Understanding Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide

Existentialism is a philosophical school of thought that focuses on the individual and their experiences in the world. Its central ideas revolve around freedom, choice, and personal responsibility. It’s a rich and complex topic that can be difficult to grasp at first, but this beginner’s guide will take a deep dive into understanding existentialism in simple terms.

The Birth of Existentialism

Existentialism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly in Europe, during a period of intense social and political change. Thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are often considered precursors to existentialism, although the term itself wasn’t coined until the 20th century. Existentialism became a significant philosophical movement with the writings of figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger.

Core Themes of Existentialism

Existentialism revolves around several key concepts:

1. Existence Precedes Essence

Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated that “existence precedes essence,” which is a fundamental existentialist claim. It suggests that humans first exist, encounter themselves, and then, through their actions and choices, define their essence or nature. In other words, there’s no pre-determined blueprint or absolute purpose that governs our lives. We are thrown into existence, and it’s up to us to give meaning to our lives.

2. Freedom and Responsibility

Existentialism emphasizes the freedom of individuals to act independently of societal or religious expectations. This freedom allows us to define our essence, but it also comes with a hefty load of responsibility. Each decision we make is a reflection of our entire character because it’s a decision that we’ve made in light of our perceived reality.

3. Authenticity

For existentialists, authenticity involves living according to our own personal values and not according to those imposed by society or external authorities. Living authentically often means acknowledging the existential facts of life, including the inevitability of death, the absence of any predetermined meaning in life, and our responsibility for our own actions.

4. The Absurd

Albert Camus introduced the idea of the “absurd.” He argued that life’s inherent lack of meaning leads to a clash between our expectations for rationality and order and the indifference of the universe. This clash results in a sense of absurdity.

Examples of Existentialism

Existentialism is a philosophical approach that is often better understood through examples. Let’s look at a few instances:

1. The Myth of Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill eternally. Each time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down, and he would have to start over. Albert Camus used this myth to exemplify the human condition’s absurdity. Just like Sisyphus, we engage in repetitive tasks in our lives that seem ultimately meaningless. But, as Camus suggested, we must imagine Sisyphus happy because he found purpose and satisfaction in his existence, despite the repetitive and seemingly pointless task.

2. The Plague

Camus’s novel “The Plague” portrays an epidemic’s outbreak in a fictional Algerian city. The citizens are suddenly thrown into a reality where death is a constant presence, emphasizing life’s arbitrary and transient nature. Despite this, the characters find meaning in their existence through their struggle against the plague and their mutual support.

3. No Exit

Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” features characters trapped in a room for eternity as their hell, where they are doomed to live inauthentically by becoming what others perceive them to be. The famous line from the play, “Hell is other people,” reflects Sartre’s views on how we let the views and opinions of others confine us and prevent us from living authentically.

Impact and Criticism of Existentialism

Existentialism has profoundly influenced various disciplines beyond philosophy, including literature, psychology, theology, and even popular culture. However, it has also been criticized for being overly pessimistic and for its focus on angst, despair, and the absurd.

Despite this criticism, existentialism has enduring relevance because it encourages us to confront life’s fundamental questions and challenges us to live authentically and take responsibility for our actions.

Leveraging Existentialism for Self-Improvement


Existentialism, with its focus on individual freedom and personal responsibility, can provide a powerful framework for self-improvement. While existentialism is often associated with a sense of despair or meaninglessness, it also offers a road map for building a life of authenticity and personal fulfillment. Here is a detailed explanation of how you can use existentialism for self-improvement, complete with practical examples.

Embrace Your Freedom

Existentialist principle:Existentialists posit that each person is free to make their own choices and determine their own path in life.

Self-improvement application: Understand that you have the freedom to make choices that affect your life. You are not simply a product of your environment or your past. This awareness can liberate you from perceived constraints and empower you to take control of your life.

Example: Suppose you’ve been stuck in a job you dislike because it was what your parents wanted, or it seemed like the safest choice. Embracing existentialist freedom means acknowledging that you have the power to choose a different path. Maybe you always wanted to start your own business or pursue a career in arts. Realizing your freedom can spur you to make these substantial life changes.

Take Personal Responsibility

Existentialist principle: Existentialism stresses that with freedom comes responsibility. We are responsible for our actions and the outcomes of those actions.

Self-improvement application: Own your decisions and their consequences, both good and bad. Instead of blaming circumstances or other people when things go wrong, reflect on the choices you made that led to the situation. This approach fosters resilience, promotes learning from mistakes, and reduces the tendency to play the victim.

