where my colleagues believe that something I wrote meant one thing, but I clearly knew that it meant something else. It’s always amusing to me how people think they know someone’s intentions or meaning better than someone else without having all of the information. Two definitions of meaning are “definition” and “significance”—in other words, sometimes people are asking how you’re defining a word, and other times people are asking why what you said matters. In the case of “Meaning Requires Meaning”, I am referring to the fact that significance requires understanding. In the case of the football game, you can’t see significance in the Troy Polamalu interception unless you understand the sport and the context in which the event occurred.

This idea applies to any situation. Two people looking at the same piece of art might have different interpretations. A doctor with a history of working with patients with a certain condition might notice something during examination that a doctor without experience would not. Information is coming at living organisms at an amazing rate, and we all have to learn how to understand and interpret that information to make the best decisions for how to live our lives.

So if you are wondering about how the feeling of meaning works, these examples will give you a sense of what the process looks like. Let’s break this down into steps:

So, in the interception example, fans flock to the game to watch the play unfold. They see Troy Polamalu intercept the pass, and they determine given the time left on the clock, the score, and the team they hope wins, that this is an event with significant impact on the final result of the game. They then conclude that this is a very good or very bad event (depending on which team they are rooting for). Finally, they scream in either joy or pain as they realize the game is likely to have been won or lost due to that play. So they need to understand a lot about football to determine its significance to the game’s outcome.

You can use your understanding of this process to help yourself understand meaning in your life. For example, there might be a child kicking a soccer ball around thousands of miles away that you don’t think about or have considered to be significant at all, and 20 years later that child might grow up to score the best goal you will ever witness in your lifetime. Note that you would not have deemed the child playing with the ball to be significant for decades; it is only when you witness the goal and understand how important that practice was to the player’s success that you realize how significant it was. Even still, because you didn’t see it and aren’t as attached to a practice 20 years earlier, you won’t give it a second thought unless the player happens to retell the story and place great significance on that moment to his or her success. Then, you might deem it to be significance because the player does.

And that is a profound insight about meaning in life: significance is a matter of perception. That’s why there can never be one “meaning of life”—meaning goal or event—for everyone. Because people place significance on different things. The reason why growth is the meaning of life—meaning the purpose and not a singular goal or event—is that growth is the primary driver of living organisms and is also the primary way in which someone judges human achievement and significance. They don’t give Oscars to someone’s 3rd grade play; they give the biggest awards to people who push the art form or represent the pinnacle of excellence that required years of effort to attain. The significance is up for you to determine, but what causes you to deem something significant is heavily influenced by your biological makeup that causes you to seek growth and avoid harm. The things that you deem to be of greatest contribution or detriment to society, therefore, is what you deem to be significant (see: TIME Magazine awarding Person of the Year to both Elon Musk and Adolf Hitler for very different reasons).

So if you are feeling lost or confused as to what matters to you in life, it might be that you need more information and greater understanding. After all, if you are staring at an NFL game for the first time and wondering why everyone is cheering, it’s because they have different information than you. Rather than assuming that everyone around you is crazy and that you know everything, try to learn more about the world around you and then see what makes you react in a way that millions did when Troy Polamalu intercepted that pass. When you see how passionate you get over a person, place, thing, or event, you’ll know what holds significance to you in life and you can then pursue that meaning.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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