Searching For Signs in the World

“Some day, when I have grown sufficiently, I shall attain that which I am destined to attain.”

-Rudolf Steiner

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely one of those insufferable people who is always looking for signs from the universe/God/whatever, especially when making a big decision or when dealing with some kind of hardship.

Even before before my existential crisis hit, I was constantly searching for something, anything, to validate my choices or infuse me with hope that the answer to my problem lay just on the horizon. Whether it’s noticing a particularly striking butterfly float by, hearing the same obscure person or thing mentioned in different mediums over a short period of time, or even seeing changes in the plants in my home, I tend to read into things a lot.

This week, the sign I convinced myself meant something more came in the form of an aquatic animal: the stingray. First, I saw a few solo rays flying through the clear-blue waters of the gulf, and a few days later, I noticed the tips of stingray wings piercing the decidedly dirtier, gray-green surface of the bay as a few small groups of four or five coasted along the still water beside my running path.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: “You live in Florida. Of course you’re going to see stingrays!” And while my mind would agree with you unequivocally, something else inside of me, something incredibly stubborn, resists that analysis and clings to the absurd idea that those stingrays must bear some greater significance. It’s completely irrational and totally ridiculous, but I think that paradoxically might be why part of me isn’t willing to let it go.

After receiving a “sign” like the stingrays, I immediately investigate the potential significance. (Although my mind knows logically this is an exercise in futility, it can’t help itself but join in to show off its research skills.)

In this case, seeing a stingray apparently means that you have everything you need in place to move forward towards your goal. As one “spirit animal” website explains, “Stingray symbolism is asking you to stay on course and keep moving forward. Henceforth, you must not allow distractions or drama to sway you from your journey. Protect your path if you need to.”

A good kick in the pants? Sure, it could be. But when you have multiple tentacles stretching out in different directions in an effort to figure which option will ultimately allow you to pursue your passion AND earn a living, the explanation doesn’t quite solve the current dilemma.

Perhaps a story from Glennon Doyle can shed some light on this whole charade of mine. One day, her eldest son and his co-ed friend group were at her home playing video games when Glennon came into the room and asked if anyone wanted a snack. The boys all answered with an emphatic, “Yeah!” without hesitating. The girls, however, all looked at each other before one girl whom was silently appointed the speaker answered, “No thank you. We’re fine.” In Glennon’s view, it was as though each girl could not even decide whether she wanted a snack without receiving confirmation from her cohorts that it was the right decision.

Are those of us who search for signs in the world acting the same way as those girls–constantly looking to the universe for validation instead of looking to ourselves? Are we that untrusting of our own instincts that we need the sage guidance from to feel okay about our path? Or, are we actually receiving messages from some other realm or being or divine architect as to the next right step in our journey?

Like the boys in Glennon Doyle’s story, my dog Arthur has no problem expressing his feelings about our new hobby. As you can see, he never feels the need to mask his indifference.

Alas, we may never have definitive answers to these questions (and perhaps that’s preferable). However, there have been many people throughout history who found their calling in pondering these and life’s other more tangential questions, including the man whose purpose-driven life we will examine this week.

Rudolf Steiner was a philosopher, architect, writer, social reformer, playwright, esotericist (whatever that means), and self-proclaimed clairvoyant. In addition to founding a new spiritual philosophy, Rudolf Steiner created the Waldorf School model, invented biodynamic farming, and designed 17 buildings, three of which are still considered among the most significant works of modern architecture. What can we learn from Steiner’s life and his fight to find his purpose? Let’s take a look.

Steiner c. 1905

Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 under the the Austrian Empire in an area that is now part of Croatia. When he was nine years old, Steiner had his first experience with a realm beyond the physical world. He reported seeing the spirit of an aunt asking him for help, though neither Steiner nor his parents were aware that this aunt had already passed away. This and other supernatural experiences in his youth convinced Steiner he was clairvoyant, or someone who can perceive things or actions beyond sensory or physical contact.

When he was 18 years old, Steiner received an academic scholarship to the Vienna Institute of Technology, where he studied mathematics, chemistry, botany, physics, zoology, and mineralogy, and audited classes in literature and philosophy. Like others we have examined, Steiner also left the university without completing a degree.

Steiner’s Secondary School Graduation Photo

After leaving college, Steiner fortuitously received an offer to serve as an editor of a collection of works by Goethe, an icon of German literature. A professor had recommended him for the role, even though Steiner hadn’t technically completed a single university course in literature. Even in the late 1800s, it was astounding that someone as young, inexperienced, and formally uneducated as Steiner would receive such a position. Seemingly, he was already receiving otherworldly assistance in his fight.

At 23, Steiner became an editor in the Goethe archives in Weimar, Germany. He stayed at the archive for eight years, during which time he wrote two books on Goethe philosophy. After that, Steiner returned to school and did receive a degree: a doctorate in philosophy. Two years later, he published another book, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, which would later become the basis for his new spiritual philosophy.

