I’ve recently flipped through my copy of The Daily Stoic and came across this quote:
“Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.”
– Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 12.5
In essence what Seneca writes is, that we need a direction in life, so that what we do every day makes sense to us.
To understand why that is the case, we can have a quick look at what it feels like to have no clear direction.
The Lack of Direction
If you do not have a direction or a purpose in life, it usually feels like you are bored and unsatisfied without being able to tell exactly why that is. In some cases it can feel like everything is boring. In others it can feel like you are overwhelmed or lost. This feeling isn’t always there. It mostly surfaces when we are alone with ourselves in silence with nothing to do. In these increasingly rare moments, we can feel a latent and deep feeling of directionlessness and nihilism.
Where does this come from?
It comes from the lack of a direction in life, or more specifically from a lack of certainty that your day to day actions contribute to something that feels important to you.
Without the certainty that what you do matters because it contributes to something meaningful, not many things will seem worth doing.
As theoretical as this sounds so far, this void of direction also has practical negative consequences:
You won’t know what is more important than something else in the long term. You will feel like you “have to do” many things that you wouldn’t “want to do, if you had the choice.” You won’t feel a steady sense of progression and reward that comes as a byproduct of the pursuit of something meaningful.
In that sense, you’ll work against yourself.
The Meaning in Direction
Now, many people “solve” this feeling by overriding it mostly with one of two things: Discipline and Pleasure.
Both of these tactics don’t solve the core problem and won’t be sustainable. Sure, you can deploy the power of discipline to force yourself to do the things you don’t feel like doing. You can also avoid the uncomfortable feeling of directionlessness by drowning your conscience in shallow pleasures like Netflix, gaming or partying. Yet, you’ll still have this nagging feeling of doubt and uncertainty that you can’t seem to escape.
So, what is the alternative?
The alternative is to orient yourself towards an ideal which gives your life a direction.
This is also the precursor of prioritizing. A direction helps you determine what to say no to and what to say yes to. It helps to determine what you value, what is important and what can and should be ignored.
Direction gives order to chaos.
Once you pursue an ideal and orient yourself towards it, you have a high likelihood of feeling a constant sense of progression – which can be rewarding in itself.
Ultimately, you could orient your whole life – instead of single actions – towards an ideal and give it direction.
This gives everything meaning.
That way you won’t feel lost, uncertain or doubtful.
Instead you’ll feel an increasing sense of clarity and purpose.