Why meaning matters...insights from Viktor Frankl
Today’s society is characterised by achievement orientation and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy. We have seen people’s level of success and happiness being shaken significantly by the events and consequences of COVID-19. Possibly for the first time ever, we have had our most basic needs of health, food and shelter come under threat. Schools have shut, businesses closed and employees laid off. There aren’t too many people that have been seriously impacted by the events of 2020. For some, it has felt like life or death. Which is exactly the experience faced by Viktor Frankl, Viennese psychiatrist, concentration camp prisoner and founder of the school of psychotherapy called ‘logotherapy’. Frankl is heralded alongside the likes of Freud, Adler and Jung, whose works you may also be familiar with. In his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, he shares what it’s like living in a concentration camp and takes us through the overriding emotions of shock, apathy and disillusionment experienced by him and other inmates during their time in the camps.
"Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?" - Frankl
As you can imagine, reading his book is simultaneously humbling and stirring. How, or rather, what kept these inmates going in these impossible conditions? During the period following his admission into the camp, after having endured the emotional rollercoaster experienced while simply lining up outside the doors of the camp, how could one find hope when faced with the shock of his new life and the knowledge that anything and everything he had lived for before his admission into the camp had been taken away? How was the apathy he felt not insidious enough that it didn’t lead to physical death, in addition to the emotional death he describes in the second phase of the camp when he is entrenched into the camp? How did the overwhelming bitterness and disillusionment experienced once he was released from the camp not lead him into a downward spiral of resentment, hate and mistrust?
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” - Nietzsche
Logotherapy has its roots in the Greek word, ‘logos’ for ‘meaning’. Its premise is that finding meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force that drives us. Having just written and published my first book, “Meaning Matters: Results Beyond the Numbers”, learning about this arm of science was a breakthrough moment for me. 'Making meaning' manifests itself in different ways for leaders in finance. By definition, leaders in finance like yourself are sense makers: you take financial information, understand it, figure out what it means it and then you make recommendations in the form of insights and actions to help your stakeholders and organisation allocate and utilise scarce resources. Making meaning also plays a critical role in goal-setting, growth and reflection and this is where the performance opportunities for leaders in finance reside. There are the big deadlines you work towards. The projects and deadlines give us a real tangible purpose at work - it is the reason we endure the late nights and long calls. But what happens after the deadline is achieved and milestone is reached? Inevitably there is a lull. You’ve felt it, I'm sure. The lull when you show up at work and your mind is blank and it feels like you’re operating at snail’s pace and don't really know where to start? Frankl refers to this as the ‘existential vaccuum’. Without intervention this lull can turn into boredom, lack of focus and distraction which results in reduced productivity and delivery. Whilst intentional and purposeful breaks are critical to break the perpetual crunch times that leaders in finance experience, it is important that we attribute meaning to that time to prevent the dormant period getting in the way of performance. Then finally there is the 'crisis of purpose’ that leaders in finance often experience when they realise that the late nights and long hours are no longer rewarding. Where their effort isn’t valued, doesn’t drive them forward and they feel like they’re simply stuck on a hamster wheel. They've lost that feeling of being in control and in charge that they used to have, 'being great at my job' is met with a sense of internal dissonance, and making money is no longer as important as it used to be. Leaders in finance who experience this have lost their meaning. Logotherapy’s 3 sources of meaning may help Through his own personal experiences and professional expertise, Frankl identifies 3 sources of meaning that I think are useful in helping us navigate through our careers and help us feel in control even when dire external facts are completely out of our control. Very simply we can discover meaning in three different ways:
In work: Creating a work or doing a deed, and with it the feeling of achievement and accomplishment that follows. This would be the identification and the work towards completion of a milestone or deadline.
In love: During his time in the camps, Frankl himself starts ’talking’ with his wife, who is not by his side. In fact, he doesn’t know where she is, nor what she’s going through during this time. However, ‘experiencing’ her during his desperate times gives him hope, gives him meaning. Our experience of something or encountering someone is so important. The lesson here is that human connection and interaction creates meaning.
In courage: About halfway into his book is the following “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about he meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life...” So the ability to find meaning in the face of personal tragedy will lead to triumph. Think about your most difficult achievements - they weren’t easy, were they? Why do they stand out for you?
When you create meaning, it’s a bit like when a baby really ’sees’ things for the first time: they understand and recognise that their actions create reactions in others, and they use that knowledge to influence their future behaviour.
One of the basic principles behind Frankl’s work is that our main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain (the carrot and stick), but rather to seek meaning. Sometimes, purpose led leaders in finance get frustrated because while they see a greater meaning behind what they do and what is possible, others don't. So they can't have the impact they want because others don't get on board and support their ideas, nor provide them with the opportunities for greater contribution. Making money and being the boss is no longer enough. This is why purpose integration is so important.
Creating meaning leads to a deeper level of understanding the 'why' behind what we do. When we connect with the 'why', we create new opportunities for ourselves to move forward with confidence, clarity and certainty.
What's your meaning?
Give me a shout if you want to have a chat about how you can discover the power of your purpose. A quick 10 minutes may be all you need to create the pathway you need to have the impact you want.
Until next time, take care.