“If a man knows the ‘why’ of his existence, he will be able to bear almost any ‘how’,” wrote Dr. Viktor Frankl in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl spoke with the authority of intense personal agony and courage. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1905, Frankl later became a psychiatrist. The Nazis murdered his father, mother, brother, and wife in concentration camps – just four of the 6,000,000 Jewish people and millions of others killed in the Holocaust.
Frankl wrote “the prisoner who lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 95). While Frankl was himself imprisoned in the death camps, he sought to help his fellow captives. He tells the story of two other inmates who were suicidal, given the horrific loss and suffering which surrounded them.
When Frankl sought to save them, he did not ask “How can I help you?”
He did not ask “What do you need to keep living?”
Instead, he asked “WHAT DOES THE WORLD STILL NEED FROM YOU?”
One man responded by saying he wanted to survive the death camps, so that he could be reunited with his beloved child, who was waiting for him in a foreign country. Another prisoner replied that he wanted to keep living so that he could finish and publish a series of scientific books (pp. 100-101).
Despite the horrible circumstances, these people found a way to define new meaning in their existences, keep hope alive, and survive.
What does this have to do with your work? I certainly don’t want to compare your workplace to a Nazi death camp. But it’s extremely helpful to be aware of Frankl’s advice: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” In my prior blog post, entitled “Screw Your ‘Job’. Define Your ‘Calling’. “ , I described how you can determine your own “work orientation”, and how you can bring meaning to your work – independent of the work that you do!
Similarly, I encourage you to think “big picture” about the work you do — whatever that may be — so you appreciate the special impact that you already have in this world.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had work that I just could not stand, and I urgently sought to leave and get better work. “Better” usually meant more compensation, but always meant more meaning for me, as well.
For example, I have the fondest memories of either doing impactful work which was helping others (teaching English to bankers in Frankfurt in the late 1980s), learning a lot of new skills and sharing my discoveries (working as a business journalist in Madrid in 1990), or doing very challenging, high profile work in creating a product which was being used by millions globally (rolling out Yahoo! Auctions in 18 countries and trying to beat eBay in international markets in 1999.)
No matter how different these roles were, I felt like they all tapped into a collection of passions, strengths and experiences which were uniquely mine. I found all of them “meaningful.” (For more on this, check out my 58 second video here):
Whether your work is “meaningful” or not depends on your perspective. For instance, in one of my Happiness Workshops, a middle-aged man said “I have not been thrilled with the work I’ve done, but I’ve earned a good income, which made it possible for my family and me to live in a good neighborhood, and I was able to send my kids to a good college.” On the other hand, some people will only find meaning in their work if they’re at a non-profit organization which is directly sheltering the homeless, fighting HIV / AIDS, or bringing clean drinking water to Africa.
It’s certainly not up to me to define for you what’s meaningful in your work. You need to figure it out for yourself. Here’s one way how: Without changing your work at all, how can you bring more purpose or meaning to it? How can you think about it differently? What is the most positive way to think about it?
Ask yourself “How does my work or my organization help people?”
Then “how does that help people?”
Then “how does THAT help people?”
If you keep asking, you’ll usually find an answer which excites you. And then, I hope, you’ll be able to view your work less as a job just for the paycheck, and more as a calling which contributes to the greater good.
After going through this exercise, if you still can’t bring meaning to your work — even for the short term — then what sort of role can you find, which would be more meaningful to you? What sort of trade-offs could you make, in order to make your dream a reality? Don’t ask yourself “Can I do this?” Instead, ask yourself “WHAT WOULD IT TAKE to do this?”
For instance, maybe you’re working as an account manager at an internet startup in New York City. You’d really rather be a high school math teacher. But you can’t afford to live in New York on a teacher’s salary. You could simply ask “Can I be a high school math teacher?” and answer “No, I can’t.” Or you could ask “WHAT WOULD IT TAKE to work as a high school math teacher?”
Then you could revisit all your non-negotiables in life and conclude that it WOULD be possible, if you moved to a lower cost city, perhaps shared an apartment with someone, used public transportation, wasted less money on clothing, and took on an extra job as a tutor in the summers. Then you can imagine what that life would be like – especially if you’re going to do work which is much more meaningful for you.
You might still decide to stay at your job in New York City – with newfound gratitude and commitment.
Or you might make that move to Colorado to teach calculus — and end up being a lot happier.
If you can truly, honestly, realistically say that another role would be your calling, then you owe it to yourself to figure out how to do that work. The sooner, the better – for your sake. After all – WHAT DOES THE WORLD NEED FROM YOU?
OK, let me ask you this: What do you find meaningful in your work? Do you have a clear idea of what the world needs from you? Are you able to give the world your special gifts and talents? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section, below. Thanks, and be well!