05.19.13

Donald Miller, Christian Iconoclast

Bestselling author Donald Miller on the struggle to find meaning in life—and why we must not confuse meaning with success. An interview with Joshua DuBois.

Donald Miller is one of the last great Christian iconoclasts. After growing up in a fundamentalist household in Pearland, Texas, Miller broke free from empty orthodoxy and discovered his true faith while a student at ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland. This journey was recorded in Miller’s 2003 bestseller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, a memoir that sent shock waves through the Christian world. “Blue Like Jazz” developed such a fan base that its readers crowd-funded more than $300,000 to turn the book into an independent film. “Jazz” and Miller’s followup works, including “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,” have helped a new generation of evangelicals define themselves, with hundreds of thousands of fans joining Miller to embrace the title “follower of Jesus,” rather than simply “Christian.”

Miller now has a new project called Storyline, which promises to help people get beyond empty success to “live a better story.” I asked him via email about Storyline, his next book, and what his search for meaning is all about. (Our exchange has been very slightly edited.)

Q: Don, you’re a bestselling author with a huge following, but you stopped traditional writing to work on Storyline. Why?

A: I started Storyline after I’d accomplished all my goals and still wasn’t happy. I’d become a New York Times bestselling author, which was my goal from high school, and yet I was less happy after accomplishing my goals than I was before. So I began researching what really makes people happy and content. I found that it has nothing to do with fame or money and everything to do with the health of our relationships and our interest in our own work. Serving people rather than trying to impress them is the foundation. So I created a life plan for myself, then shared it with others and found that it helped them heal and recover from a life of pursuing success. Now I consider it my life’s work and, interestingly enough, it fills my life with a deep sense of meaning.

Q: So what’s Storyline all about—practically, what do you do?

A: It’s basically a company that helps people tell better stories with their lives. Through conferences, websites, and individualized training, we create life plans and career paths for people who want to live meaningful lives. That’s what makes us different, really. We start with the question “What will make your life more meaningful?” rather than “What will make you more productive?” We’re finding that more and more, very successful people don’t feel satisfied with their success and want something more. That something more is what we help people discover.

Q: What’s the difference between meaning and success—and why are you focusing on the former?

A: Our work really stems from Dr. Viktor Frankl’s research in the ’40s and ’50s. Frankl argued that what man wants most is a deep sense of meaning and he found that when they found that, their emotional health stabilized and they were able to enjoy life, regardless of their life circumstances. Every human being is searching for a deep sense of meaning and yet we’re all chasing success. We’ve confused one for the other.

Meaning is something we experience more than we attain.

Q: So what’s the key to finding meaning? Seems like a pretty tough thing to pinpoint.

A: Meaning is something we experience more than we attain. It’s like finding a nice, easy current in a river that carries you through life. And we begin to experience it when we have three things: (1) a project to work on that captures our passions and in some way serves others, (2) a community, family, or partner to share love with, and (3) a redemptive perspective on our suffering. If we can check those three things off on our to-do list, we will experience a deep sense of meaning. It sounds simple, but it really works. So Storyline helps people figure out how to navigate and understand those three areas of life.

Q: Are you done with traditional writing, or is there a new book on the horizon?

A: There’s definitely another book. I’m working on one now called A Play for Intimacy about how we try to impress people to get them to like us and it only makes us more isolated because we can’t measure up to the image we’ve projected. It’s a book encouraging us to be more vulnerable and open as a way of creating more-intimate relationships.