Why It’s Important To Find Meaning In Your Work
One day last September, my client Andrew came to see me with a tricky crisis on his hands. He had just sold his digital communications company to a larger competitor and he was being kept on as a director of the newly merged enterprise. A lot of money had changed hands. On the surface, everything looked good. But there was trouble brewing.
The two companies had vastly different cultures and Andrew was trying to knit them together. The strain was beginning to show, which was why he was seeking help. He wasn’t sleeping and he seemed anxious.
“They’re just so opaque,” he said of the conjoined company. “Their accounts team are showing me stuff that’s plainly wrong. They don’t always pay their bills. Can you believe that? And I’m pretty sure there’s other bad stuff they’re trying to hide from me.”
Andrew had always taken pride in how he did business. He described himself as an honest entrepreneur. And making a profit wasn’t his only driver – treating his staff and clients fairly was just as important to him. Plus, Andrew liked to work with clients whose values were similar to his own, organisations that provided a positive benefit to the world, such as charities, centres for learning and iconic cultural institutions, including museums and public galleries. “I want to feel that we work together to make a difference in a positive way,” he said of his attitude towards his clients.
Now, Andrew sat in front of me gazing into the middle distance, shocked that the company he’d grown from scratch was part of a business with bad practices.
Apart from religion, there are two main places to find meaning in our lives. The first is our connection to others based on our ability to form and sustain relationships. Lovers, friends and family give us meaning through community and a sense of belonging.
The second is our work. In order to feel meaningful, we need to sense our efforts provide relief from suffering or give pleasure to others. Doctors and nurses usually find a great deal of meaning in their work. Actors and entertainers often do, too. Hedge funders perhaps less so. Businessmen such as Andrew need to see they’re adding value to the world in order to give purpose to their lives. This was why his predicament was so painful.
“In order to feel meaningful, we need to sense our work provides relief from suffering or is giving pleasure to others”
In Man’s Search For Meaning, the Austrian writer Mr Viktor Frankl writes about surviving the Holocaust. Paraphrasing a famous Mr Friedrich Nietzsche quote, he concludes: “He who has found a why to live can bear almost any how.” In other words, if we have purpose and meaning in our lives, we can tolerate almost any difficulty.
Or, as Mr Frankl himself concluded, “There is nothing in the world… that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life.”
For Andrew, the meaning he had found through his profession was being eroded by the shady business practices of his new parent company. It was hardly surprising that working for a venture he didn’t believe in was causing him so much anguish.
Together, Andrew and I formed a plan of action. We agreed a timeline. He would do his best to uncover incidences of corruption and present his findings to the board in order to make root-and-branch change. If this do-or-die plan didn’t work, he would leave the company quickly in order to minimise the damage working there was doing to his conscience.
Until Christmas that year, as Andrew discovered further evidence of the company’s bad practices, he became increasingly agitated and angry in our sessions. Ultimately, the board didn’t take his evidence of fraud as seriously as he felt they should. As we’d agreed, he left the company early in the new year to take some time off to rethink his professional life.
When we met after his break, I asked Andrew if he would start another business. “Yes,” he said happily. “I’ve decided to start a consultancy that will help companies deliver on their ethical commitments so they don’t just pay lip-service to good practices but make sure all their stakeholders are treated well.” The crisis that had brought me and Andrew together over several months was transformed into an opportunity for him to find greater meaning by minimising others’ pain. Mr Frankl would surely have approved.
Illustration by Mr Iker Ayestaran