Man s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life
and not a secondary rationalization of instinctual drives . [ 1]
I don t like working with maggots, Rick said to me as we were discussing his current job and career aspirations. Working as a probation officer for the state department of corrections, Rick, believe it or not, was referring to his clients ! He had worked in his current position for over four years and had not, he said, changed his views about the people with whom he was in daily contact ”people who, obviously, depended on him for advice and support.
After some probing, I learned that Rick had grown up as a ward of the state, bouncing between various sets of foster parents with periodic stints in an orphanage. But, rather than becoming sympathetic and compassionate to those in need, Rick s experience resulted in just the opposite outcome ”he became insensitive and unforgiving. Unlike many people who have gone through similar situations, Rick couldn t relate (and didn t want to relate) to people who, in his view, weren t able to take care of themselves , who slurped at the public trough ”that is, who depended on public assistance in some form or another.
After graduation from college with a degree in finance, Rick took the first full-time job that was available. Anything would be better than busing tables or flipping burgers, he thought to himself. And although he had never imagined working either for government or in a social services position, he jumped at the chance to be a probation officer. Since he needed the full-time work experience anyway, and he figured that he would find something better soon, Rick, the probation officer and human services warrior , came to be.
Right off the bat he knew that this kind of job was not for him. Yet he felt trapped. Working full-time for a regular salary was new to him and he liked it ”the regular salary, that is. Plus, the state provided him with a decent benefits package. Most of his friends were envious of him, and Rick soon found himself working on cruise control. He didn t need to feel; he only needed to put in the hours necessary to receive his paycheck and benefits.
When I talked with Rick, he said that he was feeling more depressed than usual, and was having a difficult time getting up in the morning to go to work. During the work day, he said, he felt extremely edgy, complained a lot (about work, his co-workers , his clients), and even looked for things to argue about with his supervisor. He was cruisin for a bruisin and he knew it. He just didn t know what to do about it. He felt lost, he felt confined, he felt unhappy , and he felt unfulfilled.
Whatever we may say about Rick s psychological makeup , I think that we can all agree with this: Rick is in the wrong job! And, more important, Rick has become a prisoner of his thoughts. If only he could recognize that he, and nobody else, held the keys to his own freedom.
The keys to unlocking personal meaning at work are, and always have been, within our reach. They are as close as this very moment. Whenever we stop long enough to connect to ourselves , to our environment, to those with whom we work, to the task before us, to the extraordinary interdependence that is always part of our lives, we experience meaning. Meaning is who we are in this world. And it is the world that graces us with meaning.
Yet, it can be through our very own gracelessness that we are graced. And this, too, leads us to meaning, sometimes when we least expect it ”through chaos and confusion. Often we lay tracks in our working life that veer off in one direction just as our train of life decides to go in a completely different direction. We are, at those times, a wreck waiting to happen.
Most of us have these times in our lives. The pressures pile on and we adjust and maneuver accordingly . We shift our attitudes, we push our bodies; we reframe our experiences to fit the challenges in our lives. Then something happens and it all falls apart.
When we embrace new possibilities for ourselves, even if they are difficult and challenging, we embrace possibilities for others. And the results can have unanticipated rewards. Viktor Frankl says, Each of us has his own inner concentration camp. . . . We must deal with, with forgiveness and patience as full human beings; as we are and what we will become. [ 2]
Life has a way of leading us to meaning ”if we let it. And sometimes we have to roll with life s punches. We can be humbled by life s blows and grow in our ability to know deeper and deeper unconditional love for ourselves and others. Or we can toughen up and harden, becoming more resistant and less and less able to love. The choice is ours. And choice, these days, promises to get more and more complex.
There is a saying, If you want things to stay the same, then something is going to have to change. But if there s one thing that does stay the same, it s change. Our lives, and the world, change more and more rapidly and dramatically as time speeds up with opportunities and possibilities. We are continually challenged to know who we are, what our values are, and how best to live by them. When we take the time to know ourselves, to know and honor our own integrity, we move deeper into meaning. When we act from the center of who we are and what we represent ”honesty, fairness, kindness, and love ”our lives are in partnership with meaning, on the job and off. To know we are blessed with meaning, that it graces every aspect and every moment of our lives, is true freedom. At work, it frees us from the judgment of our bosses and co-workers; it frees us to be in tune with what we know best ”our own melody of life. It s a melody that only we can sing. And when we do, no one can ever sing it for us.
The struggle for existence is a struggle for something; it is purposeful, and only in so being is it meaningful and able to bring meaning into life. [ 3 ]
When we live and work with meaning, we can choose to make meaning, to see meaning, and to share meaning. We can choose our attitudes to life and work; we can choose how to respond to others, how to respond to our jobs, and how to make the very best of difficult circumstances. We can transcend ourselves and be transformed by meaning. We can find connection to meaning at work, in the most unusual places and with the most unexpected people. Meaning is full of surprises . It defies our expectations and heightens our awareness. It becomes us.
Meaning is also flexible. What makes sense for us at one time in our working lives might not make sense at another time. When we are awake to life s meaning inside us, we too can be flexible. If we are rooted in meaning, we can sway much more flexibly, be it in a breeze or a hurricane .
Our work lives serve us in unique and meaningful ways that only we truly know, understand, and appreciate. Like a fine diamond, our work represents our many facets but it is we who bring light to the work. If our work is fulfilling in and of itself, we know why. If our work serves us in ways beyond the workplace, we know why. It is this knowing why that represents meaning. And knowing why means that we know ourselves and what is calling to us at work ”whether it s providing financial responsibility to our loved ones, honoring our unique talents, fulfilling the needs of our families, responding to the needs of the world, being available to do the job that fate sends our way, or any combination of the above.
