Q&A: A Quest for Meaning and Purpose with Author and Scholar Stephanie Yu

By Raiden Huang

Life is a trip they say. I never really understood what that meant. When trying to make sense of it, I can reason how some things are what they’re said to be. But how does one know what’s true and what isn’t? If life’s a journey, then what’s the meaning of the trip?

Raiden Huang 

Stephanie Yu

Raiden: How does one find meaning? Is it assigned and created by the person themselves or is it discovered?  

Stephanie: You can approach that question from a few different ways. Some people adhere to the school of thought that meaning is made. Oftentimes when we talk about that form of meaning, we think of meaning as incoherence. “Do I understand what this means?” Or, “Do I understand why this happened,” and so forth. 

Whereas other times when we talk about meaning, we talk about it in a sense of purpose and wanting to have a meaningful life. A prevalent belief from that perspective is that meaning is discovered, that it is our duty and responsibility within our lifetime to pay attention and detect what it is that brings us meaning.

Viktor Frankl, the author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” talks about the will to meaning. What he describes as this life force that pushes you to find meaning in your life. Humans can be seen as pleasure-seeking animals and pain avoiding animals but Viktor puts forward this other idea of a will and drive to find meaning. Frankl would say meaning is discovered and that by looking around at our lives and paying attention to what’s happening in our lives, we can uncover what brings us meaning. Oftentimes, it can be multiple things that come together.

Similar to Frankl’s work, I think the first step is to tune into yourself. Observe and gather data about yourself. Ask yourself, how do you react during certain situations? What are you drawn towards? What are you intrinsically motivated to do? To find meaning, you can’t get someone to do the work for you. You must do the due diligence of putting in the time and effort to get to know yourself.

I’m all about making things concrete. A concrete thing for everyone is scheduling in quiet time. Time you are not on your phone, not connected, and not stimulated. It gives you the space to go within and daydream; to come to your own insights and understand your own self. If you’re constantly plugged into someone else’s reality, you spend almost no time inhabiting your own reality, your own body, and your own world. It’ll make it very hard to get to know yourself.

Raiden: What has your personal experience been like in the pursuit of finding meaning?  

Stephanie: During the time I was applying for university, I was very interested in pursuing arts. I was really into reading and writing. But to me, I felt a bachelor of commerce was more secure and I wasn’t into science. It was a matter of process of elimination. Looking back, a decision as important as that should not have been based on a random process of elimination. At that time, I didn’t know better. Taking a gap year was out of the question. That was something my parents wouldn’t understand. It felt so out of character because I wasn’t someone that tended to deviate. I always wanted to fit the norm and be a good girl. I wanted to get those pats on the head. I went to Sauder and I really enjoyed my year. I did well and I loved all my professors. I made lots of friends and I didn’t hate my experience, I actually loved it. But beyond that, none of the material was really resonating with me. It wasn’t anything I felt intrinsically motivated to study. It was all for this external reason for getting a degree. With that said, I still would have happily plotted along that path until who knows when.

What took me off that path and woke me up was my accident in Thailand. After my first year, I got an internship at a hotel in Hong Kong for a marketing position. That summer I was going to be in Asia anyway, I thought I’d take a pit stop in Thailand before the internship. I planned to stay for three weeks and in that last week there, I got into a really bad cycling accident. I was on gravel and I went around a really tight corner. The bike started skidding out and I hit this traffic cone. The impact of it sent me flying into a ditch on the side of the road. 

In the ditch were these rebar poles sticking out and one of them impaled my upper thigh. It pushed up all the skin, fascia, and tissue basically gauging my upper thigh. I had to go to the hospital and they had to operate immediately. Long story short, I had to stay in the hospital for a few weeks. They wouldn’t let me fly because they were worried it’d get infected so I missed my internship.

There was a period where I was on bed rest and I just laid down, being present with my thoughts. That was actually the first time in my life I pressed pause and thought about what I was doing. Up until then, I never stopped to think about why I was doing what I was doing. I was very lucky with the accident because the next consecutive pole over just missed the top of my helmet. Realistically, a few inches more and that pole could have gone through my head and I would’ve been dead on site.

I’m so grateful for this second chance at life. After that, I couldn’t just squander this opportunity. Having an accident so profound, I couldn’t just go back to my life unchanged. It changed me in such a meaningful way. 

