I don’t pay much attention to my investment portfolio, but I watch my meaning portfolio like a hawk.

A meaning portfolio is your collection of “meaning assets” – the reasons you get out of bed in the morning. They are the sources from which you derive your sense of purpose, fulfillment, self-worth, and ultimately, happiness. They are what make life worth living.

Meaning assets can include your family, friends, spouse, kids, or community. You could derive meaning from your job, business, achievements, money, or recognition from others. Culture, religion, tradition, or any higher purpose greater than yourself can make up part of your meaning portfolio. For many people, personal growth and lifelong learning are a wellspring of meaning. And simple everyday activities such as personal hobbies, gardening, cooking, or journaling often contribute as well. 

What should you include in your meaning portfolio?

Here are two criteria:

First, it has to be something that is an end in itself, not merely a means to something else more important. It is inherently valuable, requiring no utilitarian or instrumental value to justify its existence. A helpful way to check is to ask yourself, “Would I still do this if I won the lottery?”

Second, it takes ongoing investment and care. Unlike shares of stock, it’s not enough to make a one-time, upfront investment and then let it sit untouched for years. Meaning assets need to be cultivated and nurtured consistently or else they will wither. 

How my meaning portfolio shifted over the years

There was a period of a few years when I was getting my business off the ground that about 90% of my meaning portfolio was invested in my work. I was a single, childless 20-something living on my own in San Francisco. Each day, I’d wake up in my bare, furniture-less apartment, sit down to work on my tiny IKEA desk, and grind through tasks until dark.

Tiago Forte in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

But as long as 90% of my meaning came from my work, I was hypersensitive to any criticism directed at it. 

I launched my first productivity course in 2013 and posted it on Reddit in breathless anticipation, only to have an anonymous Internet stranger look up my resume and comment, “This guy is telling other people how to work when he’s only been working a couple of years himself.” I was in turmoil for days as it felt like everything I stood for came into question.

The first customer refund requests I received were devastating. They felt like missiles landing a direct hit on my ego since that ego relied on the success of my business as its sole source of support. I needed a constant supply of accomplishments to reassure myself that my life was going in the right direction since it was all riding on one thing.

There’s nothing wrong with investing everything you have in one source of meaning for a time. As with money, it’s hard to grow your investments if they’re too diversified and spread across too many places. Sometimes you have to concentrate your attention on one or two opportunities, making a bet that they will flower and grow into something even more meaningful. 

The problem with remaining overinvested in just one source of meaning for too long is that it’s risky. Just as with financial assets, having all your eggs in one basket makes you vulnerable to a “market crash” in that area of your life.

I began to realize that putting all my attention and energy into just one predominant source of meaning was like constructing a building with just one central pillar holding it up. It could be knocked down at any moment.

I had started dating my future wife Lauren at that point, and as we became more serious she became a second source of meaning. I had someone I could rely on to accept and love me no matter what happened in my work. The risks and disappointments I faced each day could now be contained to one sphere of my life without invading all the others. Work fell to perhaps a 70% share of my meaning portfolio.

After a few more years of intense effort, I finally managed to create a full-time living for myself, cobbled together from different sources. I slowly started giving myself permission to spend more time with friends, to pursue hobbies such as sailing, and to focus on my health more. Work fell to 60% of my meaning portfolio.

In 2020 we welcomed our first child, and once again my meaning portfolio needed to be rebalanced. This was a key turning point, as it was the first time in a decade that my work fell below a 50% allocation of my portfolio. That meant it ceased to be the central organizing principle of my life, replaced by my growing family, especially once our second child arrived in 2022. 

The Forte family

Now I would estimate my work accounts for about 30% of my meaning portfolio. That’s still a significant share, but it is not the overriding priority anymore. Things can happen in the business that in the past would have rocked my world, but now are limited to just one of my many identities.

Diversifying your meaning portfolio

I’ve learned that when you derive most of your meaning from work, every problem seems much bigger than it really is. Every problem feels high stakes, existential, and all-consuming because it threatens the very basis of your identity. I spent so much time running around trying to individually fix every problem, thinking that if I just solved enough of them, the level of panic I felt would subside.

Many problems can indeed be fixed, but there is also a more fundamental solution you can try: diversifying your investments of meaning. Spread out your care and attention and create a wider base of support for your self-worth. There will still be problems, but they will feel so much less dramatic, which paradoxically makes you far more effective at addressing them mindfully without overreacting.

I always thought the term “net worth” was strange, given that it usually refers to a person’s total financial assets. It was so clear to me, even at a young age, that money had nothing to do with someone’s worth.

I’ve found that a meaning portfolio is a far better measure of self-worth, giving you places and people to turn to when one area of life knocks you down. And I’m certain that when we look back at the end of our lives, we will treasure the contents of our meaning portfolio far more than any financial asset.

I encourage you to consider what makes up your meaning portfolio. Which sources are giving you meaningful returns for your effort, and which aren’t? Which meaning assets were important in the past, but you can now let go of? Which parts of your meaning portfolio, if you invested more of your time and attention in them, might thrive and grow and provide even more meaning to you in return?

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