Building a life of meaning

Spending time on “The Important Things” is self evident to leaders who have read the multitudes of management books professing to make work life wonderful. From the One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Getting Grit by Carolyn Adams Miller to the 4-Hour Workweek by Time Ferris and everything in between, leaders the world over have taken the ideas of management theorists to heart in an attempt to achieve more and more from each day.

Yet even when seemingly impossible hurdles have been vaulted, leaders have told me they feel incomplete and wonder whether their efforts are really worth it. They are proud of their achievements of course but find it hard to say as night time falls, that “yes, my day was well spent”.

Without such a statement, day in and day out, the question must be raised: “How will such leaders view their career?” Will they be proud of the legacy they leave? Will they be happy in what they have achieved? My guess will be “not really”.

Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs found that man’s quest, once the basics of life are mastered, is for self transcendence; the achievement of a goal beyond one’s self. This is not recent news. Even Plato recognised that happiness and morals were intertwined, a link that necessitates the placing of others before oneself.

So how can we get this transcendence and live a meaningful life? Victor Frankl’s book Man’s search for meaning, gives us guidance. You may recall Frankl was a Jew interned in various concentration camps during World War II and through a combination of attitude and luck he survived. His book was a memoire of this experience and a commentary on how some men survived whilst others did not. He found that survivors had something that gave meaning to their lives. For Frankl meaning came in the forms of his wife, who he wanted to hold and love again, and his patients who he wished to heal. As a psychiatrist his internment gave him opportunities to see how he and his companions dealt with emotional and physical pain, knowledge he felt would be beneficial to his future patients. As a result, when each depredation, open wound, and fear came upon him it was seen as another step in a journey to help others not an act in isolation. This connection increased his ability to handle his situation, as it did for the other survivors.

So what can you do to have a meaning filled life?

Step one: Align your actions and values

What do you hold dear? What words will drive your behaviour in a way that makes you proud?

When we act in accord with our values life feels good, and things go well. When we act in discord,  life is accordingly topsy turvy. Select your actions, clients, suppliers, investors and employees with your values in mind. Apply your values tenaciously. Doing so will straighten your path to your goals, as your actions and internal machinations will be aligned, reducing any tendency to second guess.

Recognise that your values are unique to you. Similarly the values of each of your team member will be different, though each should be in accord with those on the wall. My values are equality, respect, honesty, fairness and love and knowing them allows me to craft a life of intent. That my values are unique to me is expected as my goals are my own and not yours.

Recording  values, goals, and daily activities in a journal creates a trail of changes over time. The writing of each directs attention. The content, on reflection, shows patterns which can be used to effect. When change seems slow and motivation is lagging, it is nice to re-read and see the inroads already achieved recharging the energy for further effort.

Score this question each day:

Did I do my very best today to apply [this value]?

When 10/10, feel the frisson of pleasure and plan to do as well tomorrow.

When less, take action to do better.

Step two: Consciously measure your impact on others 

Daily reflection on your impact on others forces you to see your contribution.  By living your values, not just writing them down, it is impossible not to positively impact others around you.  You transcend yourself.

Step three: Know your strengths

Strengths are guides to interests, what may be stressful and where blind spots may exist. Working to strengths is energising whereas alleviating weakness is enervating, with obvious impacts on satisfaction and productivity.

Strengths can have downsides. It is natural to dismiss a strength as a hygiene factor, like say, breathing, rather than something that is uniquely our own. This blind spot and cause discord and frustration.  For example, if we have the dual strengths of bravery and honesty we may be excited by new opportunities and discuss potential problems in technicolour detail. The more prudent and creative around us may find our excitement and directness alarming.

Recognising strengths highlights the ways that we can add value to others and gives early warning to problems too. Building and using strengths requires effort as roles must be personalised, but benefits flow quickly.

Of course it is clarity of responsibilities, authority and outputs that will allow strengths (and therefore you) to shine.   Check out your character strengths here.

