It's official: the meaning of life has been commodified

Born out of Google, the O Summit teaches that there's a methodical way to find your life's purpose - oh, and that you'll find it at work, says Paula Andropolous

08 October 2017 - 00:00 By Paula Andropoulos

The thought, embarrassingly banal, is nevertheless cleverly (or so I reassure myself) polysemic in my present situation. Superficially, I mean: why have I acquiesced to spend this Saturday morning in the middle of Centurion?
Further: why have I consented to expend this precious time in a densely populated lecture venue, at a short wooden desk, with a dour-faced, deep-sighing schoolboy for my neighbour?
But my rhetorical lament is curiously apt in relation to the content of the lecture I'm attending. What am I doing here, being, alive? What does - what can - the life of the individual human being mean? And from what, if from anything, can this meaning be extracted? I'm here, purportedly, to find out.
It's called the O Summit, and it's been organised by the O School, whose curriculum is apparently derived from lessons learnt at Google by the school's founder, Sameer Rawjee.
Before I leave work on Friday afternoon, I am sent a brief prospectus: "Inner Happiness and Rewiring", "The Transdisciplinary Career", and (at the heart of the matter) "Designing Your Life" all feature on the two-day programme.
A monk, a nutritionist and a man named Pluto will be making presentations. My curiosity is whetted - and so is my appetite for satire.
It goes without saying that human societies have always sought to impose meaning on the muddle of existence. Our capacity for self-reflection, for meaning-making, is fundamental; it would hardly be original for me to ruminate on that here. But the advent of the O Summit compelled me to attend far more closely to the stories by and through which we navigate existence.
The question is always the same: what - I blush as I write this - is the meaning of life? But the answer is always, and always will be, in flux. To attain to glory, said Homer. To serve and appease God, replied the Abrahamic religions. Duty and progress, said the Victorians.
In the period of human history in which we now find ourselves, a time of unprecedented connectivity, unprecedented wealth, profound loneliness and unabated poverty, how will we meet the need for meaning? As Samuel Beckett put it, "You're on earth. There's no cure for that." Now what?The O School, the brainchild of the young, charismatic Rawjee, evolved from a workshop he developed during the three years he spent working at Google, which applied his background in design to questions of growth, knowledge and, yes, meaning, in the context of the workplace.
"People were taking this class in droves," he told me when I spoke to him at the close of the summit on Sunday afternoon. He thinks as many as 10,000 "Googlers" across 50 countries signed up within six months.
"At the same time, I learnt about a class called Life Design - or Designing Your Life - at Stanford University. And I realised that there is actually a methodical way of going about all of this, finding purpose and meaning at work.
"It seemed to spark hope in people, because, I think, ultimately, we are all trying to realise why we are here. And work takes up so much of our lives, right?"
Right. I was, after all, in Centurion once again, on a Sunday afternoon, in a professional capacity - that is, for work.
For most of us, the notion of work is inextricable from the notion of living - the former begets the latter. Does it follow that if you find a way to pursue meaning in your money-making - or to make money from the pursuit of meaning - you can curtail your existential dread?NECESSARY FICTIONS
Something about the morning lecture - "Designing Your Life" - had made me profoundly sad. The situation seemed poignant and absurd: a motley assembly of mostly middle-aged South Africans with eager, upturned faces, playing ice-breakers in the spring heat; buying tickets to find meaning.
I'm drastically devaluing the content of the lecture, of course: it was interesting. But how can you blind yourself to the irony of taking what amount to spiritual cues from a multinational, multibillion-dollar corporation?While the O Summit is not a Google event, there's a connection to the tech giant: Rawjee is a former employee, the company still teaches the Life Design course he developed, a Google employee spoke at the summit and Google's resident monk was there.
How can we possibly hope to respond to the complexity and the caprice of life with formulaic - or "methodical" - stratagems? The same way we always have: with necessary fictions and the requisite prophets (or scientists, or theorists) to supply them.
I can't fully understand what I found so startling about the event. In part it was because there was something inadvertently dystopian about it, despite the organisers' best intentions.
"Immortality is a human aspiration," Rawjee posited in the course of his lecture. And there we all were, taking lessons on how to cope with being alive.
It's 2017. Google is our Godhead. We inject the DNA of 20-year-olds into the blood of the aging to see if it will stop them dying. And we have officially commodified meaning.
But when I raised these issues in a roundabout way with Rawjee, he offered me an intelligent and convincing counterpoint: that money and meaning are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We coexist with currency and capitalism; and the model that divorces meaning and fulfilment from the necessity of work is failing us. The fact that so many people, at least a hundred, attended the O Summit, testifies to the veracity of this insight.
But then, the ability to facilitate one's passions through one's profession is subject to privilege. "Inner Happiness and Rewiring" is extraneous to hunger and paucity.
Still, there is something to be said for resisting the existing narrative. There is something uplifting about the relentless tenacity of the human quest for better meanings. And I respect the principle that we do not have to be passive passengers on this journey - that we can, as it were, design our lives, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.IN CONVERSATION WITH SAMEER RAWJEE
On the name of O School
It came from this idea of the interconnectedness of all the disciplines - the idea that there's actually only one discipline. Disciplines are separated almost as arbitrarily as countries, you know?On the "Robin Hood" model
We need to rethink what business is. At O School, we sometimes talk about the Robin Hood model. This is high-quality education - people go to Stanford, and they spend $5,000 (R68,000) on a weekend programme. We can do the same thing for a tenth of the price, and at the same time use the money to benefit students who otherwise couldn't afford it... and this is what we're doing. Twenty percent of students at every programme are integrated as a part of this.
On work and meaning
Twenty years ago, if you got a job at a company that gave you free food, a gym membership, you wouldn't complain. But now, it's not enough. We're asking, is there more to the story? I have these skills, I have these curiosities, I have these values ... in my exterior life as a human, zero to almost 100 years on this planet, what am I really going to do with what I know? Did I really acquire this knowledge just to accrue as much wealth as possible? This seems like a limited interpretation of the human story.THE GOOGLE MONK
Gelong Thubten is a Buddhist monk with a decidedly contemporary edge.

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