how to put the awe into awesome



“TGIF — Thank God I’m Fabulous
— unknown

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain

All over the web, it seems, there is a call to Be Awesome.

(One of the most recent is Johnny Truant’s new free ebook HOW TO BE LEGENDARY — perhaps using the word ‘legendary’ because ‘awesome’ has been pummeled to death — and it’s good. You should read it.)

What does it actually mean, to be awesome?

To inspire awe.

And my favorite definition of ‘awe’ is Jane McGonigal’s, from REALITY IS BROKEN:

“Awe is what we feel when we recognize that we’re in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. It’s closely linked with feelings of spirituality, love, and gratitude – and more importantly, a desire to serve.”

When we talk about being awesome – at least online – we talk in terms of kicking ass and dominating the world. What we’re often missing is this whole other dimension that McGonigal is referring to – ‘the presence of something bigger than ourselves’.

She’s talking about meaning.

Meaning is about making a difference, about doing something that actually matters, that has resonance in the world beyond our own little lives.

Meaning is about connecting our daily actions to “something bigger than ourselves”.

Our culture doesn’t really encourage this: everything starts and ends with the power of the individual to buy something. But the self, as Martin Seligman points out, “is a very poor site for meaning.” What actually makes us feel fulfilled isn’t shopping for another pair of boots (although that has its place) but those moments when we can get over our own damn selves, and hook into something so major that it humbles us in the best possible way.

“Our ability to feel awe,” writes McGonigal,

in the form of chills, goose bumps or choking up serves as a kind of emotional radar for detecting meaningful activity. Whenever we feel awe, we know we’ve found a potential source of meaning. We’ve discovered a real opportunity to be of service, to band together, to contribute to a larger cause.”

In the book GREAT BY CHOICE, Jim Collins refers to “level 5 ambition”. While analyzing the characters of some of the most awesome leaders in business – called 10xers because they’ve achieved 10 times the results as their competitors — Collins and his team discovered them to be, as he politely puts it, “somewhat extreme”. Despite the image we have of the swashbuckling charismatic entrepreneur – Richard Branson, for example – these 10xers emerged as

“paranoid, contrarian, independent, obsessed, monomaniacal, exhausting, and so forth….We labeled them PNFs, short for ‘paranoid neurotic freaks.’”

And yet, if this was all they were – weird, selfish, antisocial, etc. – they probably could not have built such impressive organizations. So Collins asks the very reasonable question: Why do people follow them? And then he answers:

“Because of a deeply attractive form of ambition: [they] channel their ego and intensity into something larger and more enduring than themselves. They’re ambitious, to be sure, but for a purpose beyond themselves, be it building a great company, changing the world, or achieving some great object that’s ultimately not about them.”

We hunger for purpose and meaning. We follow those who can hook us up. This also might explain why cause marketing is on the rise. The consumer doesn’t just buy a chocolate bar or a pair of shoes, but becomes part of a larger story in which she is helping the physical and social environment or enabling children in a third-world country to go to school.

It’s story that takes a bunch of facts and makes meaning out of them. In the case of cause marketing, story creates a context around the product that imbues it, and the action of buying it, with a sense of significance.

When we get it, we like to spread it around. Awe is contagious. A study at the University of Pennsylvania attempted to decode word-of-mouth by investigating what motivates readers of the New York Times to email articles to friends. Through an examination of the articles that were emailed the most, the primary finding was this:

people pass on the stories that inspire in the reader a feeling of awe.

In this case, awe gets defined as the “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Stories that trigger it have two important dimensions: 1) their scale is epic, and 2) they require “mental accommodation”, meaning they force the reader to somehow alter their view of the world.

Awe broadens your perspective.

It shifts your personal paradigm.

In her book GENERATION ME, Jean M Twenge argues that the youngest generations today are “more miserable than ever before” because of our culture’s heavy emphasis on self-esteem and self-fulfillment. We try to make ourselves happy alone. But true happiness – as psychologists, philosophers and spiritual leaders have demonstrated through the ages – comes from making and fulfilling commitments to others. We want to be recognized for the impact we have. The legacy we leave. We want to know that our lives actually meant something.

The ability to be awesome, then, isn’t about – or just about — kicking ass or being a badass – but the ability to unlock meaning and connect to something bigger.

What awesome forces are at play in your own life?

How are you awesome?

photo credit: lighthack via photo pin cc

Sep 6, 2012

6 comments · Add Yours

I love the idea that facts alone aren’t meaningful, that a story needs to emerge. Also, as someone who spent the last eighteen or so months being needfully selfish, I get this. You reach a certain critical mass of self-care and look around and say, okay, it’s time to go beyond this; this lacks something.


Having just finished my first book (a children’s storybook) it really has made me realize there are bigger things than just dominating (or trying to anyways) my market, just imagining the smiles on kids faces as this book is read to them means more to me than how much money the book makes, I did not write it for the money, I just want to be read and known.
I am awesome in the people who surround me, my family my friends both online and offline, you included. Without these people in my life I would not have achieved the successes in my life.


