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Book Summary: The Why Café – A Story About the Meaning of Life

The Why Café (2003) is a semi-autobiographical account of one man’s search for meaning. When protagonist John stumbles upon a little Café in the middle of nowhere, he’s confronted with three existential questions. The other customers guide John on his philosophical journey and help him discover the secrets to living a fulfilled life – teaching us all how to do the same in the process.

Book Summary: The Why Café - A Story About the Meaning of Life

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Learn how to live a fulfilled life.
To live a fulfilled life, we need to find our purpose and go with it.
Advertising clouds our ideas of happiness and purpose.
A self-determined life isn’t just more fulfilling – it can also alleviate our fear of death.
There are many ways to find your purpose in life.
Every person is free to decide whether – and how – to follow their purpose in life.
People who’ve found their purposes magically attract happiness.
Summary
About the author
Video and Podcast

Genres

Motivation, Inspiration, Philosophy, Self Help, Psychology, European Literature, German Literature, Contemporary, Roman, Spirituality, Personal Development, Personal Transformation, Health, Fitness & Dieting

Introduction: Learn how to live a fulfilled life.

The highway is closed due to an accident, the detour route leads to the middle of nowhere, and, to top it all off, the car has run out of gas. Needless to say, this isn’t how stressed-out management consultant John imagined his vacation.

When John goes looking for a gas station, he stumbles upon a strange little joint called “The Why Café.” It’s not your typical coffee shop, and the menu confronts John with three big existential questions.

Luckily, he gets help from the wise and wonderful regulars at the Café, who share their stories to teach John how to find his purpose in life. These summaries detail the life lessons that John picks up in The Why Café – and explain how they apply to all of us.

Along the way you’ll find out

  • what we can learn from green sea turtles;
  • how advertising clouds our vision of life; and
  • why happy people seem to have magical powers.

To live a fulfilled life, we need to find our purpose and go with it.

Are you one of those people who think their lives are just alright? Sure, your job can be frustrating, but you have close friends and enough money to get by. Sometimes, though, in the pit of your stomach, you feel that something is missing from your life. Why can’t you just be happy with what you have? The answer is simply : because a good life is not automatically a fulfilling one!

This is one of the first lessons John learns as he waits for his breakfast at The Why Café. On the back of the menu, he finds three questions.

“Why are you here?”

“Do you fear death?”

“Are you fulfilled?”

Here’s the key message: To live a fulfilled life, we need to find our purpose and go with it.

John asks his waitress Casey about the questions. Casey explains that the first one is all about finding out why we’re here in the first place. What brings us pleasure? How do we want to use our time on Earth?

This question is the most important one because the first step to leading a fulfilled life is to determine our purpose. For John – as for many of us – this is a tricky task. So to start him off, Casey tells him about her encounter with a green sea turtle.

While scuba diving in Hawaii, Casey once tried to follow a green sea turtle out into the open sea. But despite her best efforts, she couldn’t keep up with the animal. Finally, she gave up and just let herself drift in the water – and that’s when she started catching up to the turtle. She realized that the turtle had been doing this the whole time: When a wave came in its direction, the turtle paddled just enough to hold its position. And when the wave flowed back into the ocean, the turtle took advantage of the current and let itself be carried out into the open sea.

Many people do the opposite – they paddle against every wave and exhaust themselves without ever making progress. Not following your true purpose in life is a bit like fighting against an invisible current. At some point, you’ll become so exhausted that you won’t have any time or strength left to do what you really want to do.

That’s why we should start living our lives like green sea turtles and surf on the current of our true desires. Otherwise, we’ll just keep paddling against the waves without ever finding meaning.

Advertising clouds our ideas of happiness and purpose.

If you attentively watch a few minutes of TV ads or flip through the pages of a glossy magazine, you’ll notice something: advertisers are experts at playing to our fears and desires. A face cream becomes a promise of eternal youth, a chocolate bar the emblem of a perfect family life, and a new car a symbol of adventure.

What these ads have in common is that they equate their products with happiness – even if the slogans communicate this message a little more subtly.

Anne, one of the regulars at The Why Café, knows this all too well. She used to be an advertising executive. At the Café, she explains to John how the glamorous veneer of advertising can keep us from discovering our true purpose.

The key message here is: Advertising clouds our ideas of happiness and purpose.

Whether we want them to or not, advertising’s promises of happiness unconsciously influence our decisions. Most of us begin to believe, or at least try to believe, that material things are the key to a happy life. And even if we don’t really believe this, it couldn’t hurt to find out for ourselves, right? So we pick a job that will help us afford as many things as possible.