Example: Imagine you failed a course in school. Instead of blaming the teacher for being too harsh or the course being too tough, consider your own actions. Did you study effectively? Did you seek help when you didn’t understand the material? Taking responsibility can guide you to better strategies, like developing a consistent study schedule or joining a study group.

Seek Authenticity

Existentialist principle: Existentialists champion the importance of living authentically, that is, in alignment with your true self and values.

Self-improvement application: Reflect on what is genuinely important to you, not what others think should be important. Strive to align your actions with your values. Living authentically promotes integrity, self-confidence, and satisfaction.

Example: Maybe you feel societal pressure to have a lavish wedding, but you and your partner value simplicity and would rather save for a house. Living authentically means choosing the simple wedding and staying true to your values, despite what others might say.

Confront the Absurd

Existentialist principle: Albert Camus’ concept of the “absurd” refers to the conflict between our desire for order and the chaos of the universe.

Self-improvement application: Accept that life is unpredictable, and things won’t always go as planned. Rather than feeling defeated by this unpredictability, use it as a catalyst to fully engage in life and make the most of each moment.

Example: You may have planned your career meticulously, but an unexpected event like a global pandemic or economic recession can disrupt these plans. Confronting the absurd would involve recognizing this unpredictability, adapting to the situation, and finding ways to thrive despite the challenges.

Create Your Own Meaning

Existentialist principle: Existentialism rejects the idea of inherent meaning or purpose in life. Instead, it asserts that each person must create their own meaning.

Self-improvement application: Don’t wait for someone or something else to give your life purpose. Find what gives your life meaning and strive to build your life around it. This approach can lead to a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose.

Example: Maybe you find meaning in helping others. You could choose a career in a helping profession, volunteer in your community, or strive to practice kindness in your daily interactions.

Navigating Through the Void


When faced with existentialism’s assertion of life’s inherent meaninglessness, many recoil in discomfort. However, seen from another perspective, this seemingly bleak outlook can transform into a liberating philosophy. Below, we delve into the heart of existentialism, exploring how to navigate the feelings of emptiness, and why the absence of predetermined purpose is not only alright but even emancipating.

Making Peace with the Void

In the context of existentialism, it’s critical to understand why it’s acceptable to confront a life without inherent meaning:

1. The Liberation from External Expectations

The absence of prescribed meaning frees us from the shackles of societal expectations. We’re allowed to live by our rules, unrestricted by externally imposed limitations.

2. The Emphasis on Individual Authority

With no predetermined life purpose, we become the authors of our fate. Our actions and decisions gain significance as they contribute to the meaning we create.

3. Life Becomes a Voyage of Discovery

Creating our own meaning transforms life into an ongoing journey of self-discovery and evolution. Our experiences, choices, and relationships continuously shape and refine our life’s purpose.


Existentialism can initially seem a bleak and challenging philosophy. However, at its core, it is a philosophy of empowerment, encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own lives and find their own meaning. This guide has only scratched the surface, but it provides a solid foundation for understanding existentialism’s core principles. We hope it sparks an interest in further exploration of this fascinating philosophy.

Using existentialism for self-improvement involves embracing your freedom, taking personal responsibility, living authentically, confronting the unpredictability of life, and creating your own meaning. Although existentialism might seem bleak at first glance, it offers a framework for living a life of purpose and authenticity. Remember that existentialism encourages active engagement in life—it is a call to carve out your own path, guided by your values and experiences.

In summary, existentialism’s stance on life’s inherent meaninglessness provides not a source of despair but an invitation—an invitation to recognize our freedom, live authentically, and cultivate our meaningful existence. It assures us that the absence of inherent meaning is not a reason for anxiety but an opportunity for a fulfilling, self-authored life.

Voyage of the Self-Maker: An Existential Ode


In life’s vast expanse, we drift, it seems,

In a sea of boundless, senseless dreams.

No cosmic blueprint, no divine scheme,

Yet, in this void, we’re free to dream.

We push the boulder, up and high,

Underneath the silent sky.

An echo of Sisyphus’s sigh,

Yet in the struggle, we learn to fly.

We’re born as canvas, blank and free,

Existence first, then comes the decree,

In the artist’s hands, we come to be,

Crafting essence, in radical spree.

We forge our paths, in authenticity,

Break the chains, embrace liberty,

No puppets of fate, but creators we be,

In life’s grand symphony.

We stare into the yawning void,

Not to be feared, but to be enjoyed,

For in our hands, the cosmic coin,

To craft a meaning, uniquely coined.

Thus we voyage, through the unknown,

Through seeds of action, our purpose is sown,

In the face of the Absurd, it’s shown,

The power to define, is ours alone.

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