What gives life meaning? What makes it an adventure?
Is it in the turning points and moments of energy?
- The day you met your spouse…
- The moment your eyes were first opened to the possibility of your dream career…
- The awful afternoon when you got the call — and you woke up to the frailty of life and vowed to do something about it…
Or is it nested inside the everyday?
- The day-to-day conversations…
- The daily grind on a project you care about…
- The chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning for those you love — week in and week out…
Which matters more? Can only one sustain you? Or is there a line in the sand where this just isn’t enough?
Novelty & Meaningful Responsibility
Novelty introduces sparks of intrigue, unexpected brilliance, and serendipitous connections. It revitalizes things.
Embracing Novelty is the means by which you’re expanded, by which you’re able to become more than you are. It’s the cornerstone of adaptability and growth. Without it, the substance of life becomes stale and empty.
Taking on Meaningful Responsibility, on the other hand, opens the doors to legacy, impact — building something that stands and that is good.
Responsibility-taking is what happens when you decide that something is valuable or worthwhile — and you opt to surrender everything else to it in order of priority. When you do that, something kind of magical happens: by committing to prioritize this one thing, it blossoms in ways it never would otherwise.
It turns out Novelty & Responsibility each play a role in building a life of meaning…
Why does embracing novelty serve as a pillar for a meaningful life?
Because your life is incomplete.
You need to become more than you are.
Novelty is the guide that takes you there. It shows you that there’s more that’s good that’s beyond you (which is exciting!).
And why responsibility?
Because promises unfulfilled are empty. And that’s what novelty is: a promise.
Meaning requires substance.
The act of shouldering responsibility (making a value-based commitment) provides that substance.
At the same time, however, too much of the same thing will cause that thing to start to rot. Novelty is what refreshes it and brings it back to life.
It’s a never-ending cycle:
Meaningful Responsibility provides the substance. Novelty takes that substance and makes it more, makes it alive again.
It also turns out that you’ve been hardwired to benefit from this cycle: Positive emotion and wellbeing follow when you engage appropriately with both Novelty & Responsibility.
How It Works In Your Brain (Roughly)
Novelty — the unexpected, or improvisational play — plugs into your dopaminergic system. When something unexpected or out-of-the-ordinary occurs, as long as it doesn’t feel threatening, your brain perks up and says “hey, there might be something really great (potentially rewarding) over here! Let’s go check it out…”
The neurochemistry of novelty hooks you. It prompts initial action.
Meaningful Responsibility — or selective committed action — taps into the positive emotion circuitry of intrinsic motivation (i.e. being aligned with your values). It also creates an environment in which you’ll get a reliable source of the primo chemicals for a wholistic emotional experience — a constant drip of the good stuff.
Responsibility taps into a wider and more sustaining set of neurochemicals, but with a caveat…
It doesn’t kick in very strongly until you’ve actually begun to make worthwhile progress.
Novelty’s contribution to positive emotion is short-lived. It’s the promise of something with potential — which feels good, but only for a little while. It’s a great way to get going; it just won’t sustain you.
Responsibility’s role in positive emotion is weaker at the beginning, but then blossoms with your ongoing investment.
Between the two, they reinforce your forward motion at every stage. It’s as though they’re conspiring together to keep you doing what you need to do to make the world a better place — and as you do so, they reward you with an ongoing, fulfilling internal state.
But what happens when you lean too heavily on one characteristic over the other? What happens when you operate purely in a state of embracing novelty? Or what happens when you purely follow a path of meaningful responsibility?
At an extreme, the pure pursuit of meaningful responsibility fails.
Let’s pretend that you know how to go all-in on things. When everyone else quits because the price is higher than they’re willing to pay, you double-down because you understand the ROI of committed investment.
That’s necessary and good.
It can also be taken too far…
You might become so invested in something that you end up digging everywhere except in the exact place you need to dig. Without an adaptable and wide perspective, the best elements of the object of your attention can remain hidden from sight and never flourish in the way you so desperately want it to.
While you may want the best outcome, pure responsibility-taking blinds you to important and unexpected pieces of the puzzle, leaving the situation to become dried up if it’s not revitalized.
At the other extreme, a pure state of novelty-embracing also fails.
Let’s pretend you’re queen when it comes to recognizing opportunity and possibility. When everyone else overlooks the value in something, you see treasure glittering from under the grime.
That’s necessary and good.
It also can be taken too far…
Each promise pursued will leave you empty when abandoned for another new promise. The whole point of the promise is that there’s something of value there when you dig into it and commit to unearthing its value.
It’s one thing to recognize the value where others miss it. It’s another thing entirely to successfully unearth that value and see it blossom.
Every Strength Overplayed (Becomes A Weakness)
Novelty-embracing & responsibility-taking work best when intertwined.
Each is strong on its own — but like a braided rope, Novelty & Responsibility are able to bear immensely more weight when harmonized together in a unified effort.
Each makes up for the other’s weakness and fortifies the other one.
Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.
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