Executives in Search of Meaning
“What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”
–Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
“I can’t seem to find meaning in my job anymore”.
This is often what my clients say at the beginning of a coaching relationship.
It seems that when we have achieved career success, we may wake up one day to a nagging feeling that whilst our hard work has brought us everything we wished for—power, financial independence, recognition from peers, social status—we still long to find meaning in what we do.
For some, the wake-up call can be brutal: falling sick, losing our job, the death of a close relative, or a divorce. For others, the dull and painful feeling that we are wasting our life grows until we can no longer ignore it.
When this happens, we may feel lost. We used to think that we had our lives all figured out, but apparently, we don’t. Worse, we don’t know where to turn to for guidance. Those closest to us don’t understand us and they mock us gently: “You’re having a midlife crisis. It will pass.” Or “Don’t be stupid. Look at all you’ve achieved. What are you complaining about?”
Deep inside, though, we know that it won’t pass until we find our true purpose.
This is simpler said than done. Perhaps, we can buy that red convertible, or seek a younger romantic partner. This may buy us a few years, but most likely, material and physical pleasures won’t fill the void. Our soul cannot be bribed so easily.
How, then, can we start our quest?
Here is some guidance that I offer to my clients:
1. We can only hear the faint voice of the soul when we listen carefully. To do that, we must first be in a quiet, silent space. There is no way to hear the soul when we are hyperactive, multitasking, rushing from one meeting to the next, and constantly disturbed by our beeping gadgets.
The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.
—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
2. Our past often reveals the secrets of the soul. As a child or a young adult, what did we enjoy doing? What places or people attracted us? At the time, we may have followed a path that seemed reasonable; we prioritized money, the social norms of our culture, or we were influenced by our parents to do so, and we buried our dream so deep that we can’t even remember what it is. But the dream still lives, shining ever so lightly like a glowing ember buried deep under layers of ashes.
Discovery literally means uncovering something that has always been there but was hidden from sight by the “blinkers of habit”.
—Herminia Ybarra, in Working Identity
3. We can align to the path of energy that, like a compass, we feel in our bodies. The truth can often be sensed in the body and the heart before it reaches the head. What activities, what people, what places, energize us? We can journal about this at the end of the day. When we look back, what and who gave us energy? Over time, we read our impressions again and start seeing the pattern of our soul.
Of course, it sounds funny, but I start from the conviction that man has also a living body and if something is true for one side, it must be true for the other. For what is the body? The body is merely the visibility of the soul, the psyche; and the soul is the psychological experience of the body. So it is really one and the same thing.
–Carl Gustav Jung, Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra
4. As we mature, our purpose is less about doing and more about being. As long as we believe that endless activity and accumulating stuff, will bring us the fulfillment we seek, we are bound to remain firmly anchored in the material world and ignore the spiritual in us. But intuitively, we discover that fulfillment cannot only be material; if it were, the rich, the famous, and the powerful among us would be also the most content. How can we surrender to what is greater than us, so that instead of asking ourselves what we want from life, we ask what life expects from us?
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.
—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
By Fabrice Desmarescaux, Managing Partner at Eric Salmon & Partners’ Singapore office
© Photo: James Donovan