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This post is a follow-up to “How to turn Purpose and Meaning into happiness”. If you haven’t yet, go check it out!
Meaning is an essential part of our lives. We can’t stay sane without it.
And yet, these days we tend to drown ourselves in noise rather than looking at the dearth of meaning that surrounds us. We are surrounded by meaningless work, done for meaningless organizations, and listening to politicians who’s discourse is utterly devoid of meaning. As our existence seems all too often to be meaningless, we drown ourselves in meaningless entertainment, meaningless escapes.
“But Maurice,” I was recently told, “I have a family to feed with my meaningless work. I have no time left to find your stupid meaning, and even if I did, I’m too bummed out to do it.” Yes, yes, that’s my point exactly.
Human beings are social creatures. We first organized in tight tribes where everyone has a part to play for the survival and prosperity of the group. Being an active, productive and meaningful part of a group is an essential part of what makes us human.
This social organization allowed to prosper beyond what most animals can achieve. It also gave us free time to explore our world, discover new techniques, and imagine ways to apply them to push back the upper limit of our tribal organization.
As our societies became larger, individuals lost their impact on the big picture. We created processes to run our sizeable social organization, and we elected ourselves as those processes’ servants, to maintain them and make sure they stayed on track. Because of that scale, our leaders became so removed from people’s lives that they ended up seeing humans as resources and created more processes to manage them. See where I’m going?
In the post “Why is changing a company so difficult?”, I explain organizations, such as companies or societies, are complex distributed systems. When there’s a power imbalance in favor of the central system (the brain, who favor high-level information) over the local systems (the appendages, who gather and analyze tons of minute local data), a lot of speed of reaction, initiative, and useful information is lost. This means that when you have a boss who says what to do and executants who have to shut up and obey orders, information is lost, and the expertise of people is wasted. To keep the body analogy, think of a brain who decide to shut off all of the body’s sense because he’s the one in charge.
This brings us to another issue that has been reinforcing the problem: we have gotten used to sell our time to an employer, rather than to sell the value of our output. Essentially, we have accepted indentured servitude in exchange for a paycheck. Liberating ourselves from the 9 to 5 grind isn’t easy. After all, we all need to eat, pay the bills and support our families. Finding understanding within the organizations that employ us isn’t easy either, merely because they “paid good money” for your time.
This isn’t a simple or easy problem to solve.
There are a few ways to make it easier to turn our Purpose into tangible Meaning.
Find a job that aligns with your Purpose.
Having a job which Purpose align precisely with yours is by far the simplest way to reach Purpose/Meaning alignment as your workdays are dedicated to your Purpose.
Many people have to make do with a full-time job to makes ends meet. They look for Work/Life Balance, or work that will leave you enough time to live and that is ready to make a concession for your life’s responsibilities (like a bit of remote work for when the kids need to stay home). Work/Life balance
Finding such a job, however, is far easier said than done. Few workplaces put any thought at all about creating meaningful jobs (other than for marketing purposes). Finding one where you will be able to apply your Purpose meaningfully is mostly a matter of luck.
This situation might seem only natural at first. I’ve heard many company owners say that their employees’ happiness or fulfillment is none of their concern. This show a lack of perspective: happy, fulfilled employees are shown to be more engaged, more productive, more loyal and an overall much better value for an employer. Arguing that they are paid to be engaged, as productive as possible, loyal to a fault and the best value possible at all time no matter how they are treated is delusional at best. You get what you give.
An increasing number of companies do realize their own interest in providing meaningful employment and treating people with respect. They don’t necessarily do it for the goodness of their hart either (although some do): the benefits are measurable and tangible. We can argue all day about the importance of doing it for the right reasons, but societal change takes time, and I’ll take any improvement I can get.
If you want to create a meaningful job for your organization, merely ask yourself: how does this job have a positive impact on the world. If it does, then make sure to specify it in the job posting to get applicants who will be motivated by that impact. If it doesn’t, then it’s not meaningful. If you can’t find meaning in the jobs you need to be done, maybe it’s time to ask yourself what is the purpose and meaning of your company.
Stop selling your time. Sell the value you produce instead, and make that value a product of your Purpose.
