Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 3

In the previous article, we established working definitions of survival, success, and significance, for the purpose of discussing their roles in our lives. With that taken care of, we now can explore how they compare to each other, how we prioritize them, and why some of our assumptions might need adjusting.

Significance Before Survival?

Instead of prioritizing survival, success, and significance, in that order, I believe we should start with significance, then deal with survival, and only then think about “success”. This is not at all obvious at first glance, but hopefully, you will come to understand what is so crucial about getting this order right, while you still have time to adjust.

You may think it is insane to prioritize significance over survival, after all, what good is significance to a dead man. You may protest, that all the significance in the world will not do a thing for you without food, water, air, shelter, and the sustenance of corporeal life. Furthermore, you might bemoan the whole premise, and think it is all much ado about nothing. So much fluff for the impractical and childish, to waste their time contemplating, while “real” people, shut up and get to work. You might declare that serious adults prioritize survival and success over significance, and move forward through obstacles, regardless of how they feel about them. You might think that, and I would not fault you for it. There was a time when I would have had that same dogged conviction. Then one day I realized how utterly wrong I was.

What you may not realize is that in numerous instances, your ability to survive the worst circumstances, is much more about the significance, i.e., the “why” for your survival, than the “how”.

Man’s Search for Meaning

The essential nature of significance is echoed by Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor. In his highly regarded book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl eloquently and hauntingly recounts his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. Victor found that above all else it was significance, it was meaning, that largely determined the survival of people in the camps, once other factors were essentially equal. It was his strong conviction, that many of his fellow prisoners died who otherwise might have lived, but for the lack of the significance, to keep them going.

Victor referred to this search for an inward sense of purpose, as the “will to meaning”. This formed the basis of his theory about the human experience, which he called “Logotherapy”.

“Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a "secondary rationalization" of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.” — Victor Frankl from the book “Man’s Search for Meaning”

These prisoners in the concentration camps, had lost everything external in life, that gave them a sense of who they were, and why they mattered. They had lost positions, prestige, property, and prosperity. Many had lost basic health and dignity. Adding insult to injury, most did not know if they would ever see loved ones again, or if their families and friends, were even still alive.

The body is just a shell without a reason for being. Without significance, you have nothing else to keep you going through the darkest days. We so often miss this fact because thankfully most people, ordinarily, are not in dire circumstances where their lives are constantly in danger of being snuffed out. That said, as with so many other areas of life, we typically can learn much more when things take a turn for the worst, than we learn on a sunny afternoon, when things are just swell.

Time and time again, you will hear survivors speaking about the importance of significance, in their own ways. People who have endured all kinds of trials and tribulations from abuse, to personal tragedies, wartime atrocities, depression, medical problems, you name it.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German Philosopher, said that “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.

I think there is much truth and wisdom in that quote from Nietzsche, and in the words of Victor Frankl. That said, like anything else in life, the devil is in the details.

So, your milage may vary.

Necessary but not Sufficient

It’s important that we view the role of significance, with nuance rather than in binary, black and white terms. We are not talking about a fantasy land, where merely having a sense of significance, will guarantee that things go your way. We are not saying that you will even survive to see another day, because of significance alone. Here it is crucial to understand the concept, of “necessary but not sufficient”.

Undoubtedly, there were many innocent souls suffering in the concentrations camps of Victor Frankl’s book, who also had a sense of meaning and significance, and yet still did not survive to see freedom again. There are countless individuals in any conflict, such as the 2022 war in Ukraine, who have all the meaning and significance in the world. Unfortunately, we will never know what mattered to them, and how special they really are. Far too many lives, will fade to black, before the dust settles on another chapter of human destruction. Many a man, woman, and child, will not live to tell us their harrowing tales, as Victor Frankl was so fortunate to have done. So, what should we make of that?

With a strong sense of significance, meaning and purpose, you can endure and accomplish what might otherwise be impossible. That said, significance does not ensure that you can always do the seemingly impossible. After all, we are not discussing silver bullets or snake oil solutions. What we do know, from research, from personal accounts, and from our own experiences of struggles large and small, is that without the “why” to endure, there is no “how” that can save you.

In the great challenges of life, significance may not be sufficient to prevail, but it may certainly be necessary to do your best. You might need to meet exceptional challenges not only with significance, but also with exceptional fortitude and abilities as well. The important point, is that sometimes, you may require the foundation of an unshakable sense of significance, to even believe you can keep going, and to employ your full capabilities, in the first place.

So, unquestionably, survival, success, and significance are all essential aspects of the human experience. What we can now begin to see, is the idea that significance is the extra side dish, the cherry on top of the ice cream, while survival and success are the meat and potatoes, is just wrong. Significance is the air and water you need to endure a shipwreck. Survival and success are the fruit you might find if you can make it to shore.

Whether you can or can’t survive, is the real life manifestation, of Alan Turing’s “halting problem”. It is computationally irreducible, as Stephen Wolfram would say. One cannot jump ahead in time to see the outcome, instead nature forces us to run the program, step by step.

If existence is nature’s computation, then significance is the will to run the computation bit by bit, to see whether the program called “survival”, continues without halting. If it runs, then you will see another sunrise.

Else, the code for our brief human experience, executes its final instruction.