From Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
Making Sense of Things
"[Alice]: 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?''That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where--' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
'--so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.
'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'"
Humans are sense-making machines. We're not necessarily good at it, though.
If the world around us is illegible, we often find ways to sort out that local chaos. This tendency can be quite nice. Making your bed or tidying up your room or organizing your thoughts -- each are useful in that they allow you to see your world more clearly.
But sometimes this "reshaping" of what is illegible can cause problems.
Imagine looking at yogurt under a microscope. If we aren't accustomed to such a granular inspection, things will not make sense. We may even experience ourselves trying to create a narrative for what we see. To the untrained eye, yogurt-under-the-microscope is a series of blobs that can't really be comprehended. But we know what yogurt looks like when not viewed through the microscope; it is legible to us at that level of zoom.
The same goes with our immediate, local environment. Any semblance of human-undecipherable local chaos gets reordered and reshaped into something legible. For things like making our bed or teasing out the logic in our arguments, this is useful. But when local chaos belongs to a larger system, reordering things can prevent us from more keenly observing what's really going on. This naive reordering might even harm the larger system (see: subprime mortgages, Salafism/Wahhabism, social justice warriordom, p-value hacking).
The Eternal Search for "Meaning"
Our tendency to want to make sense of things around us may also drive our need to find "Meaning", the Capital-W Why. This is where well-intentioned mental models (religion, science, philosophy, sports, startups) become dogmas. Their main utility was to give us a new way to navigate the world, but uncertainty makes us go batshit and so mental models quickly become comfortable, fixed, unchanging, universal directions. Like a Google Maps that only tells you how to get from point A to point B without showing the map itself (how annoying would that be?). The lazy directions-follower would be blind to any inconsistencies in the model that a map collector would quickly notice.
Professional gadfly Nassim Taleb recently gave a commencement speech at the American University of Beirut earlier this year. He began with the following provocative claim:
"For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions."
"Success" maneuvers can be very closely linked to "meaning-making" in that many people derive life-juice out of their pursuit. Externally-defined meaning, just like externally-defined success, are fragile directions-following. The longer you remain on that one righteous path, the more likely you are to get blindsided by some truth or inconsistency that throws you into an existential funk. At which point you may start baring your fangs.
As famous investors Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger have often alluded to, the perceived world unites through a latticework of mental models. The same subset of models that works in a given context may be the completely wrong one to use in the subsequent context. These are maps, and our job is to collect them, observe their machinery, and wisely apply them accordingly to our ever-changing circumstances. In the process, we may discover broader mental models that coalesce many smaller ones. Or not.
A Crude Map for Meaning-Making
From Kevin Simler's A Nihilist's Guide to Meaning:
"In lieu of meaning, I mostly adopted the attitude of Alan Watts. Existence, he says, is fundamentally playful. It's less like a journey, and more like a piece of music or a dance. And the point of dancing isn't to arrive at a particular spot on the floor; the point of dancing is simply to dance. Vonnegut expresses a similar sentiment when he says, 'We are here on Earth to fart around.'
This may be nihilism, but at least it's good-humored."
Notice how, at some point, the way you answer the initial question really doesn't matter because it ultimately leads to the same calculations of How or Why. The leaf nodes can independently produce the same output as each other -- a mission-driven Joker and a mission-driven Reverend may possess the same mental models and make similar conclusions along their journey.
The question of Meaning, then, doesn't really matter much unless you need one to keep moving (or need to know you don't need one). The key seems to be to keep moving.
As for myself, I definitely need meaning -- at this moment, I'm more drawn to exploring "The world is worth saving, but why?" When it's time to start a family, I may naturally migrate to the How, or even to the Void-Staring side of life. It is unclear at this point; lucky for me I've got all these crinkly, yellowing maps that I don't fully understand yet.