Maine and Potatoes: Approaching Life Like Steinbeck

Per my sister’s recommendation, I recently picked up Travels with Charley, Steinbeck’s account1 of a cross-country road trip he took one summer with his beloved Poodle in tow.

Steinbeck’s favorite kind of journey is a meandering one. By his own admission, he’s “going somewhere” but “doesn’t greatly care whether” he arrives2. Reflecting upon a leisurely detour through Maine’s potato farms, he writes,

everything in the world must have design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it. Maine was my design, potatoes my purpose.

It’s tempting to interrogate whether your pursuits are meaningful, be they hobbies or careers3. A degree of such interrogation can be constructive: living with intention necessitates a design and a purpose. But indulge too much and you risk descending into a Hamlet-esque, nihilistic spiral that will inevitably derail your pursuit. The last thing you (and certainly I) want is to end up as Camus’ strawman, the individual who cannot cope with his discovery that life is without meaning. That Steinbeck’s design was Maine and his purpose potatoes is a gentle reminder that our own designs and purposes need not be grand. All that we require of them is to exist.

[1] The introduction to the book’s 50th anniversary edition cautions readers against taking Steinbeck’s story too literally, for he was “a novelist at heart.” But the book reads truthfully enough and, just as important, entertainingly enough. As author and writing instructor John McPhee joked in an interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, 94 percent accuracy is good enough for creative non-fiction.
[2] Approaching our actions with such a sentiment is precisely the Bhagavad Gita’s prescription for attaining the Good Life. For that matter, it is also the prescription of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Both recommend we resign ourselves to the frustration of our desires, but that we do so happily so that we may pursue them nonetheless. If this sounds difficult to you, you’re not alone; Kierkegaard’s narrator describes this process as something he cannot hope to understand, though he spends the entire text describing it.
[3] Academics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management recently asked 135 people what made their work meaningful. For many, meaningful work is simultaneously “intensely personal” and bigger than themselves.