Where Does Meaning Come From?

Listen to your inner voice

Some people think discoveries come equipped with a clap of thunder. The “Eureka!” moment. 

In my experience none do.

The more common signal that something is about to be, or has been discovered is, “That’s funny” or “That’s interesting.”  Despite the notice, almost all of us pause briefly and then carry on.


Charles Goodyear accidentally combined rubber and sulfur on a hot stove. Did he say, “That’s odd.” or did he throw the result away as a mistake? A similar accident in Alexander Fleming’s lab lead to the production of penicillin. He too must have noticed something interesting. 3M corporation thought they had a bad result when they accidentally created the soft glue used in Post-It Notes. Atomic fission. Semi conductors.

Almost all drugs follow a bottom up approach. Someone observes something odd and works with it to make a commercial product.

The search for meaning

After observation of the curious, discovering meaning is the second step. Questions like,

  • How could I measure the effect,
  • How do I replicate the effect.
  • Is it linear or is there a critical size
  • What extraneous substances are there
  • How could I manufacture it

Meaning is much harder than observation and few people carry through on their oddity. You know the names of those who did.

Education does not help much

Education in the classic sense provides little value. The ability to observe an oddity and the inclination to follow up are not part of the normal education experience. Education is generally in the “because” form. Discovery and meaning are from the “why” and “why not” camp.

Education tells you why it won’t work and yet, there are few things that are impossible. Far fewer than people would have you believe. Charles Kettering reputedly assigned a difficult chemistry problem to an electrical engineer, and when asked why, he replied, “Because he doesn’t know what I have asked him to do is impossible.” The project succeeded.

Providing the tools to assess meaning

The tools fall under the idea of experienced education.

Travel is important because it gives you otherwise impossible viewing points. Senator Ben Sasse has suggested that no fish can understand water, because they have always and only been immersed in it. Similarly you cannot understand the problems in sub-Saharan Africa from the viewing point of a boutique bar in Soho.

More easily implemented is the travel experience of reading. You can travel everywhere in a good book. While not as sensuous as being there, it is a way to change your viewing point. Books can take you places your body cannot go. Jules Verne made an fine career out of science fiction. Star Wars is a documentary if you let it be.  Quite a lot to learn in it too.

Most meaning is hard to discern from a single viewing point. 


Reading and travel are tools to open the imagination and creativity doors in our mind. The doors should remain open for a lifetime. Help children to discover opportunities to learn. 

Use the “That’s odd, I wonder why that happens.” conversation on everything you can find. Children are instinctively curious and easily thrilled. Give them the experience.

Life is filled with wonders

Treat yourself to new experiences and insights. Don’t let your “because” education get in the way of your childlike “why not” wonder.

Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario.  In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.

Please be in touch if I can help you.  don@moneyfyi.com  866-285-7772

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