Digging for the Meaning of Life with Hunter S. Thompson

by Dan Walsh

Empathy maps as literary tool.

I’m still hooked on empathy maps. This was a missing tool in my bag and I’m happy to have it. I’ve been experimentally applying the four quadrants of say, think, do, and feel to all manner of things: art, music, my own behaviours, and now literature. As I scale up content production on T&D, I’ve been on the hunt for ways to produce more, high-quality articles at a faster rate. I think empathy maps might just be the ticket! I applied the empathy map structure to a letter on the meaning of life by Hunter S. Thompson. Here are my results.

The full letter is after the results of my empathy map assessment.

Say – What would I say to others about this letter?

“Are you hanging on to goals that don’t matter anymore? I read this great letter by Hunter S. Thompson. I’ll send it to you.”

“A choice to act or not act is still a choice. Someone famous said that, though I can’t remember who or the exact wording. It come up again in something I read by Hunter S. Thompson.”

“Sometimes we get it backwards. Instead of always trying to conform ourselves to a goal, maybe we should conform the goal to ourselves.”

Think – What thoughts started bouncing around in my head as a result of this?

“Where did my goals come from? Did I inherit them from others? Maybe a younger version of myself created them and they are now outdated?”

“Who am I conforming to? Other people? Former versions of myself? The invisible forces of society?”

“Have I conformed to my goals, or do my goals conform to me?”

Do – In what ways did or will my behaviour change because of this?

I will assess my goals and sever those that never had, or have lost all authenticity in my life. It’s ok to outgrow or move past goals, and it’s ok to let these go. It’s not defeat. It’s pragmatic. It’s growth.

I will post this letter on T&D.

Feel – What emotions were stirred up?

I feel self-reflective and mildly exposed.


I wish I had empathy maps in college. They seem like a great way to dig to the core of my reactions and find all the hidden gems which become great material for essays.

This is the full letter:

To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.)* There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.