purpose and meaning

Part 2 in a series: Let’s Be Frank about Spirit and Meaning

Click to read Part 1

One evening after an especially hectic day, Frank decided to join a few others from the office at their favorite brew pub around the corner. When Sheila asked him, she expected another, “no, thanks. I’ve got too much going on today.” But something told Frank he should go along this time. Over the second round of drinks, the conversation turned toward the company’s growing morale problems. Disruptive new competitors and massive changes in their industry were forcing everyone to scramble. The company’s legendary growth rates were dropping off. The dreaded and previously unused “L-word” — lay-offs — was now whispered in the halls and lunchrooms. Joan’s voice broke with emotion as she talked about her growing health problems and the steep price her family has been paying for her “successful career.” “Maybe it’s time to find another job,” Geoff dared to suggest. “What!  And give up the company’s outstanding health and family benefits package?” Joan angrily retorted.

On the way to the men’s room, Frank felt the walls getting a little closer. The feeling of being trapped was back again. The emptiness pangs chewed at his stomach so hard he felt like he was going to throw up. In one of the toilet stalls someone had scrawled, “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.” It was time to act.

In Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek writes, “The drive to win is not, per se, a bad thing. Problems arise, however, when the metric becomes the only measure of success, when what you achieve is no longer tied to WHY you set out to achieve it in the first place.”

In The Greatest Miracle in the World, Og Mandino spins a tale of his encounters with Simon Potter, a humble and learned wise man. In one conversation, Og and Simon discuss the miracle people can perform in their own lives by resurrecting their dead spirits. Simon explains the need for this miracle, “Most humans, in varying degrees, are already dead. In one way or another they have lost their dreams, their ambitions, their desire for a better life. They have surrendered their fight for self-esteem, and they have compromised their great potential. They have settled for a life of mediocrity, days of despair and nights of tears. They are no more than living deaths confined to cemeteries of their choice.” We need to be less afraid of death and more frightened by an empty life.

The burgeoning fields of research on happiness and positive psychology show that purpose and meaning are vital to flourishing. Social psychologist and professor of Ethical Leadership, Jonathon Haidt summarizes some of these findings in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, “Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”

In their big busyness, organizations can easily lose their heart and soul. Without realizing it, or ever intending to, their deeper sense of meaning often fades away. Goals, plans, reports, and numbers take over. In the harsh glare of hard-headed analysis, soft “touchy, feely” emotions like spirit and meaning evaporates as dew in the morning sun. It’s like an academic study of a deeply moving story or song. The dissection may help us understand the technical pieces but misses the feelings that touched us so deeply.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink reports, “We’re learning that the profit motive, potent though it is, can be an insufficient impetus for both individuals and organizations. An equally powerful source of energy, one we’ve often neglected or dismissed as unrealistic, is what we might call the ‘purpose motive.’”

Regardless of our organizational position, we need to do whatever we can to strengthen purpose and meaning to avoid heart failure. We need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need to ensure we’re not victims of a heartless team or organization with a hollowed-out soul.

It’s too easy to find ourselves being numbed by jobs that aren’t a passionate joy but really feel like work. Profit, wealth, or careers can become goals in themselves rather than the means to fulfilling our deeper, more meaningful destinies. If we’re not in touch with our own heart and soul, we may not realize how our life energy is being slowly drained by work that doesn’t feed our spirit and give us richer meaning. If we’re not careful, we can become hollow victims with our lifeblood sucked out of us.

Frank may not choose to be victimized by a toxic team, family, or organization, but he can choose whether to be a victim. Will he find his lost soul and treat his heart dis-ease?