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Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality

I just finished rereading Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. I feel that I have gained an even deeper appreciation of the man and his work than when I first read it some 25 years ago. I was jobless, depressed and on verge of a divorce then. I have since had a successful career, happily married and stayed emotionally positive most of the time. So what do I mean by deeper appreciation of a book about the meaning of human suffering? Well, the inspiration I got from reading the book for the first time 25 years ago was primarily by the sheer strength of Dr. Frankl’s personality without deeper understanding of the meaning behind his words. 25 years later, I now understand that success and happiness depend on more than just plain luck and hard work but also, even more so, on suffering gracefully, intelligently and, above all, meaningfully in Dr. Frankl’s sense of the word. In the rough and tumble of the business world, one often faces impossible situations not unlike inside a Nazi concentration camp which make us feel dis-empowered and humiliated. For example, I once wrote an email to a senior business executive with whom I was collaborating on an important project. She had been very critical of my work. In order to continue the relationship, I took the high road and asked for her guidance, admitting that my academic background might have blinded me of a superior path forward. Little did I know, she forwarded my email to my manager as proof of my incompetence and demanded that I should be replaced! I eventually parachuted from the toxic situation, thanks to the basic decency of my manager and the protection of US labor legislation. However, it did not spare me from a career setback for several years – the customer is king in business, even if/when they misbehave. Such power dynamics go on all the time in businesses between customers and suppliers, managers and employees and even between colleagues from different units or groups within the same company or even within the same team. Very often, slight differences in opinions and preferences escalate into brutal fights of a territorial and political nature, resulting in much emotional suffering and frustrating efforts to find win-win solutions. Dr. Frankl wrote that, when faced with challenges, a person “may remain brave, dignified and unselfish, or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal”. In my experience, more often than any of us would want to admit, we forget our human dignity and become no more than an animal in participating in the power dynamics such as we encounter in daily business. That is the root cause of wide spread low morale and poor performance of most organizations, in business and elsewhere.

What is Dr. Frankl’s answer to such human predicaments? He needs to cultivate a resource deep inside himself: “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives” and “we must learn to see life as meaningful despite our circumstances”. That might seem requiring a lot of will power which might be difficult for ordinary people to muscle. It partially explains Spinoza’s famous observation that “everything great is just as difficult to realize as it is rare to find”. However, not entirely since “the perception of meaning … boils down to … becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation” and “every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom, which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.” Therefore, we are all offered opportunities to find the meaning of our lives in very concrete ways, every day! For Dr. Frankl, even when confined in a Nazi concentration camp, such opportunities could still be found since “it would doubtless be more to the purpose to try and help my comrades as a doctor than to vegetate or finally lose my life as the unproductive laborer that I was then”. Contrast Dr. Frankl’s circumstances and attitude with those commonly found at workplaces we could easily see why it is the man, not his circumstances that play the most decisive role of finding meaning in one’s life. Thus Dr. Frankl states that “life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Obviously, few of us are up to the tasks, not because of lack of opportunities but the deep consciousness that it requires. However, its rarity does not reduce the potential of its power. The insight that “what man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” points to a rare but powerful resource available to employees and managers alike, especially the latter who have the opportunity and indeed responsibility to “pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development” and “create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.” Such more refined and desperately needed management skills are almost completely absent from contemporary MBA and corporate managerial training courses.

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