Life Isn’t Random
Perhaps you hate your job but stick with it for security, all the while wondering whether life might hold more, and what that more might be. Maybe you perceive that you are the victim of bad luck, and that the only breaks you get are bad breaks. Maybe you wish that, for once, you could take control of your life. If so, you aren’t the only person who feels that way. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, was an inmate at several Nazi concentration camps. After World War II, he founded a humanistic strain of psychotherapy called Logotherapy. The theories of Logotherapy can help you find meaning in your work. Some people find meaning in even the most routine and seemingly meaningless work. Consider your mail carrier, for example. Carrying mail doesn’t require an advanced academic degree. Yet, some mail carriers recognize that their work is indispensable to others, that it may in fact be (literally) part of a life-saving mission. Who knows what could be in a bag of mail? It is not the job that gives meaning to the person’s life, but the person who gives meaning to the job. You have the freedom to choose how you will respond to circumstances. Everyone does. People often have no control over their circumstances, but they always have a choice about how to respond. It isn’t easy to decide to find meaning in your work, nor is it easy to appreciate the value of your co-workers as human beings. But Frankl teaches that every person is valuable and life can be meaningful no matter how impoverished it seems. His work centers around the idea that you can govern your own attitude, imbue your life with meaning, labor in your own best interests and, eventually, reach beyond yourself to build authenticity and fruitful relationships.
Viktor Frankl and His Work
The Library of Congress ranked Viktor Frankl’s classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, among America’s most influential literary works. Frankl began writing about the meaning of life at age 16, when he gave a public lecture on the subject. At 19, urged on by Sigmund Freud, he wrote an article that was published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. His early work reflects two basic ideas: people are responsible for the meaning in their own lives and human beings cannot comprehend the final meaning of life, but must have faith.
In 1924, at 20, Frankl began medical school, and became friends with Alfred Adler, the famous psychiatrist. That year, Adler encouraged him to publish a second article in the same journal. A year later, Frankl coined the word “Logotherapy” – or at least put it into public usage. After completing his degree in 1930, he became affiliated with the University Clinic in Vienna. He had a private practice there until the Germans invaded Austria in 1938. As head of the neurological unit at the Rothschild Hospital, Frankl faced a personal test when Nazis demanded that he kill the mentally ill. He circumvented the Nazis by issuing false diagnoses. Frankl began writing a book, The Doctor and the Soul, but the Nazis confiscated it. They arrested him in 1942, and later murdered his wife, brother and parents in the camps. The
Nazis moved Frankl from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Dachau to Turkheim. He later attributed his survival to his determination to somehow recover his confiscated book. He stole paper from the camp office and rewrote it from memory. But the new book was much different from the original. He wrote frankly about the horrors of life in the concentration camps, yet insisted that the human spirit was strong enough to find meaning even in appalling circumstances.
He wrote, “You do not have to suffer to learn. But, if you don’t learn from suffering, over which you have no control, then your life becomes truly meaningless … the way in which a man accepts his fate – those things beyond his control – can add a deeper meaning to his life. He controls how he responds.” For example, Frankl wrote of starving men who walked around the death camps comforting others, even giving away their own last bread crusts.
Frankl observed that such men, “may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
U.S. Senator John McCain used that quote in the preface of his 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers. McCain said Frankl’s teachings helped him survive his seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The Maze of Meaning Consider the example of Winston, a New Orleans bus driver, who was full of merriment and curiosity. He greeted everyone on the bus with a hearty “Welcome to Nawlins!” and when they got off, he reminded them, “Don’t leave anything on the bus.” Winston showed a real interest in learning as much as he could about his passengers. He wanted to know where they came from, what they did for a living, why they had come to “Nawlins.” Winston made it clear that he really liked and valued people and found them meaningful. He was not only driving a bus, he was exploring his own personal “inner bus route,” to find meaning in his work. If a bus driver can do this, so can a CEO, although the corporate world can be a more difficult context for establishing personal connections and finding deep meaning. Opportunities to make people feel appreciated, valued and personally noticed might not spring up as easily for a CEO as for a bus driver. But it is possible to find them with diligent searching.
Tom Chappell, founder of Tom’s of Maine, also sought meaning in work. He began his career by inventing Clearlake, a laundry detergent that did no environmental harm. Next, he developed a health-ful, sugar-free toothpaste that initially was sold mainly in health food stores. Tom’s company did very well throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. But he ultimately had to decide whether he was really cut out to be a businessman. In the mid- 1980s, he felt a call to become an Episcopal minister. Moreover, as his company grew, the sharp young MBA’s on his staff pushed for changes – such as adding saccharin to Tom’s of Maine toothpaste to make it tastier. In 1988, Tom enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School. He worked hard, running the company part time and studying part time. He read religious philosophers, such as Martin Buber, who wrote of the “I-thou” and “I-it” relationships people can chose to have, and Jonathan Edwards, who wrote of the importance of good relationships. Chappell’s studies convinced him that his work as a CEO could be deeply meaningful. He began to consider Tom’s of Maine not just as a company but as a web of relationships with customers, employees, suppliers, government, and even the environment.
