1. Motivation: A (Midlife) Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

"Here comes 40. I'm feeling my age and I've ordered the Ferrari. I'm going to get the whole mid-life crisis package."

― Keanu Reeves, Canadian actor

“Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment

Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

― Eminem, American rapper, in “Lose Yourself”

What Would You Do if You Had Only 5 Years to Live?

A few years ago, I asked myself the above question.

No, I wasn’t suffering from some terminal disease. Luckily what I had was something far more mundane and commonplace: a midlife crisis.

Lots of people go through it, of course. It's almost a rite of passage.

Some people might suffer for a while, but most manage to make a complete recovery and move on as if nothing happened.

Except, in my case, things happened. Big things. Evidently so big that I ended up writing a book about deep things like meaning, purpose and hope in life, no less!

The kind of book that philosophers and poets and those who have actually gone through serious suffering in life are supposed to write. Not some guy who writes code all day!

How does something like this happen?

Well, I'm going to tell you about it. That's what this chapter it all about.

But let me start with some general observations about this supposedly innocuous little condition known as midlife crisis.

It is commonly believed that you have one big bad crisis sometime in your 40’s, which makes you question everything you have done until then and whether that's all there is.

And then, depending upon your circumstances, you either get a new car or a new career or a new carefree attitude towards life. Or maybe just a car-free lifestyle. Some people go totally crazy and buy a whole vineyard or something. And others just get seriously drunk.

These activities typically result in your big bad crisis getting replaced by a smaller one.

Depending upon which remedy you followed, you either end up with buyer’s remorse or a new boss that's no better than your old boss or "grass looked greener" type disappointment. Or maybe just high Uber bills. Or bad wine. Or just a plain old hangover.

Luckily, most of us are far more familiar with handling these types of minor crises, having experienced them multiple times in our lives by then.

Crisis solved, and life gets back to normal.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, things didn’t quite work out like that.

In my case, instead of one big bad crisis, I had a series of bouts over a few years.

This had the unexpected benefit that I was able to apply my learning from previous bouts to the subsequent ones. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

For example, I had already learned in previous bouts that buying a speedier new car doesn’t quite work because cops take special delight in giving speeding tickets to such midlife crisis sufferers.

I have always been a math / science nerd who liked to tinker with stuff, so I had never really had any doubts about my career as an engineer. Moreover, spending a few nights in karaoke bars had already taught me that becoming an entertainer was just not in the cards for me.

In earlier bouts, I had spent enough time driving through wine country to know that owning a vineyard was back (and bank) breaking work.

I had flipped through enough self-help books in bookstores (remember those?) to learn that the rational way of dealing with things like midlife crises was to clarify one's priorities in life by asking the hard question: What would I do if I had only 6 months to live? Whatever bubbled to the top of that list would be the things to focus on for your second innings.

But once I had gotten over the dread and anxiety of having to ponder my own mortality, I had quickly realized that six months was such a short time that the answer turned out to actually be rather easy and, frankly, even banal.

For most people, their 6-month bucket list would consist of things like getting their affairs (I mean financial of course) in order, spending quality time with family and friends, smelling some roses, drinking some champagne, and generally giving up. (Er, I mean, “acceptance”.)

I had already tried all of those answers out.

Unfortunately, it had had the undesirable effect that my financial planner had raised his fees, my family and friends had started getting annoyed at me for calling them at odd times, my neighbor (whose roses I was smelling) had started looking at me funny and my doctor had told me to cut down on the champagne.

[ Ok, I know this book is supposed to be all about facts and logic, but please allow me a little liberty to be a tad dramatic in the first chapter, just for fun. I promise, after this chapter is over, it is all going to be facts and logic until you start screaming for more drama! ]

Clearly the “6 months to live” question wasn’t working for me, though it made so much sense at first.

Still, I felt like there was definitely some truth to it. It did force me to seriously think about my life and prioritize things, but maybe it needed something more before it became truly interesting and useful.

That’s when it occurred to me - I needed to extend the time frame! Instead of 6 months, I needed to ask: What would I do if I had 5 years to live?