But picking our jobs according to pay instead of purpose doesn’t make for a very fulfilling day-to-day life. Instead, we get frustrated. And to console ourselves, we buy more things – hoping that they’ll finally deliver the missing happiness. But the more things we buy, the more we have to work. This is what’s called a vicious cycle.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with spending money for pleasure. But when we start spending money out of dissatisfaction, our consumption becomes a problem. Instead of working on creating a meaningful life, we try to buy it. This rarely ever works. So if you find yourself on such a consumption treadmill, stop and think for a minute. Perhaps a lower-paid but more enjoyable job would bring more meaning to your life? And do you really need a four-room apartment in the best location when you’re hardly ever at home? Remember: the more financial obligations you have, the more shackled you are to your money, and the harder it becomes to pursue your true purpose in life.

The good news? Most of the shackles that we believe are keeping us from following our dreams exist only in our heads. Despite what ads would have us believe, we’re always in control of our lives. If you want to follow your destiny, there’s just one more hurdle to clear.

A self-determined life isn’t just more fulfilling – it can also alleviate our fear of death.

How would Dad take it if I became a bricklayer instead of an architect? What would Mom think if I became an actress instead of a lawyer? And above all, what would the neighbors say?

It’s not just advertising and consumerism that prevent us from pursuing our true purpose in life. Our social environment, especially our friends and family, also have a hand in it. We all like to think that we make our life decisions independently. But more often than not, they are shaped by the expectations, conventions, and norms of others. That’s why freeing ourselves from what others think about our choices is an important step on the path to a meaningful life.

The key message here is: A self-determined life isn’t just more fulfilling – it can also alleviate our fear of death.

At The Why Café, John hears a story about a man who’s tormented by a recurring dream. In real life, the man is a good golfer. But in his dream, the golf ball he’s trying to hit always gets stuck in a particularly difficult position, and he can never get a good shot on the hole. One night, while again dreaming about an impossible shot, it occurs to him that he can simply pick up the ball and place it in a better position. Finally, he’s able to get a good shot in. And when he does, he realizes that the other golfers never even cared about his position.

But what does this have to do with our fear of death – the second question on the menu? As former ad executive Anne explains to John: a lot! People who never think of putting their metaphorical golf ball in a better position are the ones who fear death the most. They bend to the expectations of others instead of following their true purpose, and sooner or later they run out of time. They know that, on their deathbeds, they will look back at their lives in bitterness because they never got a good shot in.

So instead of living a dissatisfied life trying to please others, pick up the golf ball and put it in the position you’d like to play from – one that aligns with your true purpose. Now the only open question is: How do you find that sweet spot?

There are many ways to find your purpose in life.

Whether it’s life coaches, horoscopes, or lunar calendars – people seek advice in the strangest places in order to ascertain their destinies. They hope that others can help explain why they’re here on Earth.

But in truth, everyone needs to answer this question for themselves. There is no one right way to live your life, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to finding your life’s purpose. However, we can look to people who’ve already found theirs, and try out some of the things that helped give them clarity.

Here’s the key message: There are many ways to find your purpose in life.

Some people, for example, like to spend time alone to clear their heads. Many swear by meditation. Others listen to their favorite music and let their thoughts wander. Still others roam the countryside, go on yoga retreats, or chat with strangers. And some find their answers in books.

The more of these things we try, the more likely we are to stumble upon a practice that helps us find our purpose. Even if we realize that the thing we’ve tried isn’t right for us after all, we’ll gather new impressions, thoughts, and ideas along the way – bringing us a little further along on our journey.

But how do we know when we’ve discovered our true purpose? It’s simple: by paying attention to ourselves. Do you feel electrified when you pick up a calligraphy pen? Do you feel like crying with happiness every time you upload a new YouTube video? Or do you feel a deep sense of satisfaction when you’re working on your car? If you’re aware of one or more experiences that resonate this strongly with you, then maybe you’ve already found what truly fulfills you.

Let’s assume that’s the case – you’ve found your purpose in life. First of all, congratulations! That’s half the battle. Now you just need to make a plan on how to deploy it.

Every person is free to decide whether – and how – to follow their purpose in life.

So you’ve found your purpose in life, and now you’re wondering what to do with that realization. The beautiful – and somewhat unsatisfying – answer is: whatever you want!

A fulfilled life looks different for everyone; it could be writing novels, studying biotechnology, playing soccer, or something else entirely. What seems deadly boring to one person might deliver ultimate satisfaction to another. Some people will only need to make tiny changes in their lives to find and sustain a feeling of purpose, while others might need a grandiose shift. Sometimes, even doing nothing can bring you closer to what you want.

Here’s the key message: Every person is free to decide whether – and how – to follow their purpose in life.

Mike, the owner of The Why Café, tells John a story about this. A businessman who was vacationing in a remote beach town struck up a conversation with a fisherman. The businessman was amazed at how happy and content the old man seemed, and he wanted to know what he did all day.