I didn’t want to spend the next three years of my life working towards a degree I wasn’t very interested in. One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is to think about what the people at the end of the path you are walking on are doing. How are they living their life and do you like the life they are living? For instance, going to business school is similar to walking down the path of the business executives, the CEOS, and high-level consultants. For me, I was like gosh, I don’t want that life. Why am I walking this path if I don’t want to get to those destinations?

Long story short, I decided to take a gap year which turned into five years. In that time, I was blogging, traveling, doing social media, and very accidentally stumbled upon an alternative way to make some money and fund my travels. When I came back home, it turned more into a career. Ultimately, it wasn’t a career that came naturally to me. It wasn’t something I was intrinsically motivated to do. If there was nobody else following me or no other external validation for doing what I did, would I still do it? No. I wouldn’t have gone through that process and some people do. Some people would. Some people love that creative process of styling food, taking photos, finding music, and piecing it together. I enjoy it, but it’s not my default state. My default state is being a nerd. Reading, writing, researching, and talking. I love the grind of being studious and dilIgent; the process of putting your head down and learning more about the world. That’s really my default state, that kind of curious knowledge seeker. So, I went back to UBC for psychology, and here I am. 

Raiden: What does traveling the world in a gap year do for people? Is it necessary? 

Steph: I definitely don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think you need to take a gap year to travel or take one at all. It’s not so much of going through the motions to see the world as much as it is taking yourself away from your location and home. Therefore, you are forced to explore and experience yourself in a different environment. It was so powerful because by physically removing myself from Vancouver, I was able to reinvent myself. I was able to leave behind all the expectations that built up in Vancouver. I was able to explore with no boundaries. When you are constantly around people that know you, it’s hard to think of yourself in a different way. Traveling can help facilitate that process of discovering yourself and learning more about the world from a different perspective. 

Raiden: How has your outlook on life changed since being given a second chance to live?  

Steph: Ever since that accident, it has gone through a few renditions. Immediate differences are being so overwhelming gratefully for all the little things that make your life what it is. Having a new appreciation for the ability to just experience life. So many of the things I cared about before just didn’t matter as much to me. All that really matters is the people that you love and that the people that love you. The ability to walk and experience life anew is a wonderful gift. The ability to rediscover the magic of walking, going for a jog, or to stand up alone unsupported gave me a lot more appreciation and gratitude. To be fair, it’s really hard to sustain that perspective long-term. Inevitably we sink back into our old patterns and that perspective we’ve had prior. I go through ebbs and flows and there’s time I don’t occupy that mindset. There are times I don’t remember to be grateful. I’m not perfect but I’m working on it. That accident helped accelerate the process of getting there. 

Raiden: Within those four hospital walls going through a near-death experience, what do you realize actually matters?

Stephanie: There’s something called counterfactual thinking. It’s the “what if” factor. For me, the counterfactual of such a worse outcome was so salient to me. The fact I could’ve died was such a clear possibility. The only logical response I could have was gratitude because I didn’t experience that worst outcome. It made feeling gratitude so much easier. 

I remember waking up after the operation. One of my friends was there and I saw a few other friends around me. I just started crying or maybe even laughing. At that moment, the fact that I was alive and could still experience life was everything to me. That’s all I ever clung to. At that point, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to work. I didn’t know what was going to happen to my leg or what the recovery was going to look like. What mattered to me at that moment wasn’t the physical body, it was more so being there, still getting to experience the journey of life.

Raiden: Sometimes deep down I don’t really feel it. I want to feel grateful for everything but it makes it all seem a little fake. How does one get to a point where they fully feel gratitude at its peak?

Stephanie: Brené Brown says gratitude is not about having an attitude of gratitude. You can have an attitude of gratitude but it’s not going to get you anywhere. You have to have a physical practice that can be done every day. It can be as simple as writing down three things you are grateful for. You just need a ritual that helps put it into practice.

I get what you mean when you say sometimes it doesn’t feel genuine because you’re saying things to say things. When I’m in that mind space of feeling like there’s nothing to be grateful for, it may be because I’m feeling petty, frustrated, or snappy that day. If I’m honest with myself there’s always something to be grateful for. Even if it’s just this next breath, there is always some reason you can find to be grateful for. The practice of searching for something to be grateful every day eventually becomes second nature. 

You begin to constantly move through the world trying to find the good in every situation. Whether it’s a good, neutral, or bad situation, that practice strengthens the muscle of being able to extract the good from anything. That’s a superpower because you can go through life unphased by what it throws at you. There’s always some sort of redeeming quality in any experience that you have. 

