Reorienting Search Toward Meaning

Viktor Frankl and Eleonore Katharina Schwindt

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

[Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning]

On the day he was deported from his home in Vienna to a Nazi ghetto in Czechoslovakia, Viktor Frankl was a successful 37-year-old neurologist and therapist. Two years later, in October 1944, Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to Auschwitz.

They were then processed as slave laborers, split up, and sent off — Viktor to a work site near Dachau, his wife Tilly to Bergen Belsen in Germany, where she soon died. Frankl did not learn of her fate until after American soldiers liberated the camp where he was in April 1945. He was also not aware that his mother and father, Elsa and Gabriel, as well as his only brother, Walter, had also met the same fate at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

There were enough reasons to be cross about his faith and life. And yet, Frankl emerged from the experience with a richer perspective on human condition. Frankl went on to shape the field of logotherapy, which was the nascent root of modern existential analysis.

It was Goethe who said we should take man not as he is — lest we make him worse — but as he should be. Says Frankl, “if you take man as he really is, we make him worse, but if we overestimate him, if we seem to be idealists and looking at rating him high, we promote him to what he really can be.” Thus, if we don't recognize man's search for meaning, we make him frustrated. Once we presuppose this search, we elicit that meaning.

Life is meaningful, yet meaning is different for each person and it changes more often than one might think. Recognizing that life is meaningful is important for a successful navigation on the road to purpose. Our ultimate quest is the fulfillment of a personal version of what success looks like.

When he wrote Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl looked to provide an account of his experience as a counter balance to the exposition of his theories on logotherapy. When interviewed about the success of his book in 1984, when it had sold two and a half million copies, he did not see this as an accomplishment. Rather, “as an expression of the misery of our times.”

To reorient toward meaning, we must not aim for success, he says. Like happiness, success cannot be pursued, it must ensue and only as a side effect of personal dedication to a cause, or someone else. In the section of the book on logotherapy in a nutshell Frankl reports studies from the National Institute of Mental Health:

Asked what they considered very important to them now, 16 percent of the students checked “making a lot of money;” 78 percent said their first goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to life.”

We spend a lot of time at work — or working — and that environment has enormous influence into our lives. But it's not about physical spaces (it likely never was); it's the relationships that influence us. The decisions, communications (or lack thereof), implicit and explicit rules and behaviors that envelop the product we call “work.” That's why culture is such an important aspect to pay attention to for companies.

While it's great to have opportunities to come together in informal settings like a holiday party and a summer picnic and celebrate, culture is so much more than social gatherings# (emphasis mine):

Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate,”) generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance and importance. Different definitions of “culture” reflect different theoretical bases for understanding, or criteria for evaluating, human activity.

Anthropologists understand “culture” to refer not only to consumption goods, but to the general processes which produce such goods and give them meaning, and to the social relationships and practices in which such objects and processes become embedded. For them, culture thus includes technology, art, science, as well as moral systems.

A company's culture matters to its bottom line — whether people have a way of employing skills, talent, technology and processes to advance ideas and implement them into product and service experiences, can they use values as a compass to gauge direction? This is vital to the health of a business.

When frustrated in their search for meaning, says Frankle, people can develop neuroses, which emerge from existential problems. They could be problems with the environment — thus seeking a different one may make sense — or we are frustrated by our vocation — in that case finding a new line of work does help.

There is another reason to examine company culture, but also to take a second look at personal culture — the pace of change. Independent thought and rate of change in culture are directly connected. As I said in that post, when the rate of cultural change is maximum, individual thinking is not prized. As a consequence, we go with the flow. The problem is we spin as individual thinking ideas that looked more closely we would see for what they are — a way to manage personal risk by aligning with the crowd.

But we must not only become smarter about the mechanics of working faster. Though today's culture, especially in the West, put a premium on speed, the pace of many aspects of business is not getting faster. As I shared in this weekly edition of Learning Habit:

Some things have accelerated — for example, the speed of ideas zipping around the world, the “adoption lag” between slow / poor countries to catch up with pioneering countries in tech. But other measures suggest sloth, not celerity —the rate of new consumer-product launches, the ratio of work-in-progress to sales points to a slowdown over the past decade. Business people feel time is accelerating —but the figures suggest otherwise. A better explanation of the puzzle comes from looking more closely at the effect of information flows on businesses. "Forget frantic acceleration," says reality. “Mastering the clock of business is about choosing when to be fast and when to be slow.”

Culture matters a great deal. The marketing conversation in social networks and about social media may be about new shiny tools, but on the human side it's actually about how we find meaning within new local and global dynamics for relationships, connections, friendships, and markets, even the news cycles.

The catalyst that allows so many people to start their own business today is technology; the reason is meaning. They are busy leaving behind bureaucracies and policies that do not serve the people they were created to assist. Choosing one's own way is not easy, but it does reorient search toward meaning.

When stripped of all money, possessions, position, respect, and even his family, Frankl said:

Everything can be taken from a man but …the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

[Viktor Frankl]

Watch the short video below for the full impact of humor and self-awareness.



[image above, Viktor Frankl and Eleonore Katharina Schwindt]