You Can Choose Other examples support Frankl’s point. Three Greek generals seized control of that country in 1967. When the government changed again in 1974, one of the generals – author Alex Pattakos’ uncle – went to prison for 20 years for treason. This prisoner of conscience had a “will to meaning,” a determination to fulfill his purpose, that helped him survive. The late actor Christopher Reeve made a choice after an equestrian accident rendered him a quadriplegic. Reeve spent the rest of his life fighting to help people with similar injuries. He wrote, “I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles…When a catastrophe happens, it’s easy to feel so sorry for yourself that you can’t see anybody around you. But the way out is through your relationships.” Free to choose, Reeve chose to find real meaning in his condition. At a conference on psychotherapy in 1990, Viktor Frankl recalled his incarceration by the Nazis and his “coping maxim,” which was, “Unless there was a 100% guarantee that I will be killed here on the spot, and … never survive this concentration camp … I’m responsible for living from now on in a way that I may make use of the slightest chance of survival, ignoring the great danger surrounding me…”
As an exercise, think of the worst thing that ever happened to you. Recall something very negative, something that stressed you to your limit, beyond it, maybe even past your breaking point. Now write 10 good things that happened as a result. Read the list and admit that the positive is possible no matter what the situation. Now, whenever you think of some terrible circumstance, imagine 10 positive things that could result. You can choose to embody “true optimism” by making three distinct resolutions: to have an upbeat attitude about your circumstances, no matter how dire; to visualize possibilities in a creative, positive way and to have the passion to reach the positive possibilities. Meaning Is the Product of Will Possibilities may begin with visualization, but they don’t stop there. Freud believed in a will to pleasure, Adler in a will to power, Frankl in a will to meaning. Of the three, the third is healthiest, but it does not come without effort. You must generate your own will to meaning.
In today’s culture, people tend to segregate work life from personal life. This is probably a mistake. Whatever you do at work can have meaning in your personal life. A Canadian ad campaign tagged “Freedom 55” appealed to the twin ideals of financial independence and freedom. In the ads, freedom meant freedom from going to work or doing anything one did not want to do, as guaranteed by financial independence. Yet many Canadians have opted not to retire, to continue to work, because in work they find meaning.
Many corporate leaders have recognized the meaning of their organizations and their employees. Öystein Skalleberg, who founded the Swedish equipment manufacturer Skaltek AB, explains, “Every human being is a Leonardo da Vinci. The only problem is that he doesn’t know it. His parents didn’t know it, and they didn’t treat him like a Leonardo. Therefore he didn’t become like a Leonardo. That’s my basic theory.”
Don’t Frustrate Yourself
Life’s meaning is meaning. Work’s meaning is meaning. Success does not mean achieving certain test scores or meeting certain metrics. The meaning of success is meaning itself. As the old saying goes, it’s not what you do that matters, but how you do it. Sometimes the best intentions do not come out well. You may seek a certain kind of success so avidly and eagerly that you disregard and disrupt the relationships that are necessary for you to achieve success. Just think of the micro-managing manager, or the promotion hungry colleague, so focused on some goal that they alienate the people around them. They refuse to see that the people are more important than the goal, but without the cooperation of the people, the goal is impossible to achieve. They are so afraid of missing their goal that fear drives them to the wrong kind of conduct. They might as well use paradoxical intention – actually imagining and intending the opposite of what they really want. When you are afraid of something, actually imagine it happening. See the worst possible outcome. Accept it, plan for it and get beyond it. Strange things happen when you do this. Viktor Frankl once ran a red light, but he got out of a traffic ticket by loudly and energetically admitting guilt, accusing himself and confessing that he deserved punishment when the police officer approached his car. The cop ended up trying to calm him down and telling him that everyone makes a mistake now and then, it’s no big deal. Courage does not mean having no fear. It means going through fear to find meaning. Reflect on all that you have said and done. Face your fears and don’t let them control you.
See Yourself in Context
Pretend you are writing your own obituary or eulogy. What will it say? When you look back on your life, on the people you have known, on the things you have done, what picture do you see? Everybody would prefer to live without making any mistakes, without ever being mocked or embarrassed. But, unfortunately, nobody gets through life without making some mistakes. So why not detach from your fear, admit that you made mistakes and laugh along with everyone else? Mistakes are, or should be, opportunities to learn. One of the most important lessons to learn is humility. Detachment is not denial. Admit the mistake and admit your circumstances, but choose to use it in a positive way. Calm down. Breathe deeply and slowly. When circumstances are negative, visualize the positive. Find meaning no matter what your work or your challenges may be.
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* This is a summary of Prisoners of Our Thoughts by Alex Pattakos. I have tried to make this summary as precise and as concise as possible but it is still possible that I may have missed on any nitty- gritty anywhere. For more details, please read the book.