However, there’s also a difference between blind optimism which isn’t constructive or useful. Some people may disagree. But to see reality as it is and yet extract good from what is going on is a really productive practice and mindset. 

Raiden: Is there a time and place to be a pessimist? What about being an optimistic realist? 

Stephanie: I would say I’m always an optimist realist, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong time. Stoicism really encapsulates my perspective. It’s this idea where you’re not the glass is always half full person because sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, it’s half-empty and the situation is bleak. In those situations, you can say at least I have a cup. Although the glass is half empty, at least I have a cup. I don’t like to pretend, I don’t like to pull the wool over my eyes and be blindly optimistic. Face the truth and live in the truth. That way, things don’t sucker-punch you out of nowhere. See the truth and try to extract the good out of that truth. Find the gratitude or the opportunity to be grateful in any situation, even if it’s a dire situation. 

Raiden: So how does one move past mass tragedy? 

Stephanie: It’s harder than just saying move on or it was god’s plan because those remarks almost negate what happened. David Kessler does research in grief. He studied under Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who came up with the stages of grief. He adds this last stage of finding meaning in that grief. To him, meaning may be a natural way to conclude that process of accepting that grief; to integrate that grief and propel you into this new chapter of your story and life. For him meaning is an extension of grief. The endpoint after accepting the tragedy is to create and find meaning through that. It sees grief, not as an ending of meaning but a continuation of it. It’s just an extension of the story you are living in. If you can handle grief well, it’s not something that defeats you. The meaning doesn’t become a burden. The meaning will propel you. 

Meaning doesn’t become productive when we aren’t living in the truth of the situation. When we hold onto something that isn’t genuine or holding onto an expectation that isn’t authentic to ourselves, it becomes this fictitious meaning of what people expect of you. True meaning is something that imprisons you in a certain paradigm. 

Raiden: If one creates and assigns meaning to various aspects in life, then you must also be also to disassociate meaning with whatever you assign it to. In order to navigate and carry on with life, are there tangibles one can integrate to have an advantage through life?   

Stephanie: If you look at Victor Frankl and his model of finding meaning, I suggest finding meaning elsewhere. Replace whatever it is. Social media and biking were a big part of my life, it was something I drew meaning and identity in. Going into psychology, I didn’t particularly draw meaning out, I just pivoted. I did something I found more purposeful. If it’s family and relationships you find meaningful, it’s hard to simply neglect it. Some things are inherently meaningful to most of us. There are periods we go through where we put greater emphasis on certain things. There are times where we neglect certain things that are meaningful to us because we are in a different chapter in our lives. From personal experience, meaning is not something that can be removed. It’s something that can be shifted and redirected towards something else.

Raiden: How does redirecting your energy unveil what matters to you?

Stephanie: The proof is in the pudding. It’s in what you’re doing every day. It’s the effort you are putting into what things. That all translates into what you’re finding meaning in. All my time and energy are directed towards research and hopefully getting into graduate school. So I think that’s a great way to express what I find meaning in and what I find purposeful. All these sacrifices are proof of what I find meaning in. 

Raiden: In the pursuit of finding purpose and meaning, how should we view the unknown along the process?

Stephanie: It’s really important to just be comfortable with uncertainty. To be able to withstand it and live within it. Even in time, embrace it and seek it. There’s something beautiful about being in the state of not knowing. It’s like this tension of existing in this dual state in a way. It really pushes you to be able to think in broader terms and take contradictory information. It teaches you to not to wrestle with the contradiction nor rush to get rid of it. It teaches you to sit in it. It’s a subtle art that’s lost on many of us. In ancient traditions, there is so much uncertainty that is embedded into those ancient texts. If we look at Judaism and the old testament, there’s a chapter about an old king talking about meaning and meaninglessness. The theme of it was contradiction, paradox, and uncertainty. It was so prevalent in the ancient text but today that uncertainty is really lost. We are in a generation where we don’t have to be uncertain because knowledge is always at our fingertips. You don’t know something, you google it. There’s always a way of gaining this hit of knowledge that gives you an illusion of understanding, an illusion of wisdom. In reality, real knowing is to be able to wrestle with these questions. It’s to be able to come to your own conclusions while learning from research and data through continually questioning it. 

As we put together the pieces, it’s apparent we never knew what was to come. We just thought we did, silly humans.

 When will we finally learn?

 Together, let’s let go of our need of having to know it all. Decide for yourself what is true and what is not. 

At last, I believe the only truths in the world are the ones we choose to share.

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