Now that’s a far more interesting and useful question! Not to mention far less dread- and anxiety- inducing.

Extending the time frame to 5 years makes the question a lot more meaningful and actually harder to answer because the longer timeframe means there would be enough time to actually get some substantial and significant stuff done. A lot can be accomplished in 5 years.

Plus, the timeframe is also far more realistic. Unless someone is already suffering from something serious, they can probably count on having at least 5 more years to live, right? Not to mention that medical miracles are making this possible even for many of those who may be suffering from serious ailments.

The "5 years to live" question forces you to dig deep and see what it is that you really want to do in life or would regret not doing. With 5 years at your disposal, maybe you can still do it!

Is Panicking a Good Way to Start?

In my case, the answer came to me one day in the shower. Just popped right out of thin (well, more like thick and humid, to be frank, given I was in the shower) air, stood there in front of me and almost made me panic.

The scenario that materialized in my mind was so scary, I had to gasp for breath!

Let me put it this way.

Imagine you binge on a really great TV show all weekend. Then, when you see your coworkers on Monday, you start raving about it.

You talk in great detail about all the wonderful characters and events and scenes. But, for some unexplainable reason, no matter how hard you try, you are simply unable to string the whole series together into a coherent story or plot! You aren't even able to describe the theme of the series!

Suddenly all your excitement about the show looks completely overblown and your entire binge just a meaningless waste of time. It would make you feel like an idiot.

Now, imagine if this binge hadn't lasted for just a weekend, but for decades. Maybe it was one of those long running epic dramas with hundreds of characters, thousands of episodes and millions scenes, with uncountable ups and downs, twists and turns, cliffhangers and dead ends. Many of them of highly memorable and poignant if taken individually.

And yet, you are totally unable to thread them all together into a meaningful whole.

Not being able to tell any sort of a comprehensive, coherent and in-depth story about such an epic show wouldn’t just make you feel awkward, it would be downright scary. It would make you question your own sanity. Like you had suffered from a serious brain disorder or something. For decades!

Now imagine that this decades-long epic show was your actual life!

After having lived a decades-long life, that contained hundreds of characters, thousands of episodes and millions of scenes, if you were unable to describe what the whole thing was all about, that would make your whole life feel like a colossal waste of time!

Not just to your bewildered coworkers but, even more seriously, for yourself.

And I don’t mean just being able to tell an interesting story about your life, though that would be really important, too.

I mean the story behind the story.

You want to be able to say not just who were the characters and what were their personalities and motivations, but why they had those personalities and motivations. You don’t just want to describe the scenes and the events, but how those scenes may have come about and why those events may have occurred. Not just the "what" of the story, but the "how" and even the "why".

You want to get into great depth and explain everything that happened in a coherent, comprehensive and logical manner. Of course, you may add some poetry and drama on top to make it more interesting, but that poetry and drama wouldn't be vacuous. It would have a strong and meaningful framework to stand on.

When it comes to something as important as your own life, you don't want to just be a great storyteller, but you also want to be like a historian, an anthropologist, a biologist and maybe even a physicist describing your whole life all the way from the ground up, with every step along the way explained in the most vivid detail possible.

And ideally, you don't just want to do that for your own life, but to this whole amazing thing called life, the universe and everything. Doing so would provide the rich context within which the story of your life unfolds.

[ As an aside, let me say that this way of thinking is known as Thinking from First Principles - when you try to explain things all the way from the most basic fundamentals. This concept forms a core principle of this book, and we will get deeper into what we mean by it and how we use it to formulate the ideas here in subsequent chapters. ]

Long story short, being able to tell the story of my life, as well as Life in general, from First Principles, became an obsession for me.

This sort of a thing becomes even more urgent when you realize that this may be your only chance! YOLO, right?

I guess I could say that it was at this point in my life that I became an Eminem fan. Not only did his lyrics (included at the top of the chapter) suddenly make sense to me, but I could feel his sense of urgency and intensity.

I had been given this one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything I ever wanted. How was I ever going to let it slip?