Let s now take a look at our work lives from this knowing why perspective. And let s use, as our frame of reference, one of Frankl s methods of meaning analysis. The central aim of meaning analysis is to help people take hold of life by uncovering and focusing on the core values that, collectively, form the primary motivation in their life, the search for meaning. All human beings, Frankl would say, ultimately have both the freedom and responsibility to position themselves along two key dimensions of life (see the figure above). [ 4]
One of these dimensions, depicted in the figure as the horizontal axis, suggests that people move between the polar extremes of success (+) and failure ( “) over the course of their lives, including their work lives. The vertical axis, on the other hand, suggests that people also experience different degrees or levels of meaning (+) and despair ( “) over their lifetimes and work lives. Meaning, I should add, refers to fulfilling or realizing the person s will to meaning; despair is associated with the apparent meaninglessness of life.
So, how do we use the figure, which, thanks to Viktor Frankl, provides us with a visual interpretation of our existential stand, and what does it tell us? First, for illustration purposes, let s consider the kinds of people who, in light of their situation, might be placed in any of the four quadrants or along either of the two axes. For example, a wealthy and successful business executive, who nevertheless may view work as unfulfilling and/or life as devoid of meaning, would be represented by a point somewhere in quadrant D. Think now of people who might also fall in this category ”perhaps highly successful in a traditional, material sense, yet unfulfilled, suffering from despair and inner emptiness. We all know, or know of, these quadrant D people, don t we? Not only corporate icons or celebrities or star athletes but also our co-workers, bosses, friends, neighbors, and family members . Think about it.
On the other hand, consider the people who could hardly be considered successful by societal standards ”they may exist modestly on a meager salary or pension ”but who may be fully content and happy with their work and everyday life. They may be working in a low-paying, low-profile job or volunteering namelessly for a nonprofit cause. In the figure, we would find these people somewhere in quadrant A. Who might you place in this quadrant?
Quadrant B of the figure presents possibilities for identifying people who are both successful in a societal sense and fulfilled in a meaning sense. You may recall the story of Tom Chappell and how he effectively moved along the vertical axis towards meaning while remaining on the success side of the horizontal dimension. And don t forget the remarkable and inspirational life of Christopher Reeve. There are others who exhibit the traits of a quadrant B life: from the business world, from sports (remember Andrea Jaeger?), from government and politics ”indeed, from all sectors of our society.
You get the picture. The figure, in essence, is a diagram of life. But what about your life? What about your work? Where would you place yourself in this two-dimensional space? And where, you should ask yourself, would you like to be? In a 1953 letter, Frankl wrote, It is said: where there is a will, there is a way; I add, where there is an aim, there is a will. Do you have the kind of will that Frankl is referring to? Do you also have an aim? Where does it appear to be taking you, not just on the horizontal axis but along the vertical axis as well? What does work mean to you and what kind of work really matters to you?
Imagine now a job or kind of work that you really want to do. Ask yourself: Would this kind of work help me realize my will to meaning? If so, what do I have to do to get the job? What am I doing now that will help me along the way? What am I doing now that is in my way? What can I do now that will help me along the way?
No matter what our specific job might be, it is the work we do that represents who we are. When we meet our work with enthusiasm , appreciation , generosity, and integrity, we meet it with meaning. And no matter how mundane a job might seem at the time, we can transform it with meaning. Meaning is life s legacy, and it is as available to us at work as it is available to us in our deepest spiritual quests. We breathe, therefore we are ”spiritual. Life is; therefore it is ”meaningful. We do, therefore we work.
Viktor Frankl s legacy was one of hope and possibility. He saw the human condition at its worst, and human beings behaving in ways intolerable to the imagination . He also saw human beings rising to heights of compassion and caring in ways that can only be described as miraculous acts of unselfishness and transcendence . There is something in us that can rise above and beyond everything we think possible. Our instinct for meaning, in our work and in our everyday lives, is ours right now, at this very moment. As long as we are not a prisoner of our thoughts.
We must never be content with what has already been achieved. Life never ceases to put new questions to us, never permits us to come to rest. . . .The man who stands still is passed by; the man who is smugly contented loses himself. Neither in creating or experiencing may we rest content with achievement; every day, every hour makes new deeds necessary and new experiences possible. [ 5 ]
Recall a situation in your work life in which you felt trapped or confined in some way and didn t feel fulfilled (this may even be your situation today). Perhaps you were working in a job or position that you really didn t like. Perhaps you were doing work that didn t seem meaningful to you. What, if anything, did you do about this situation? Did you resolve it or did it resolve itself? As you think about the situation now, what did you learn from it? In hindsight, what would you have done differently in this situation?
Meaning Question: In what ways do you find meaning and fulfillment at work?
For Further Reflection: Think about the ways in which you can help your colleagues and/or co-workers unlock personal meaning and fulfillment in their work. What would you have them do to demonstrate that they understand their responsibility to stand up to life and work, in order to find personal meaning and fulfillment?
[ 1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Boston: Beacon Press, 4th Edition, 1992), p. 105.
[ 2] Personal conversation, Vienna, Austria, August 6, 1996; See also: Frankl, keynote address, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Anaheim, California, December 12 “16, 1990.
[ 3 ] Frankl, The Will to Meaning, 1985 lecture, available on tape from Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, Publishers, Phoenix, Arizona, ISBN: 1-932462-08-2; See also The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York: Penguin Books, 1988).
[ 4] Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967), p. 27.
[ 5 ] Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 130 “31.