Nothing can ever come out of nothing. Apply this truth to writing and we all understand that a book is the product of its time and its writing draws on everything that has gone before it that makes books and writing possible.
Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully is no exception. Indeed, in the very preface of it, on the page where I describe the book, I mention specifically that “Nothing is truly original, … everything is borrowed from somewhere else and made to fit the moment and its time.” This is not the same as saying that everything is derivative however. Thoughts and ideas have context and the context defines their meaning. We have all known how to live a meaningful life since the 3rd century BC and the Stoics but in the 21st century it’s taken a global credit crunch, a pandemic and now, a war to de-couple us from our consumer-as-usual mode and alert us to the fact that far-flung events truly affect us, the choices we make from one moment to the next accumulate and become our life, and that nothing we experience from this moment on will be a return to the ‘normal’ we left behind the time stamp of each of these significant events.
As a matter of fact, each of these events, can be seen as a portent, warning us that things were about to change. Collectively they make a pretty convincing case that the change we felt coming is now upon us. The inflection point, behind us.
“Intentional” began as the seed of an idea while I was still writing The Sniper Mind. Chances are that it would most probably have remained a seed had not the pandemic come along. It was clear to me, then, that as the external world span out of our control and as were stripped from most of the guardrails society puts in place to guide our behavior and channel our mental and physical resources, we would be forced to become more conscious of who we are, what we want and what we have to do.
Nothing Comes From Nothing
Nature abhors a vacuum. This means that nothing can come out of nothing which is a fancy way of saying that everything we feel, think, understand and do comes from somewhere. What is true of thoughts and ideas is also true of books and movies which are basically vehicles for thoughts and ideas.
Something as sallow as “Wanted” for instance (see what I mean in the trailer below) that’s designed to entertain is still rooted in reality otherwise we would be unable to accept its premise long enough to suspend our disbelief and believe in its storyline. Reality, in the “Wanted” universe is grounded in what we know and what we feel interspersed by “what if” moments that make us feel entertained, but can also make us think.
What is the meaning of our life? What is our purpose?
Sure, we don’t truly go to a film like that expecting to trigger deep thoughts. Regardless, deep thoughts are there to be experienced. Neuroscience explains why. Narrative is a mechanism our brain uses to make sense of the world. We need the world to make sense so that we can better understand the internal logic that runs it. When we understand that logic we are better positioned to predict what will happen next. Without the capacity to predict the next moment as accurately as possible we find survival difficult.
So narrative is the mental device we use to achieve all that. In order to better prepare us for what may happen in a world whose external forces we do not control, our brain runs “what if” scenarios. “What if” scenarios however only drive home how little we know, how much uncertainty bedogs our every decision and how potentially hostile the external world can be.
If we truly quantify all this and feel it we get anxious. Anxiety induces a lot of stress and not of the good kind. Unresolved, background stress raises our cortisol levels, affects our immune system, depresses higher executive function and shortens our lifespan. In other words, running “what if” scenarios in order to better prepare ourselves to survive unexpected events we may encounter only achieves the opposite.
Narrative Saves Our Life And Safeguards Our Mental Health
The solution to that conundrum is provided by narrative. Huddled around ancient campfires, long before we could write or even be capable of higher, abstract thought, we shared stories. The stories we shared allowed us to safely remove the anxiety associated with our various propositions of how the world works. In the relative safety of companions we knew and trusted and in places where we could relax, we used narrative to internalize culture, shape values and reinforce beliefs.
All of which brings me to “Intentional”. In examining how we behave, what makes us and how we can better control the forces that drive us I pulled from popular culture, literature, books, novels and films over a span of nearly 150 years.
Dozens of films and books across a 150-year span of popular culture are referenced in "Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully". Explore this in more detail with this larger image, here.
As it turned out I’d seen or read all of them with the exception of Claus von Clausewitz’s book “On War” and an Almanac from 1874 which is the earliest work I reference. As the diagram above makes clear, “Intentional” is a synthesis of many other ideas, thought and concepts, each of them explored individually, some in-depth and others not so much, and now brought together in a whole that’s designed to give you a much bigger picture of how the world works.
In that regard it does nothing that a campfire tale wouldn’t have done 400,000 years ago. It is backed by 159 scientific studies that are referenced in the bibliography which stretches to almost fifteen pages. It pulls together the latest in scientific thought from the fields of neuroscience, sociology and social psychology. But it’s still a tale of thoughts and ideas that allow you to feel you can better control yourself and reduce the amount of control the external world exerts on you.