Sooner or later we will all ask the question of “why am I doing all of this?” or “what is life for?” or endless variations of the above.
This cold-light-of-day assessment (maybe as the result of a crisis) is you trying to work out something like “am I living my life by focusing on what is meaningful and important (to me) and authentically in tune with my core values and beliefs?”.
Why not ask yourself the question now?
The answer could go one of two ways:
- You’re broadly on track
- You’re not
I’ve had the second feeling too many times to mention — once or twice it has been a house of cards falling down existential crisis, or more often a dull feeling that things are not quite right. I’m starting to feel on track more and more often, using the same techniques that I’m sharing in this and my other articles.
What happened for me is that about three years ago a number of big changes all came in the space of a year: getting married, a health scare (unfounded), a moment of personal enlightenment, moving countries and starting a new job.
While working out how to deal with life my management consulting instinct kicked in — I asked myself what a vision of an ideal life would be, and what are the components of that. This spurred further questions and investigation, and development of a personal methodology of how to know and follow what is important… and to move towards that vision.
There are several important aspects to this which I’m pulling together into an integrated guide — but let me share my learnings on three questions in case these are of use to you:
- Understanding what meaning isn’t
- Where to look for meaning
- Ways to bring more meaning into your life
1. What meaning isn’t
Imagine you are looking at a cool glass of water that you’ve poured for yourself. There is probably a small gap between the water and the top of the glass. Often we look for meaning in that gap (i.e. to put more in, almost to overflowing)… so what is filling the rest of the glass?
The rest of the glass is filled with work and the bits of life that we can fit in around that.
This glass of water often feels like a glass of sand instead — not very refreshing — particularly if you have a work-life balance issue. Wouldn’t it be better to work on the majority of life rather than to just squeeze more in to the gaps?
There are many reasons why we don’t do this — one is that our society is geared up to focus mostly on a narrow application of “the money problem” i.e. getting a job so that you can be self-sufficient — meaning is left to chance. I don’t remember attending much more than an 1/2 hour discussion of meaning in decades of study. The issue is that meaning doesn’t happen automatically.
Meaning isn’t the same as success. If you think about how you’d define success then it might be in terms of money, status and possessions and so on. Even though we all know the divorced, burnt out professional with health issues (it may even have been us) — the traditional definition of success is hard to shake off. Even more than that there is somewhat a suspicion of those that want to focus on areas outside of work, or even to focus on meaning inside of work. This has to change.
I realised that one of the biggest issues with the idea of work-life balance is that work and life are not a trade-off or zero-sum game i.e. increase one, decrease the other. Instead the field of play is more like what is called in economics a production possibility frontier. You can get more outputs for the same inputs if you change the way that the outputs are produced. Both are facets of the one life you have.
Here is this idea as a matrix:
Where does your work sit in terms of money and meaning from strong negative to strong positive?
Where is your life overall in the diagram?
Don’t overthink this just plot the points as best you can according to what your intuition says when you think of meaning.
Now imagine a future with more money and more meaning! The idea that we can’t have both is so ingrained in society that we don’t even ask for it any more. Yet in my consulting I’ve helped clients increase both aspects on similar matrices time and time again — by challenging the underlying assumptions and (imaginary) constraints for each.
I believe that I can increase both in my life too — by starting with what is meaningful then working on my money mechanism, rather than the other way around (which I’ve been doing for most of my life).
2. Where to look for meaning
First let me ask what is meaning for you?
The meaning axis for me represents intrinsic factors of life such as: personal relationships, spirituality (in the broadest sense), vocation, physical and mental health and certain experiences / activities. I call these the pillars of life. Meaning also includes the overall congruence (or lack of congruence) of how I spend my energy and time, in line with my core values and beliefs.
As you heard in my last post I wanted to increase my focus on these meaning areas: by getting fitter, improving quality of time spent with family and friends and upgrading the meaning in my work.
One of my biggest insights is that if you can find meaning in life, it can help you to find the meaning of life.
The defence mechanism against regret is to have meaning anchored against multiple pillars of your life.
You can also find clues to meaning by looking in your past — when did you feel most alive, what situation were you in at the time and what was the cause? In addition to the pillars above (e.g. spending time with my child, wife, friends and family) I feel alive when I’m learning and particularly when I’m teaching. I also feel alive when I’m able to create an experience for other people that engages the senses (e.g. using sights and sounds) and moves people forward.
You can look for clues in your present — what you are curious about or has been on your to-do list for a long time. Once you’ve identified the different elements of meaning that are most significant to you then you can look for opportunities to immerse yourself in them further i.e. “to dial up meaning”. This will be discussed more in the next section.
I found meaning from starting to create again. Like a lot of people that do “office work” my job as a consultant is fairly abstract and intangible much of the time. I produce lots of outputs: emails, documents, graphics, slides, presentations, workshops and so on — but writing a good PowerPoint slide is not the same as carving The David out of a piece of marble.
All of these outputs were means-to-an end, functional, industrial design at best, and disposable at worst (once the job was done). They did not have any lasting permanent expression. They were thinking but not necessarily feeling.
Some of the hobbies I’d had before starting my corporate job started to creep in again… making music, photography and writing — after a trickle the floodgates opened.
What’s also significant here is that creating replaces the void where consuming existed before. Actually it’s not a void. Surfing the internet, buying stuff you don’t need and letting messages and media wash over you uses up real life-energy, time and money for little return in meaning. Part of increasing meaning is flicking the switch from consuming to creating. I still watch TV and stream video but now more often than not it’s about music or my interests. I learn consciously and unconsciously from what I see, so my consuming is now helping me to create more / better etc.
