Jobs and the Future of Work

How to find meaning at work

A man walks along the embankment of the river Spree during sunset in Berlin, September 13, 2013.

Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Paolo Gallo
Adjunct Professor Bocconi University, Founder Compass Consulting, Executive Coach
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Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who dared to challenge the gods of Olympus, lost the battle, and was punished as a result. And what was his punishment? Torture? Death? Imprisonment? In fact, it was none of these. Zeus, king of the gods, showed a little more inventiveness, condemning him to push a heavy stone up a mountain and watch it roll back down, over and over again, for eternity. His punishment was ultimately the tragedy of not being able to give any meaning to what you are doing.

Image: Blake Noel

In twentieth century South Africa, the myth of Sisyphus was recreated on Robben Island, in the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 16 terrible years. When I visited this place, a former prisoner who accompanied me told me that inmates used to have to work every day in a small limestone mine. Every week, they would excavate a certain amount of stone; and every other week, the ruthless prison leaders made them put the same amount back. Many went mad.

Most of us, thankfully, do not face such torment; but the myth of Sisyphus remains a potent metaphor for meaningless drudgery in the workplace. As I’m exploring in a series of articles, it’s a workplace that needs to be overhauled to allow for a healthier definition of success and meaning.

A well in Cameroon and the pursuit of meaning

Back when I was with the World Bank on an agricultural project in 1995, I found meaning for the work I was doing in a remote village in Cameroon. The driver, George, had taken me to visit an agricultural project; after several hours of dirt and dusty roads, he stopped in front of a well and told me that, before it was built, his mother had to walk 12 kilometers to go to the river to collect water. Then the World Bank had built that well, just a few hundred meters from the village where he lived, and his life was changed. George wanted to thank me, though I had nothing to do with the well, and so he took me to his village. I met his mother, a woman with an amazing dignity, who clasped me in a long embrace. Making the return journey in the car, my heart had finally realised the real purpose behind my trip to that forgotten village.

We are all purpose-seekers, we all need to find meaning in existence, even in the unlikeliest places. The psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously made this case in his stunning memoir, “Man's search for meaning”. His theory, known as “logotherapy” (from “logos”, the Greek word for “meaning”), holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful.

We spent most of our lives in work. Our professional purpose should not therefore be defined by the title on the business card, nor the promotion to the next level up in the hierarchy. Purpose is not about what we do and how fast we do it; but why we do it, and how we do it.

The difference between a goal and a purpose

Moreover, let’s make sure that we do not confuse having a goal with having a purpose. Goals are limited in time and do not fill your life with meaning. An example of a goal might be, "I want to get that promotion", while a purpose – which by definition will never end - would be, "I want to become really good at what I do." Let’s reflect on the difference. We might miss out on the promotion - and I speak from personal experience here - but no one can take away the pleasure of learning, of improving ourselves. A classic example of a goal in business is to increase sales by 20% a year, while a purpose is to provide the best product or service possible. It is not the same thing, as we all know.

The poet Edgar Lee Masters, in his poem-epitaph George Gray, wrote:

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

These are the questions we must ask ourselves: What is our real purpose in life? And how can we make sure what we do with our days reflects this purpose?

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