I like these posts that talk about “meaning,” thank you.

I believe what J McG says about awe: “Whenever we feel awe, we know we’ve found a potential source of meaning.”

Yes, good clue. And very likely there is some element of feeling a call to something larger than one’s own self, even if it’s only to witness that there *is* something larger than one’s self.

In your previous post (and thank you for the gift of sharing such an intimate memory), you wrote “the meaning of the story lies in the transformation of the character. I can lovingly carry my son’s death inside me because of the meaning I fought to make of it, how I chose to weave it though the narrative of my life.

Here, you had to fight to make meaning. The easy case is when we feel awe, it’s just there, in all its glory: the valiant sacrifice, the beautiful mountain vista, the soaring music.

But something that is only pain, only sorrow, only loss, or perhaps only failure, only random chance, or only boredom — can we assign meaning to these as well?

Maybe events need to be epic, before they can have meaning.

I’m struggling here. I think with something having to do with whether meaning is fought for, or whether meaning simply manifests under the right conditions. And whether one could deliberately construct a “more meaningful life” by finding meaning in one’s ordinary life. Would that entail reframing one’s life as a story, maybe? Here the villain confronting, there the B-story emerging? That moment long ago that was maybe answering The Call to Adventure? Would it be a true story? Would it matter if it was not?

Sorry, meandering thoughts; I should go to sleep.


@Susan Kelly A person transforms when she undergoes a shift in perspective, when she sees things in a new way. Could be small (short story) or big (novel). I’m not sure meaning ever just so neatly hands itself over — notice how McGonigal said awe is a sign we’re in the *presence* of meaning — it’s up to the individual to interpret what that meaning actually is, how it applies to her particular life. As for reframing one’s life as a story — your life *already* is a story. We can’t help but think in stories, that’s how we’re wired. We’re wired for narrative. The question is what kind of story you’re telling. How you frame your past influences your actions in the present which shapes your future. (there’s actually something called “narrative therapy”). So, again, meaning is something that is presented to you in the shape of raw material, what you have to work with, but you still need to make it into something, to process it into your life. (I see a soaring vista, so what? Do I forget it a moment later or do I adjust my perception of myself in the world?) To me, meaning is also something that emerges over time, depending on the actions you take, how your life unfolds. So I can see my son’s death from a perspective of ten years on and see how it impacted my life, but I also know that I “fought for it” — I took certain actions *because* I wanted his death to have meaning in my life. That’s how I see it, anyway, am interested in your thoughts.


Narrative therapy! That’s what I need! I have a hard, hard time with constructing plot, although I am excellent at characterization. This is true in both my writing and my life.

So we’re talking about three things: the presence of awe, attachment to something larger, and transformation of character/viewpoint.

The first is the presence of awe. Yes, the presence of it only, the *possibility* for transformation; it’s not a given. Thank you for illuminating that.

The second is, attachment to, or perhaps communion with, something larger. “The self is a very poor site for meaning,” as you’ve quoted Martin Seligman above. Maybe the presence of something larger is necessary because it provides a context for the story that is your life. A single life is unmoored without reference to something larger; it’s a story with no theme and no archetypes. Plot points usually come in the form of “something larger,” no? Our hero (ourselves) must choose, and the choice would be dead boring (and pointless) if it was something equivalent to, hmmm, the red boots or the blue boots?

The third is transformation. If it happens, that signifies you have apprehended “the meaning” of what is, or what has happened. In the Hero’s Journey, Campbell says the hero who has had a successful quest brings back a boon. I don’t think that’s a boon that affects only one’s self.

After thinking about this, it seems to me that the “meaning of meaning” IS the communion with something larger. We look for meaning because we want to transform in order to feel part of “something larger.” That’s what we are driven to do, in life and in story. It is the point of narrative.

This. –> How you frame your past influences your actions in the present which shapes your future.

A continual process, like changing the focal length on a camera, until your life “comes into focus,” becomes a coherent narrative. Over time, as you say. I love this.

Thanks for this discussion, Justine.

Here’s how not to do it:

“Kip Litton is a dentist in Michigan who created a portrait of himself online as an accomplished marathon runner and dedicated father, an athlete raising money to support his son’s fight against cystic fibrosis. However, with the help of the running community and a lengthy profile by Mark Singer in the The New Yorker, it was revealed that almost everything Litton said was a lie.”

” ‘Somewhere in the story, there’s a very short penis,’ says Singer. . . . ‘Litton was operating out of some deep well of insecurity and had a need for self-aggrandizement and to place himself in the center of a heroic narrative.’ ” [National Post]


@Susan Kelly Awesome breakdown of my post + comment, thank you.

Story gives meaning to the facts, but the facts are still facts! It’s about shifting the interpretation of the truth, not the actual truth….


Add your comment