Step four: Touch lightly and accept

As humans it is normal to make mistakes and do so regularly, yet frequently I see leaders self flagellating for some mistake they made. Not accepting all our flaws and foibles reduces our leadership ability.  To get angry or disappointed gains nothing but pain and reduces the quality of our decisions.

Our biology simply stops us from leading well if we judge ourselves harshly. The brain through the amygdala interprets harshness to self as a threat and in doing so activates the sympathetic nervous system shortening the neural pathways, literally narrowing the amount of knowledge that can be accessed. Only when the brain feels safe can all of its knowledge be tapped.

Not judging self or others is essential if you wish to perform at your best. Time spent in judgment is time and energy wasted.

Accepting that a mistake happened and then dealing with it promptly is the only acceptable option.

Step five: Meditate

Clarity comes from mental space.  The discipline of meditation will quieten our chatterbox brain so that this space can arise.  Meditation is not limited to sitting cross legged in a fragrant room for hours. It can be called upon whenever a period of quiet is needed. Even stopping for 3 minutes to observe the breath may reduce anxiety and fogginess as it brings you into the moment. Just watching the breath with soft attention rise and fall has proven benefits for thinking. For 2,000 years man and woman have meditated to settle the mind and increase happiness. It’s proven to work and frequent practise like use of any skill improves results. Isn’t it time you gave it a try? Simply 30 minutes every day can make a world of difference. Try it for a month and watch how distractions become less invasive as your discipline grows. If you want to learn how to do it,  check out the face to face and online sessions at the Buddhist Society of WA.

Meditation increases the ability to stick with difficult tasks and so brings those really hard goals within reach.

Step six: Embed structure

To Do Lists, one page plans, meeting agendas and other systems and processes do have their place. They provide structure and reduce the number of decisions required each day. Knowing this allows you to manage your energy. Choice takes energy. President Obama restricted his suits to two colours (blue or grey) to maximise his energy  for important decisions. Time of day is relevant too. Research on 1,100 Israeli parole decisions found that 70% of decisions made early in the day resulted in the application being successful. Late day decisions were approved only 10% of the time. The difference came down to energy depletion.

When energy is low it is easier to maintain status quo. In this time of rapid change, doing nothing is rarely a viable option.

Conclusion

The rational way we plan our days and apply the management theories presumes that life is controllable and certain. Reality shows this is a fallacy as our days are filled with people, and people are anything but predictable and certainly cannot be controlled. This disconnect can fill our life with frustration if we look to the situation and not frame it within ‘meaning’.

As leaders we have arisen in the ranks through our ability to push through difficult tasks and succeed when others may fail, but tenacity and excellent processes do not fill a void. We have climbed Maslow’s Hierarchy and what is left now is the need for transcendence.

When a day is filled with meaningful activities the self is energised and those around us gain from our presence.  Seeking meaning from our work is not an optional extra for a leader. Our reactions set the standard of behaviour of our team. Only when we act engaged can we expect others to do so. And only when our team see the meaning in their work will they be fully engaged. We must use our knowledge and experience to help them get there.

To have a meaning filled life is not hard, but it requires contemplation: What is important to us? What are our values? Are we using our strengths? How can we act to improve the lives of those around us? How do our actions impact those nearby?

When we measure ourselves against an internal scorecard we are less liable to falter at our mistakes, allowing us to engage fully in our roles and so fulfil our potential.

If we want our team to be engaged, and indeed ourselves to feel satisfied with our actions, then our search for meaning needs to be an intentional act, reviewed every day. The more we focus on the impact we have on others the more positive that impact will be.

Acting with intent and learning as we go will allow us to say more and more often: “yes, my day was well spent”.


Jennifer is a strategy implementation coach who helps leaders turn their strategies into results.

She assists executives and business owners to achieve goals such as improved profit, productivity, leadership skills, business value. Her services are Business and Executive Coaching, Group Facilitation, Strategic Planning, and advising on Board Governance.

 To find out how she can help you, call +61 439 520 182 or email.