When you’re dialling through different elements of your life there are things that pop up that can look a lot like meaning but aren’t (in my view).
For example: Satisfaction, experiences, happiness and intensity are not the same as meaning either. You can replace the money axis with any of the words above if you want to check for yourself — and these things are “easy” to achieve also, at least in the short term.
It’s pretty obvious but working hard at anything does bring its own (temporary) satisfaction, and having lots of experiences and fleeting moments of happiness is engaging and can seem like a surrogate for meaning when we’re busy but they’re not! Meaning is the slow-burn feeling that if your day of reckoning comes today then you are on track.
If you've worked in a professional field for a while then it's time to feel again...in order to get more meaning. This may sound strange but one of the hallmarks of professional work (particularly in professional services firms) is a level of objective detachment and a focus on the facts and figures. You may find that you're a gatekeeper or an obstacle to getting more meaning in your life because you're applying the same detached approach to your life.
3. Getting more meaning (and money)
The first two steps to getting more meaning are about knowing (recognising and prioritising) what meaning is to you. The final step is about following, or getting the meaning.
This doesn’t have to be over-complicated. Based on your assessment of your pillars (people, work, spirituality, health, experiences) you can prioritise which areas you want to work on first and then identify some initial actions to put in place. I wanted to exercise my writing and expressive skills so joining a writers group was the right idea — I just had to work on the execution… i.e. being disciplined to write even when I wasn’t in town, so that I had 2–3 new things to pick from the next time I could attend the group.
For you this could also be as simple as locking in a regular “date-night” with your partner or offering to teach a training course at work. You can go into deeper and deeper levels of detail for each pillar to come up with a more comprehensive plan, but for now get some quick wins in place. I will also cover off in a future post how to create space to begin to make changes — particularly if you’re experiencing a work-life balance crisis.
It’s a simple technique but also give yourself permission to ask how you feel about your life and each aspect of it (e.g. the pillars)… and listen to your response. Do you have a gap between head and heart in work for example?
Like a lot of personal transformation making the change begins with experimentation. Trying something puts you in the shoes of a future you for a second. As you push further out this becomes you — you close the gap between head (how you see yourself) and heart (what you are).
For example: creating is important to me but I’d been through a long spell where I’d been mainly a consumer. The first small experiment was to get a not-rubbish compact camera to get some photos when I was travelling places for work. I started to get some nice shots and that pulled me into getting a slightly better camera and learning more about the technical aspects of it and so on…
It had been over 20 years since I made music (I bought some keyboards and gear back then sold it after not making much progress) and when I moved to the US I’d bought a guitar which I was struggling to learn to play. Things changed when I went to a writers group and was “forced” to write poetry and prose regularly. My basic poems were getting more and more musical and I realised that I was writing songs. I traded my fancy guitar that I couldn’t play for one that I felt comfortable with. I found that I could turn the melodies of the words into music in my head, and learned to reverse engineer these back to be played on the guitar. I wrote an album of songs in a few months. I guess the point of this is not to impress you — but to impress upon you that you probably have these types of meaning-hooks in your life and your past, and I’d wager that you know what they are too. You may find that there are unintended positive consequences once you start to do something about your hunches.
Another “hook” for me is wanting to do something to help those that have lost all hope. To be honest I don’t fully understand why this pops into my head again and again or what it really means…but I know that it’s been around enough to need to do something about it… and to find an experiment to see what form that could take.
There are almost endless options to upgrade your meaning at work if you work for large organisations
(which often have resources and initiatives you can get involved with) or small organisations (where you may be able to redefine your role). Alternatively a larger change may be required.
Once you have a sense of what good looks like for meaning, you can ask “how can I set up the money mechanism to deliver on that”.
The two most powerful ways to transform your money and meaning equation are to move from:
- A job to a vocational portfolio
- Hours-in to value created
A job is just one mechanism to make money, and your current job and role are an even more specific example of the thousands or millions of permutations out there for generating money.
You can likely name others: assets (rents, capital gains and interest), selling content, selling products and/or services, licensing Intellectual Property, making introductions / deals and so on. The more broadly you can think about the money mechanism the more likely you are to find a method or portfolio of approaches that help you to generate money and meaning in more effective way.
For example my old money mechanism was a job in management consulting working for a big firm. I exchanged my ideas / creativity, experience and ability to get projects done for a salary. In future I’ll still be using ideas / creativity and experience to generate income, but instead the mechanism will be based on content sales and project fees as well as selling other products and services, based on the value they create to the people using them.
This last point is a key one. Look up the definition of “work” in the dictionary — what do you find? Something like “ongoing mental or physical activity exchanged for income”. I’ve added the word ongoing to emphasise that the the traditional mindset we have about work is that the outputs are in proportion to continuous inputs. The longer and harder we work — the more outputs we get?
Increasingly in the corporate world this is not true — you can work longer and harder for the same or less (in real terms) outputs. If you really want to transform the outputs you get then you need to either change what you do, or the mechanism for setting the price. You can also move from continuous inputs (hours) to assets (returns).
You can waste a lot of physical and emotional energy trying to fit life in around an outdated or the wrong money idea. You can increase both, by starting with meaning and then transforming your money equation to deliver on that. Your meaning : money equation is actually a portfolio of things in your life (i.e. the matrix at the start of the article). Your portfolio may have 20 things or may have 5 — the number is not important. You may be able to find a primary activity that delivers money and meaning, or you supplement money from one source with assets you create, or meaning from other projects in your life that focus on non-financial value.
I hope that reading this post has prompted you to think about your money : meaning equation in a different way, and even to identify and take some initial actions to improve it.
Please let me know what you think about what you’ve read so far, and if you like it please join the mailing list.
Have a good one!