Once it was regarded as the “soft stuff” of business, now meaning is becoming a real attraction for younger generations who want a “purposeful life” in work places. Meaning is becoming an unparalleled differentiator for companies like Apple who understand that reason for being gives people a cause in which to - and makes money. By MANDY DE WAAL and DAVE DUARTE.
Once upon a time there was a man who ruled a South African merchant bank. He helped start the company and after many years it was one of the mightiest in the land. He had scaled the pinnacle of success, created a home that was the envy of all, had a beautiful wife, a wonderful family and was wealthy beyond his dreams. Despite all this he woke up with a depression that wouldn’t leave him. He called in consultants and all they could offer him was expensive advice. None could give him what would remedy his darkness and that was the need to create meaning and not just money.
There is as yet no ending to this story, which is based on fact. Perhaps that man might be inspired by another story about a man who went in search of meaning whose name was Siddhartha. Written by Hermann Hesse, “Siddartha” is a typical work from the Swiss-German Nobel Prize-winning author because his allegories are all about self-actualisation, authenticity and people’s timeless search for purpose.
A tale about two friends called Siddhartha and Govinda who go in search of enlightenment, Hesse writes about how Govinda remains on a singular path in the quest for self-actualisation by staying at a spiritual school. Siddhartha leaves the school, and goes out into the world where he experiences lust, wealth, deprivation, poverty, spirituality and self-denial. The book makes an astute case for experience over adopted knowledge as the greatest font of wisdom.
What the tale of the merchant banker and “Siddartha” have in common is that epic journey that insinuates itself into peoples’ lives - the quest for meaning. What’s relevant to both stories is that meaning isn’t about abandoning who or what you are to go to an ashram. Rather, our daily work offers significant opportunity to grow our sense of purpose in life and to discover self-actualisation through the experience of our work and relationships with others.
Meaning was often downplayed as the “soft stuff” in a linear, industrialised age, but it is becoming central to a new world of work where skill shortages mean that businesses need to attract bright young “Millennials” with more than just the offer of a large paycheck. While older generations defined themselves through their work and work ethic, Generation Y is less concerned about work, and more concerned about life.
The advent of the mobile office, nomadic careers and always-on networks means the boundaries between work and life are blurring. The “Millennial’s” response is to look for careers aligned to their value systems, rather than Generation Y fitting in with someone else’s vision and mission.
Author and economist Umair Haque, who spends much of his time thinking about “reconceiving” capital, says when he looks at the world he sees “an outcomes gap: a yawning chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between what our economy produces and what you might call a meaningfully well-lived life, what the ancient Greeks called ‘eudaimonia’.”
Generally understood as happiness, “eudaimonia” comes from the Greek words "eu" (good) and "daim?n" (a type of supernatural being) which literally means to have a flourishing being.
Haque says a good life today has been “vacantly reduced to the frenzied sport of buying ‘consumer goods’ — more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now.” He adds that, although it might be hard to admit, deep down we know our habits are leaving us financially and fiscally broken, as well as intellectually, physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually empty.
In an appeal for “eudaimonic” prosperity Haque advocates the need to master igniting the art of living meaningfully, and cultivating new habits that are not concerned with the consumption and acquisition of consumer goods. These new habits, he says, are all about living by working and playing instead of having, and creating a better life instead of acquiring more.
To enable to flourish Haque advocates a shift from measuring growth to ascertaining whether people are becoming “wholer, wiser, and more accomplished”. “I believe the quantum leap from opulence to ‘eudaimonia’ is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes,” Haque predicts.
The big question for the head of that merchant bank is: “How do you get to ‘eudaimonia’?” There are no shortcuts or definitive maps and each person will find his own way. But there are lots of clues.
The first is contained in thinking from that military strategist that so many industrial businesses love, Sun Tzu. “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles... if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.”
This advice becomes incredibly useful when you start thinking about it through a singular rather than a relational lens. Think of the enemy not as some external corporate foe, but rather as the enemy within, and the battle as the war that rages within the self.
Knowing yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses isn’t a once-off affair, but an ongoing practice of constant reflection. Knowing what makes you lazy, bitter, fearful or resentful and what makes you grow, inspired and alive is a significant step toward creating meaning.
The word “creating” is used deliberately because people don’t have to go out and find meaning, rather they make meaning. The big epiphany with Siddartha is that “enlightenment” or understanding is achieved through internalising experience or comprehending your journey in life rather than through external pursuits.
It is one thing creating meaning for yourself, but if you are a leader, how do you begin to craft meaning for those who have chosen to work for you? Anthropological student-turned-author (“Start with Why”) Simon Sinek says four years ago he made a profound discovery and that this changed his view about how he thought the world works and how he operates in the world.
“All the great and inspiring leaders and organisations and people in the world, whether it is Martin Luther King, or Apple or the Wright Brothers, they all think, act and communicate in the exact same way and it is the complete opposite of everyone else,” says Sinek.
“Everyone on this planet knows what they do. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiating value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very few organisations know why they do what they do. And by ‘why’ I don’t mean to make a profit, that is a result, it is always a result. By ‘why’ I mean what is your purpose, your cause, your belief? Why does your organisation exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning and why should anyone care?”
Sinek says most people operate from the outside in, going from the clearest thing (what we do) to the fuzziest thing (why we do what we do). He says what distinguishes the Martin Luther Kings, the Wright Brothers and the Apples of this world are that they do this the other way around. The greats always start with why.
“There are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority. But those who lead inspire us. We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves,” says Sinek. “And it is those who start with why that have the ability to inspire those around them, or find others that inspire them.” DM
- How great leaders inspire action in The Guardian;
Watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk “How great leaders inspire action”:
- Simon Sinek’s site Start With Why;
- Is a Well-Lived Life Worth Anything? by Umair Haque at Harvard Business Review;
- How great leaders inspire action in The Guardian;
Watch Umair Haque talking on A Better Path to Prosperity: