Don’t search for meaning, otherwise you’ll never find it

Most recently, the term ‘meaning’ has entered the business lexicon. So much so that McKinsey have developed a ‘meaning quotient’ to measure the level of meaning within an organisation. ‘Meaning’ and finding meaning in one’s work has become the new holy grail, the next big thing beyond employee engagement.

And yet an interesting article by MAPP graduate, Genevieve Douglass in Positive Psychology News Daily points out the complexities in meaning. In searching for meaning, we potentially destroy any opportunity to experience or create this meaning. According to Douglass, this is because creativity and goal pursuit (such as picking out a purpose in life) are separate neural processes. The more engaged you are searching for your purpose, the less imaginative you can be, according to neuroscience.

In the last few years, the term calling has been used in psychology to describe a sense of working because you love the work, not for money or respect, but because it gives you a sense of meaning. About a third of people view their work this way, while a third of us see work as a career, something to build status and find constant achievement, and a third of us see work more the way the Ancient Greeks did, something we get through so that we can pursue our calling as a potato sculptor.

The lucky 33% of people who have a calling are more satisfied with their lives and jobs, have fewer health problems, feel more energetic, experience more meaning and significance from work, and miss fewer days of it. They also tended to make more money and think of themselves as having a higher social status than people with careers and jobs, so perhaps some jobs are more conducive to being callings than others. However, researcher Amy Wrzesniewki and her colleagues have found that even janitors can find meaning in the work.

So why is it tricky to find one’s life purpose? Purpose is probably something that will require some inspiration. So, even though you know you want to write a book, the actual writing of the book can be hampered by aiming for a book. You just need to get on with the writing and ignore that it may or may not be a book. At some point you’ll want to pop your head up and see if you’re making any sense. But that’s a different mindset, best saved for a different time.

In other words, spending your time with your foot on the ship bow, your hand at your brow blocking the sun, hoping that your calling will appear, spouting like a sea sprite, is probably going to keep you from developing it. (Unless you feel called to pursue your calling, which I guess could happen.) In fact, pursuing such happiness can actually detract from being happy. It’s just like being in a relationship. If you’re still looking around at other people, you’re not committed to making what you’ve got into something amazing.

What are the big take-aways about meaning and calling? It’s okay if you don’t know what your calling is. Just say that to yourself and let it sit for a second. Just notice what you’re curious about and who you enjoy being around. Follow what spurs you into action. It might be comforting to know that even if you did find your calling, that feeling is most likely to change as we grow and develop.

From an organisational perspective, organisations might be wise avoiding imposing an artificial meaning into roles through tightly worded mission or vision statements. Particularly as many as 2/3 of employees may not derive meaning from their work. Maybe it is more about helping them find what aspects of their work they find meaningful without any value judgements.