This is a path favored by self-employed people, even if I believe that this should be the way we all should earn our income.
An excellent first step is starting to see ourselves as an independent product or service providers. It means that you need to offer something of value, such as expertise, rather than just selling your time. Even if you are not an expert this can work: I know several teens who get their first proper job on nothing else than being reliable or diligent.
This attitude can help you better understand your own value and better position yourself by knowing what differentiator you bring to the conversation. Model your offer (and resume) around that value your offer. Keep in mind that this value will evolve or change with time. The critical thing to remember is that this value needs to be tied to your Purpose or, if you haven’t found it yet, to the path where you think your Purpose will lie.
When you have determined the value you offer, don’t compromise it. See any employer as a client, not an owner. Choose your clients carefully, as their actions and stances will reflect on you.
Always ask yourself how you can turn your offer into something that will not tie you to a 9 to 5 job, how to compress the value you deliver. For some, it will be evident, and they will embrace the self-employed (or entrepreneur) life from the get-go. For others, it will require a bit more exploration.
The whole idea is to take control of the value you deliver, and earn your income in a way that will increase the dedication to your Meaning rather than diminishing it.
This is the path I’ve chosen for myself. I’m a practical researcher of sorts. I test new organizational ideas by using my own companies (I risk my own money first), and then turn that experience into training and coaching for other companies who want to try those approaches. This allows me to earn a living while billing clients only a few days every month,
Learn to live with less and use your free time for Meaningful purposes.
I feel this one is a bit of a cop-out. It requires little change from what you currently are doing, but it does need from you to make sacrifices.
The idea of living with fewer wants in order to need less and have more time to dedicate to your meaning is kinda cool… when it’s actually a choice made possible by having few commitments and responsibilities. It’s a great path when you are 20 something and unattached. This, however, isn’t the case for the rest of us.
For some, it isn’t really about choice. Many will always opt to take care for family members who need its: a sick person, children or an elderly relative. It’s a calling, not really a choice. They know that sacrifice will be part of the game, but some things are more important than any sacrifice they’ll have to make. As a society, it is a shame that we don’t give more consideration and support for this kind of dedication.
There is no easy answer here. As a society, we need to ask ourselves why do we need to work that much to avoid abject poverty, and how can we change that. When we find those solutions, even if they are not perfect, we will give solid, decent options both for people reducing their work time to search for Meaning, and for those who have found it and are now required to free their time.
Remove the need for an income and dedicate yourself to your Purpose.
This is the easiest way to achieve Purpose/meaning alignment. Just become rich and do whatever you want. Simple enough, right?
Jokes aside, this is not entirely out of the realm of the possible. Building passive income streams, with mostly automated and/or delegated effort, is doable after you took the time to create them in the first place. It still not a reasonable path for most.
For those who can consider it, try to align your Purpose with your passive income generation. It will take time, and end up as a mixture all the approaches listed above. For example, turning your Purpose into a communicable experience and then write books or creating online classes about it will allow you to pursue your Meaning while gradually increase passive income.
I wish I’d have more advice about this path, but I still need to explore it myself. There’s a lot of literature for that out there, usually written by people who haven’t made it yet so, you know, grain of salt and all that.
New models are needed
All of the paths I mentioned here are little more than duct-taped solutions to allow us to look for Meaning in a society that uses models that don’t see the need for it.
Hivernité, one of my companies, has a workgroup dedicated to coming up with new organizational models that will offer alternatives to paying for people’s time, have built-in approaches on creating meaningful positions, betting on employees growth as an investment, and getting rid of bullshit jobs and shit jobs alike.
But we can’t do it alone. Everyone of us needs to start the discussion and make sure it doesn’t die before we have forged a better path. The is tangible value to finding one’s Meaning, regardless if we’re talking about a person, an organization or an institution.
If you want to get involved in the discussion, if you are looking at how to bring meaning to your organization or if you just want to spread those ideas, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
I am a futurist, system thinker and organizational transformation expert, dedicated to easing our transition into Society 5.0. I am available as a speaker through the think tank Hivernité (www.hivernite.ca) as well as a trainer and organizational coach through Moabi Formations (www.moabiformation.com).