As Viktor Frankl said in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.’ Meaning and purpose are not the same thing but are inextricably linked – and a lack of either can have a profound effect on our ability to flourish and be resilient.
In my recent article I wrote about ‘little p’ purpose and ‘big P’ Purpose; here I’m going to look at the role meaning plays in Purpose-driven leadership.
Imagine you have a tank that needs to be filled with meaning (see illustration). If you have a full meaning tank, you can consider yourself to be functioning pretty well. When life is broadly meaningful, you feel energised and have a sense of purpose – and that makes you more engaged and motivated.
However, many people in the corporate world and beyond start to slip below that base level. Life feels difficult or they feel uncomfortable or lacking in some way. To counter the feeling that something’s missing, they begin compensating in ways that are often unhealthy or lack significance.
I’ve certainly found myself compensating by engaging in certain behaviours – it might be seeking gratification in a Netflix binge or trying to tick the next item of that ‘little p’ list – perhaps the auto-reflex to check my inbox for Something Important. The problem with this is that no matter how much information we consume or emails we get through, if we’re not feeling meaning-full or we’re unclear about our purpose, work and life will feel empty.
If we spend too much time compensating our tank can get dangerously low and we can end up feeling unable to function. That’s the place of breakdown – when everything seems hopeless and we can’t operate in a normal way.
Even if we don’t quite reach the depths of breakdown, we can end up spiralling into overwhelm. Our limbic system is triggered (that’s the fight, flight or freeze response), adrenaline activates and we behave as if there’s a threat to life. This means that we either run away, fight or freeze or, more classically within organisational structures, we feel the urge to control because we don’t want to feel that overwhelm.
So many of us have what’s known as a control drama – the urge to control and fix so that we no longer feel that discomfort. Think: targets, tick-box processes and endless metrics, coming from the desire to remove the very human scope for error.
The result? Depersonalised and sometimes dehumanised systems – for instance, those you experience in everything from phoning your mobile provider to giving birth (see the excellent BBC tragicomedy ‘This Is Going To Hurt’). We then become further distanced from other people and find it even harder to regulate our systems, so we go further into the spiral of overwhelm. Such a system becomes transactional, task-orientated and selfish, and those within it tend to lack resilience because there is simply no buffer to refill our tank.
On the individual level we might start to experience mental health issues that might lead to burnout, and on a systemic level – for example what we currently see in the NHS and the care sector – people-based systems can face collapse.
I can see this personally through a close relative who runs a care home and we see this more widely with people choosing to leave their organisation in the Great Resignation.
So what drains the meaning tank?
I observe two types of drain on our meaning tanks, which I like to call the micro mountain and the macro mountain of pressures that we’re facing:
The micro mountain is built from all the personal things that can grind us down and give us a sense of low meaning, such as when we’re squeezed from all sides with endless Zoom or Teams meetings and emails at all hours. And however much we love them, we can also feel depleted by the demands of our family (e.g. trying to get my two boys out of the door for school – argh!).
When the living is easy, we don’t notice that we’re compensating, but when we start to struggle, we might find ourselves numbing out. We can become addicted to technology, the 24-hour news cycle or video games and start mindlessly necking glasses of wine – all of which can take us to quite a dark place. I’ve been there myself, wondering, ‘Well, what’s the point?’
In my relative’s care home, a ‘micro mountain moment’ might be triggered by a staff member being off sick, which has a major impact on the remaining staff as well as the residents. It’s clear to see how this might be a ticking time bomb within the care industry and the NHS more widely – but where else might this be spotted?
The macro mountain is made up of all the big stuff in the outside world that’s beyond our control, but that impacts our sense of stability. What about the fact that public discourse seems to be difficult and divisive at the moment? What about all the crises that we’re dealing with – the precipitous rise in interest rates and mortgage repayments, climate change, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine? All the anxieties that we have about the outside world are yet another strain on our already strained systems.
In normal times, we would be resilient enough to cope with a handful of difficulties because there would be ‘drip, drip, drip’ of something positive filling the meaning tank. But our systems can only cope for so long without beginning to crack.
It’s now urgent for us to fill our meaning tanks and to help those around us do the same.
So how do we fill the meaning tank?
There are many daily things we can do to fill the meaning tank, from yoga classes to gong baths. In fact there’s a whole industry that tries to help us to feel nurtured. But many of these activities are compensating for something deeper.
What we need, I believe, is to fill our meaning tanks in a lasting way, through knowing, articulating and sharing a sense of purpose.
Here we can take inspiration from the work of Amy Wrzesniewski, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Yale School of Management. In her research into who loved their jobs, who didn’t, and why, she interviewed hospital cleaners – the people doing a classic ‘dirty job’. She expected to find many who didn’t enjoy the work and indeed she did. They complained and described their goals according to the standard job description.
However, there was a second group of cleaners who, on paper, were doing the exact same jobs but described them in completely different terms – as highly skilled and deeply meaningful. These cleaners would learn as much as possible about the patients whose rooms they were cleaning, and spend time with patients who seemed to have fewer visitors. When asked to describe their job, one even said, “I’m a healer. I create sterile spaces in the hospital. My role here is to do everything I can to promote the healing of the patients.”
A higher purpose brings a constant drip, drip, drip of nourishment and helps us to navigate turbulent times. As this example shows, knowing, articulating and sharing your purpose is a great way to fill the meaning tank.
The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).