There is one book that since reading it, I’ve thought about more than any other.
It sounds awfully cliche to suggest that a book irrevocably ‘changed your life’ – but this one simply did.
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential pieces of literature of the 20th century.
Frankl was an Austrian Jew who practised neurology and psychiatry prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Between 1942 and 1945, Frankl was held in Concentration Camps across Europe, the last of which was Auschwitz.
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Man’s Search for Meaning is part memoir, part analysis, documenting his time in Auschwitz, but most of all, it is an exploration of the ultimate question, that today we seem to actively avoid; what is the meaning of life?
From start to finish, Man’s Search for Meaning was written in a total of nine days. It has sold more than 10 million copies, and has been translated into 24 different languages.
Frankl wrote, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for,” and deconstructed the existential crises experienced by prisoners inside Jewish camps.
His central argument is, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” and Frankl challenges every person to search for what makes their life meaningful. The ‘meaning’ does not innately exist – it is something that we, as human beings, create.
Frankl writes about the unimaginable torture of living in Auschwitz, and the realisation he came to, that even when everything is taken away from us; food, water, comfort, our family, our work and our basic human rights, we are still left with the "last of the human freedoms". That is, a choice. In Frankl's words, "to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
This is not a lesson isolated to the Holocaust, but is applicable to every single person who has ever lived, and particularly those who have found themselves emotionally tortured, directionless or depressed.
Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks said of Frankl, "his works are essential reading for those who seek to understand the human condition."
Since reading Man's Search for Meaning, I've seen it everywhere. Listening to Chris Martin on radio one morning, an interviewer asked him about his divorce from Gwyneth Paltrow. Usually a man of few words, Martin reflected that during one of the lowest times in his life, Man's Search For Meaning helped pull him out from the abyss.
Tony Robbins recommends that every single person read Frankl's book, and just yesterday as I listened to a podcast with the academic Esther Perel, she said that she's gifted Man's Search for Meaning more that any other book.
Indeed, I've given it to more friends and family than I can remember, especially when I sense that they're struggling.
The book will only take you a few hours to read. It will make you think. It will make you feel something. And it will give you an entirely new perspective.
And I've never spoken to anyone who doesn't agree that Frankl's book is one of the best ever written.
Here's an excerpt:
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”