Issue #77
#77 - Wanted: Meaning At Work
July 28, 2023


A quick heads up before diving into things: no newsletter next week! I'm going to take a quick break to max out the end of summer with family and will be back at it in early August. 👍

“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.” - Viktor Frankl

Seventy-six weeks ago, when Usman and I pushed our first newsletter into the ether, we created a voice-over video to capture what we wanted to achieve with TalentStories. The text of the clip is still on our site. It still gets to the gist of what we're about, and this line in particular still resonates:

"Welcome to TalentStories, the missing conversation about work: a guide for the curious, the bold, and the optimistic on our quest to define meaning and success in a complex, changing world."

When we connect, Usman and I still refer to the journeys we are both on. And for us, while work is changing radically, it is still a vehicle through which to derive meaning.

But "meaning" is, in a word, squishy. We know we need it; and we often know when we've found it, after the fact. But it's fundamentally elusive, nebulous, and hard to define. (Not to mention awfully easy to confuse with its close cousin: "purpose").

So what is meaning? And how does it manifest at work?

This week, we use our 3 Stories to inch closer if not to a shared definition, then to a shared understanding. An appreciation of meaning as something uniquely human and non-negotiable that we hope we can apply as much to ourselves as to our teams.

🎯 Story #1 - First off: "Purpose" "Meaning". OK...but then what the heck is the difference? Check out this tidy, useful differentiation, and never conflate the two terms again. ✌️

🎯 Story #2 -
Having separated "purpose" from "meaning", and tucked purpose away as fodder for another issue, we dig into meaning. Why is it so hard to define? And what can we learn from the scholars who study the phenomenon for a living? 🤔
🎯 Story #3 - A beautiful definition of meaning underscores that finding it is a deeply human and individual quest; an effort that is as active as it is complex. This quote inspires us to go right after it. 🙌

Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a fantastic week!

Aki + Usman


#Meaning #Purpose≠Meaning #Differentiation

Confession: when I read and highlight content to use in this newsletter, one of the tags I use is "Purpose / Meaning". I dump anything and everything related to either concept into the same, tag.

Thanks to authors Erik Mosley and Derek Irvine, though, I now appreciate how misguided that has been. ❌ And, I have a dead-simple way to differentiate the two ideas going forward. ✅

Granted, there are probably other ways to delineate things. And that's not to say we don't also have a personal or individual purpose. But in an organizational/work context, this bifurcation works really well: purpose is something shared among employees or a team. It's a "why" that describes the impact we will have by working together for that organization.

By contrast, meaning is inherently personal: different team members derive different meaning, from different types of work, for different reasons. Even two people doing the exact same work or job function might derive different meaning from that work.

Our next story drives home just how (wonderfully) individual meaning can be.


#Meaning #IndividuallyDerived #Vocab

Yes, there are people whose full-time job is to study meaning. This article by Joe Keohane is pay-walled, but it's a fantastic romp through decades of efforts to understand the concept of meaning at work, up to including the most recent research on the topic. It includes gems of insight like this one, describing how critical meaning is as a component of our work:

People with meaningful work flourish. People without it suffer. "A lack of meaningful work has long been recognized as a primary source of alienation, anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and boredom in the modern era," write Jing Hu and Jacob Hirsch, psychologists at the University of Toronto. And a perception that our work is meaningless, or even insufficiently meaningful, is a recipe for burnout.

Meantime, academic Christopher Michaelson shares in the quote above that there are likely 8 billion different definitions of meaning -- one for every person on earth. 🤯

Mind-blowing as this is, we also see a certain beauty in it: the idea that meaning is fundamentally human; something we all need, and seek. And at the same time, something we all have the power to create our own version of, in our lives, and in our work. ❤️

Things get really inspiring, though, in our next story -- when we dig into how we derive meaning.


#Meaning #HowTo #EasierSaidThanDone

John W. Gardner was a psychologist who also served in President Lyndon B. Johnson's cabinet in the 1960's as US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. His quote here is so inspiring, and so useful for advancing our understanding of "meaning".

I mentioned in Story #1 that as part of curating content for this newsletter I had tagged dozens of highlights related to meaning. From that content -- and from the academics like Gardner who study the concept -- several themes emerge:

On the one hand, meaning is individually defined, as we've established above. But we consistently derive it in relation to someone or something "other": in relation to other people; to causes, and to commitments, and to work that are "bigger than we are". Gardner's quote makes this clear. So does this one, from author Adam Curtis:

The hyper-individualism of our age is not going to go back into the bottle. You've got to square the circle. You've got to let people still feel they're independent individuals, yet they're giving themselves up to something that is for something greater and more powerful than them that carries them into the future beyond their own existence. This is the thing that people are yearning for.

Brené Brown makes a similar point when she defines spirituality as the belief that we're inexplicably connected to one another by "something bigger than us", before offering a beautifully diverse set of examples of spirituality:

I define spirituality as the belief that we’re inextricably connected to each other by something bigger than us. Some people call that bigger thing God. Some people call it fishing. Some people call it art. Spirituality is no more, no less, than the belief that we’re connected to each other in a way that’s unbreakable.

There's one other common theme that emerges in the writing and literature on meaning, which is that it requires work, and effort. Deriving it is an active process. Gardener's quote highlights this reality, but this take from psychologist Susan David is even more explicit:

We don't get to have a meaningful career, raise a family, create change, or leave the world in a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.

It seems that meaning is universally required, individually defined, and derived in relation to others. But attaining it is also hard work that is well worth the effort. As much at work, as outside of it. ✌️

Thanks for reading -- and see you in August! 🙌

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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