In fact, I considered myself really privileged to have been given this opportunity. To me, it almost looked like it was my duty to seize it. It had to be done.

Meaning and Purpose

So, it was time for me to get to work.

How do I make sense of my life all the way from the ground up? Did my life matter in the larger scheme of things? What are the underlying principles, characters, motivations and rules behind Life, the Universe and Everything? Does my life have a purpose? Does the universe have a purpose? And where is it going?

In other words, what does this all mean and why does it mean that?

Well, isn’t this exactly what we mean when we ask about the “meaning” and “purpose” of one’s life or Life in general? What does it all mean and why does it mean that?

Of course, questions of this sort have been asked millions of times by millions of humans over thousands of years. And over the same period of time, many people have come up with some pretty interesting answers. Some of them have withstood the test of time and gone on to become extremely popular, even to the point of turning into religions and philosophies.

In the process, even the meanings of the words "meaning" and "purpose" themselves have changed. The words have taken on more theological or philosophical or even poetic connotations. Their true meanings turned out to be too hard to discover and the new meanings offered by religions and philosophies and poets turned out to be far more interesting.

But in my case, while that would have been the easy, and maybe even a great way out, I didn’t want to just mumble some well-worn phrases from ancient books, or sing moving verses from some great poems, or throw out some popular memes floating around in the zeitgeist that sounded cool. Not because they might have been wrong, but because there really was no way of knowing if they were right or wrong in the first place.

Most of the religious or philosophical or poetic ideas were based on some pretty big assumptions. And they hadn't followed any sort of rigorous process to get to their conclusions. Most of them appeared to rely on just intuitions or emotions.

I am very much a scientist and engineer at heart. I have always been a highly analytical truth-seeker. As a scientist and engineer, I have been trained for it and I practice it every day. So, I needed something far more solid than what was already available.

I wanted to find honest, defensible answers to those questions, based on rigorous, stepwise analysis, all the way from the ground up. No shortcuts, no leaps of faith, no hand waving, no opinions, no popularity contests.

And if such a thing wasn't possible, I wanted to know that too. If there were limitations to what we can really know about reality, I wanted to understand them. If there were some domains where we could say definite things but some others where we couldn't, I wanted to understand the boundaries between them and the differences. I saw no point in just feeling warm and fuzzy by lying to myself.

In my book, it is perfectly fine to not know things, as long as you admit it to yourself and know why that was the case.

It was important for me to feel that I didn't just have the correct answers, but then go on to explain why those were the correct answers. Anything less seemed like selling myself short.

A tall order, to be sure. Scary even. But once it popped into my head, it became an obsession.

Answers, Entropy and Growth

It took quite a while to find and compile answers to these questions that could meet my criteria.

What surprised me was that pretty much everything I wanted already existed. Some of it was even widely known, while some things were somewhat obscure or too new. I had to add only a couple of pieces that were missing, organize everything systematically and apply what I would call the “engineering sensibility” to the whole collection to make everything fit nicely together and make sense together.

As I got deeper into it, I kept discovering even deeper insights. Things that previously looked fuzzy started to become clearer. New avenues kept opening up, which led to further clarity as well as further richness of understanding. I even discovered that I knew things I didn’t know I knew!

Towards the end of this exercise, I found myself becoming more and more peaceful. Like a storm inside my head had started subsiding, the sun had started to peek out of the clouds, and the birds had started chirping again.

Not only that, but there was an unexpected bonus.

This exercise didn’t just give me answers to my questions, but pointed towards a better, more authentic way of life.

Some of the popular quotes and parables that I had previously been taking for granted suddenly started making sense, while others lost their power over me.

Being an engineer, maybe I could describe the feeling as the entropy in my head subsiding and a new life-like growth taking its place. [ Keep that image in your mind. We will be talking about entropy and life a lot in this book. ]

The feeling was so nice that I felt I had to write it down and share it.

Long story short, the end result is this book, "An Engineer’s Search for Meaning".

As the meme at the beginning of the chapter says, I just had to write this book. I would have written it even if only for my own satisfaction. But by putting it out there, I am hoping it might appeal to others who think like me.

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