“In the morning I have breakfast with my family, during the day I go out fishing, and in the evening I spend time with my wife,” was the answer. The businessman explained to the fisherman that if he spent a little more time fishing each day, he would catch more fish to sell. From the extra profits, he could buy new boats, hire more fishermen, and start a whole fishing empire. Eventually, he could retire with a fortune – and then do whatever he wanted all day long! The fisherman was unmoved. He smiled, replied that he was already doing what he wanted to do, and wished the man a good day.

So for some people, like the fisherman, serenity is the secret to a meaningful life. Others might need to find the courage to question what they’re doing with their lives and make some big changes. This can be tough. For some, the idea of stepping even an inch outside their comfort zones can be really scary. They start imagining all the things that could go wrong if they took even the smallest risk. But that’s exactly the wrong approach – in the end, we benefit much more from always assuming the best possible outcome. Because without a good dose of confidence, we’ll never get closer to our true purpose.

People who’ve found their purposes magically attract happiness.

Have you ever experienced the bliss of things just falling into place? When you go with the flow and do what you enjoy, the world can seem full of happy coincidences. But are those really just coincidences? Or is there some other magical force at work?

When waitress Casey brings this phenomenon to John’s attention, he’s reminded of an acquaintance who, by the looks of it, had found her purpose. She was completely absorbed in her work, and she seemed to have more luck than average. Once, for example, she applied for a job that seemed hopelessly out of reach. But by chance, a former college classmate who knew the company reached out. He put in a good word for her, and she got the job.

Here’s the key message: People who’ve found their purposes magically attract happiness.

But why should people who pursue their purposes be luckier than others? In the case of John’s acquaintance, wasn’t it just serendipity that landed her the job? No, claims Casey. To elaborate, she tells John about the theory of exponential growth.

Chain letters, for example, work by exponential growth. And the same applies to happiness. When someone does what fulfills them, their whole aura changes. Their eyes light up just talking about it. This charisma and energy are so contagious that other people are happy to support that person. They want to share in the success. In addition, they’re infected by that person’s passion for their cause and start telling others about it – the ball starts rolling.

Think about Apple founder Steve Jobs. At first, he appeared to be an unassuming man. But his enthusiasm for Apple products infected everyone around him and made the company so successful. In the beginning, he had to proselytize a little. But later, the followers came all by themselves to share in his vision.

You don’t have to start out as a particularly lucky or charismatic person. If you find your purpose in life and allow yourself to be passionate about your cause, you’ll get better and better at what you do. And like magic, things will start running more and more smoothly.

But what if your dream job doesn’t involve a million-dollar salary? If such fears are holding you back, ask yourself about the worst-case scenario. Yes, you might not be able to retire with a fortune at 65. But would it really be so bad to keep working if you were getting up each day for a job you loved?

Living in harmony with your needs and desires isn’t a formula for getting rich. But it does bring a quality of life that no amount of money can buy.

Summary

The key message in these summaries:

We can create a fulfilling life for ourselves at any time. We just have to ask ourselves three big questions: Why am I here? Do I fear death? Am I fulfilled? In order to discover the answers, we need to free ourselves from the expectations of others and learn to find meaning outside of consumption. This may take some time, but the effort is worth it. Because once we find our true purpose, things will start to fall into place – almost like magic.

Actionable advice: Regularly set aside time to do what you enjoy.

Even if you’re not sure about your life’s purpose yet, set aside an hour every day to only do things you really enjoy. You should use this time to completely disconnect from your duties and obligations and just do whatever you feel like doing – whether that’s meditating, practicing yoga, or going for a walk. By carving out this time, you’ll give your life purpose a chance to emerge.

About the author

John Strelecky is the #1 Bestselling inspirational author of many books including; The Cafe on the Edge of the World, Return to the Why Cafe, What I’ve Learned, The Big Five for Life, The Big Five for Life – Continued, Life Safari, and Ahas!- Moments of Inspired Thought. He co-authored the book, How to be Rich and Happy. His works have been translated into forty-three languages and sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. Following a life changing event when he was thirty-three years old, John was inspired to sit down and tell the story of The Cafe on the Edge of the World, his first book. Within a year after it’s release, word of mouth support from readers had spread the book across the globe–inspiring people on every continent, including Antarctica. It went on to win bestseller of the year 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 & 2021 in Europe and became a #1 bestseller in North America. Through his writings and appearances on television and radio, John’s messages have inspired millions of people to live life on their terms. He has been honored alongside Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and Deepak Chopra as one of the one hundred most inspirational thought leaders in the field of leadership and personal development. All of this continues to humble and amaze him. When he isn’t writing or speaking, John spends extensive time backpacking around the world. He has taken extended trips to Africa, the Amazon Basin, Yucatan Peninsula, South America, SE Asia, Europe and China. To learn more about John, or to inquire about his availability for interviews, please visit; www.johnstrelecky.com

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