Steiner at 21 years of age

Although in hindsight it seems obvious that Steiner’s calling would relate to philosophy, at this point he still struggled to determine exactly what his calling would ultimately be. At 36, he moved to Berlin to write and edit a literary magazine, but that was a short-lived, unsuccessful experiment. At 38, he published another article on Goethe that attracted the attention of members of the Theosophical Society, a group that believed in the philosophical/quasi-religious movement of theosophy. Another seemingly serendipitous event–the members reading his article–led Steiner to become involved in the Society.

Steiner with the leader of the Theosophical Society

Steiner eventually broke off from that society and created his own spiritual philosophy: Anthroposophy (I still am not sure how you pronounce this after reading it at least 50 times). Regardless, this new philosophy apparently had a more Western take on spirituality, and it was based on the notion that there is a distinct spiritual world humans can experience.

Steiner created his own Anthroposophical Society, and he designed a building, called the Goetheanum, for their annual conferences and theatrical performances. Although he had no formal training in architecture, Steiner’s second Goetheanum (the first burned down) was innovative in its use of visible concrete, has been called a “true masterpiece of 20th-century expressionist architecture” by art critics, and is still considered a Swiss national monument to this day.

The Second Goetheanum
Source: Creative Commons

As a result of his spiritual philosophy and public lectures, Steiner became well-known in the sociopolitical sphere. His opinions were considered controversial, drawing negative attention from world leaders, including Adolph Hitler. After the first World War, Steiner was vocal in his belief that separating the economic, political, and cultural realms could prevent future strife, and he also opposed Woodrow Wilson’s plan to divide Europe according to ethnic groups on the belief that it would lead to extreme nationalism.

During this time, Steiner accomplished astonishing feats as he relentlessly pursued his life’s purpose of using philosophy and invention to help others experience the world in a new way.

The Waldorf School model, which is now practiced in over 1,000 schools worldwide, is based on an education lecture that Steiner gave at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Children at these schools receive more holistic education than traditional schooling, as there is an emphasis on developing their artistic abilities and imagination in addition to their intellectual skills.

The Waldorf school in Verrières-le-Buisson, France
Source: Creative Commons

Steiner also invented biodynamic farming, the technique Molly and John Chester use in the Biggest Little Farm documentary. In 1924, a group of farmers sought out Steiner to help save the future of farming, and he created a series of lectures on sustainable, eco-friendly practices. Through those lectures, he challenged the farmers to think differently about their land by treating the farm as a living organism that can be self-managed without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Again, Steiner had no formal training in educational practices or farming, yet his application of philosophy to these areas resulted in innovations that are still being used today.

Steiner’s notoriety eventually made him a target for Hitler and the Nazi Party, which was gaining influence in post-WWI Germany. After speaking out about the terrible potential consequences if the Nazi Party were to come to power, Steiner narrowly escaped an attempted attack during one of his lectures. By that time, he was already showing signs of serious illness, but he continued to lecture over the next few years until he passed away in 1925 at the age of 64.

“Man is already weak at the moment he searches for laws and rules according to which he shall think and act. Out of his own being the strong individual controls his way of thinking and doing.”


Based on his philosophy and lectures, I have to think that Rudolf Steiner wouldn’t scoff at the idea that the world gives us signs we are on the right path. In addition to believing in another realm outside of the physical reality we can touch and feel, Steiner’s journey contained many instances where following the crumbs left for him led to incredible results.

As a 21-year-old college dropout, Steiner received a position which which he was severely unqualified because the door had been opened for him. Walking through that door led to him to discover his passion for philosophy, and it allowed him to see that he did not need to be an expert to make an impact. Later on, his chance encounter with the members of the Theosophical Society brought him closer to his purpose and enabled him to believe that he could create his own spiritual philosophy. And when other opportunities arose for him to use his training and ideology, Steiner took them and made an indelible mark on multiple fields in the process.

Steiner c. 1900

So, other than finding validation for my questionable tendency to look for signs everywhere I go, what is the biggest lesson we can learn from Rudolf Steiner’s fight to find his purpose? The most salient takeaway I see in his journey is that you don’t necessarily need to have the advanced degree, the 10,000 hours, or the 20 years of experience in something for it to be your ultimate purpose. [Disclaimer: this doesn’t mean you don’t need a medical degree, etc. if your purpose is to be a doctor, or anything along those lines…]

It’s true that Steiner’s experience and background in philosophy were invaluable tools in his fight to find his purpose. However, can you tell me how an advanced degree in philosophy would enable someone to design buildings of the highest artistic and structural order? And even though his training certainly influenced his thought process, I doubt that philosophical education in and of itself would make someone believe that he can transform an industry in which he has no experience. Instead, I think it was Steiner’s belief in himself that allowed him to accomplish these and other incredible feats.

“If we do not believe within ourselves this deeply rooted feeling that there is something higher than ourselves, we shall never find the strength to evolve into something higher.”


So, in the end, I think we also need to have supreme faith in ourselves to find and fulfill our purpose. I suspect this unfortunately will require us to truly love ourselves and our unique gifts and flaws, whatever they may be.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m somehow able to get myself there, I have a sneaking suspicion I will still be on the lookout for those metaphysical signs from beyond the rational world. Even if those signs are just a product of stingray mating season.

4 thoughts on “Searching For Signs in the World

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