Mans Search for Meaning
January 4, 2021

How are you going to make your work meaningful this year?

By Paul Laughlin

The challenge to make your work meaningful might sound an odd one for data leaders. We are so used to hearing people searching for ‘the meaning of life‘ or expecting to discover their own destiny. Sadly many if not most never find a satisfying answer & were perhaps asking the wrong question.

But motivation, especially at work, is a crucial challenge for leaders of all flavours. In these times of increased remote working, it matters for all team members. Sustaining motivation by connecting to a meaning that is personally important can make a huge difference.

During dark days & depressing news, it can make the difference between those who simply log on & those who are truly present in their work. Leaders carry the additional responsibility to motivate & provide direction for their teams. So, for leaders, connecting with motivations can be crucial.

Learning from a Holocaust survivor

Last month I read a book that I have been meaning to read for years. Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. As well as being a professor of neurology & psychiatry before World War II, Viktor spent 3 years as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz.

Now, before I share how this book spoke to me about meaning in my own life and the life of other leaders, let me make a clear caveat. Please don’t misunderstand my perspective on this book. The horror of the Holocaust is so awful it would be beyond crass to suggest that I can appreciate what Viktor & others suffered or imply any level of equivalence in leaders search for meaning. I intend no such insult.

Fortunately, Viktor himself wrote this book for the rest of us. So that generations of people who would hopefully never have to suffer such an atrocity could learn from what helps people sustain motivation & meaning in their lives even then. Viktor states that he shares his experience of what goes on in the minds of prisoners day-to-day as a way of helping us all find more meaning in our lives.

Many lessons from people pushed to their limits

This short book is divided into three sections. In Part One, over 84 pages, Viktor shares what reads like a diary of his everyday experience as a prisoner. It is a harrowing read at times, even though Viktor does not at all dwell on the worst atrocities. Rather it is the relentless deprivations, cruelty & degradation that bring to life how difficult it was to maintain motivation.

Over this part of the book, you hear the stories of both those who managed to find meaning, purpose and a will to survive and those who did not. Those who were ‘saints‘ and those who responded with inhuman cruelty to others. Viktor gives us an insight into what goes on mentally & emotionally through numerous stages of surviving.

This is the foundation for the rest of the book. Here we see how the models and approach proposed in the rest of this book have been ‘proven in the furnace‘. It is not a polemic for any particular religion or philosophy, rather a discovery of a perspective that empowers a person to keep going & to overcome.

A model that can help fill the meaning vacuum in many lives

In Part Two, Viktor expands on the theory that underpinned many of his perspectives in Part One. This school of psychology is called Logotherapy. An approach focussed on helping people find meaning in their future.

He shares numerous examples and statistics outlining how many feel the lack of meaning in their lives. “What is the point of it all?” might be the epitaph of a generation of leaders who feel this gap. Viktor describes the existential vacuum that some fill by conformity to what others are doing & some by seeking someone to obey.

This is deep stuff and worth taking time to ponder. But one reflection has stayed with me from this chapter. When we ask what is the meaning of life, we are asking the wrong question. Rather than seeking a theoretical answer, Viktor suggests that life is asking us: What meaning will you make of this? Meaning is made through countless small decisions. Whether choosing to love or help others, participating in a relationship or enduring suffering. We make meaning by how we respond to life experiences.

Reflect on that a moment. What could that mean in your life today?

A decent mindset that can face the worst life throws at us

The final part of this book is dedicated to a fellow pioneer of Logotherapy, Edith Weisskopf-Joelson. It is entitled ‘the case for tragic optimism‘. It is particularly timely during a global pandemic to read how Viktor sees that such a mindset as described above can face up to what he describes as the tragic triad. That is pain, guilt and death.

In a few sobering words, Viktor lays bare the shallowness of a “be happy” culture that feels like giving up if we can’t succeed & have all our needs met. He sees the fake claims about happiness (it cannot be pursued it must ensue) as the reason behind a crisis to “give-up-itis“. A low that leads too many into drug misuse, self-harm or at worst suicide.

As a psychologist, he is, of course, nuanced & considered about the reality of depression and mental illness for a whole host of reasons. But he rightly shines a light on our need to not ignore the need for meaning-making. He also draws powerfully on his experiences from Part 1 to make the case for the need for decent people to take those small decisions to do what makes meaning. To care, to help, to give hope. Surely that still is a clarion call for all leaders today.

I leave you with this quote from the end of this must read book:

“I see the challenge to join the decent minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. So, let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake.”

Viktor Frankl (Man’s search for Meaning)