Stephen Dubner

The Meaning of Life is Not The Right Question

Deep Thought contemplating the Big Question.

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a massive supercomputer called Deep Thought charged with the task of crunching all the known data and answering the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The computer reports it will take seven and a half million years of calculation, so, naturally, everyone waits. 

And seven and a half million years of calculation later, the computer spits out the answer: 42. The meaning of life is 42. 

What could have saved humanity seven and a half million years was asking a better question. Deep Thought claims it can't develop a better question but it could build a larger model to do the trick. Deep Thought calls this new supercomputer Earth. 

And although Earth hasn't quite yet answered the ultimate question of life, there are endless answers to other questions at our fingertips that were never there before. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, recently told John Brockman of Edge that the future of technology on Earth might rely more on asking the correct question than finding an answer. With the ubiquity of smartphones with search engines, answers are not in rare supply. What we need to determine is exactly what we're looking for. 

Economist and author Stephen Dubner bags this idea up in Think Like a Freak when he writes, "But if you ask the wrong, you are almost guaranteed to get the wrong answer." Much like how Dubner writes about the record-breaking performance and career of professional eater Takeru Kobayashi. Instead of asking himself "How do I eat more hot dogs?" at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Championship as the competition seemed to do, Kobayashi shifted perspective by answering "How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?". And he blew away the competition. Crowned the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Champion for the first time in 2001, doubling the then-current record of 25 1/8 hot dogs in 12 minutes by eating 50, Kobayashi went on to win for the next five years. 

Life is a matter of trajectory. Hot dogs might not be your style but discovering something specific offers an answer you can take action on. If you're lazy and general in your goals, you'll find nothing more than inaction and disappointment. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins jokes that if your goal is to "make more money" (which for tons of people it is), someone could just give you a dollar to go away. 

The meaning of life is not specific and it might never be. As Tim Ferriss breaks it down in The 4-Hour Work Week: "Until the question is clear - each term in it defined - there is no point in answering it. The "meaning" of "life" question is unanswerable without further elaboration." There are endless answers to the "meaning" of "life" not just for society as a whole, but throughout your life too. Do you think the meaning of life you nail down in your teenage years would make any sense now? And you've had to have heard the stories of hospice patients on their deathbeds regretting the time they wasted on work in place of more time with loved ones. It is a constant questioning process. You don't want a dollar and you don't want a single, crappy meaning. 

And so with the rest of our lives ahead of us, I beg you to ask better questions. If you're overwhelmed by the possibilities of the meaning of life, find the meaning of your life today. There is no guarantee you'll be around to answer it tomorrow and you can take action now. What are you waiting for?