Finding your element

10 mins

What is a meaningful life? What is meaningful work? And finally, what is meaning? This week, we’ll explore the topic of finding your element.

Let’s admit it. We spend a lot of time at work in any given week, even more so than we spend it with our friends or family.

As much as it’s important not to let work define you (because it’s unhealthy), it does shape your perspective on the world and your relationship to it.

This is why finding meaning (within or around work) is so important.

On Meaningful Work

On Friday, I attended an event “On Meaningful Work” hosted by the Disruptive Business Network in Melbourne. The room filled up pretty quickly despite the early morning start time—a feat for many of us (myself included) who hang off the night-owl clock.

The speaker, Manoj Dias is the founder of A—SPACE, a drop-in meditation studio in Melbourne. He shared his story about moving from Sri Lanka to Far North Queensland and feeling like he didn’t belong as “the brown kid”. Eventually he moved with his family to rural Victoria. At 19, he had a child and started working at a bank’s call centre.

After climbing the bank’s corporate ladder to a marketing executive position selling credit cards, Manoj described how he “looked like he had everything, but felt empty inside”. Due to the high pressure, Manoj experienced panic attacks and had to leave his job.

He found solace in meditation and 12 years later (through a rocky journey including getting down to his last $50) started A—Space. He now spends six months of the year in Melbourne and six months in New York growing his meditation communities.

Manoj by no means puts himself forward as a “perfect and calm” person. It was inspiring to see that any journey to finding meaning through work and life takes ongoing effort.

Work it

The topic of meaningful work has relevance for all. We must expand the concept of “work” to all forms of active engagement. This includes unpaid work like being a carer for a family member (one of the hardest forms of work out there).

In “Lawyer Land”, meaningful work can seem like a distant concept. We perceive the legal profession as distinct from other professions involving an element of care, like nursing or teaching. Lawyering (yes, now a word) seems to add little value in a “me-first” society. And unlike nursing or teaching, it doesn’t have an immediate feedback loop to let you know that you’ve done a good job. Lawyers also realise that you can’t please everyone.

This is why lawyers need to think a bit harder about what meaningful work is about. This includes thinking about how and what we contribute. At the core, lies meaning. In short, who are you helping in your day-to-day? Does this hold meaning for you?

At law school, everyone proclaimed their desire to be a human rights advocate. It sounded good and meaningful. The reality is that there is no single correct path to finding meaningful work. While enjoying what you do is a crucial first step, it’s important to separate out meaningful work from the vague concept of “saving the world” or a desire to gain approval from others. These are difficult things to do in the legal profession—especially when most care about hierarchy, prestige, money, and accolades.

While working as a judge’s associate, I realised that judges only heard a tiny subset of disputes. Most cases settle, but only after spending a good few months observing the parties bicker over how the other side hasn’t done X, Y or Z. Judges spend a large chunk of time presiding over parties refusing to produce documents, or hearing technical arguments about legal professional privilege. It is possible for associates to spend an entire year and not experience even one trial—a visible act of dispensing justice.

In this narrow sense, even the work of judges can seem meaningless. However, we know that the importance of judicial officers in our society also stems from the symbolic nature of their work—not just the precedents they set in their judgments or overseeing the childlike litigants who turn up at court.

The reality is that every job has its drudgery. You won’t be bouncing off the walls in delight every time you see someone file a new writ or as you mark up documents in track changes. But there are opportunities for how we can find more meaning in work and life.

Two books that provide a great deal of guidance:

1. You do you

The first obvious point is that not everyone was made to start a meditation studio. What works for Manoj, isn’t always going to float your boat.

We were all given different gifts in this life. The most important thing is to find your element.

In Breaking Badly, the author describes how she started working at a large commercial firm and at her lowest point, was admitted into a psychiatric hospital. While she knew in her gut that being a lawyer wasn’t for her, she persisted until she couldn’t continue any longer. On reflection, she says:

“… when an individual feels authentically connected to their work, and when they are working in a way that suits their natural strengths, they are far more likely to succeed. It makes sense: working with the grain—as opposed to against it—is energising rather than energy-depleting.”
Breaking Badly, page 251

Another thing to remember is that we shouldn’t freak out that we’re not “saving the world” or getting featured on the cover of TIME. Is there something that you can do for someone else within your actual or potential capacity that can make their life better? It’s through what we already do that can give life more meaning. If you sit at the front desk of any office, you’re not “just a receptionist”—you’re the face of the company. This fact is often ignored. A little smile and warmth can go a long way.

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.”

Man’s Search for Meaning, page 113

What is it that you do which is meaningful? If not at work, then perhaps outside of it? Let’s think more about how we can increase and focus on the meaningful exchanges in our lives.

2. It’s the journey that matters

We all know this sort of hamster-wheel self-talk too well, “I’ll be happy when I… ” or “My life will definitely be better when … happens.”

Unfortunately, when you finally achieve whatever you thought would make you happy, it quickly gets replaced by other kinds of self-talk. Then it’s the next promotion, competing with your neighbours’ lawns, houses, cars, or whatever confected competition that life happens to throw at you.

When we live in this kind of world, it means that we spend a lot of time living in our heads—rather than staying grounded in our bodies. It can also make us miserable and fearful.

Following on from last week’s blog post:

“… life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”

— Seneca

One way to deal with this is to try to focus on the present.

Are you talking to a friend? Try to focus on the now, engage with them fully and enjoy the company rather than let your mind wander. (I am often guilty of the latter.)

Working on something that bores you to bits? Try and turn it into a positive by giving yourself a little reward when you finish (like going for a walk outside) or thinking more broadly about how the task might (or might not) fit into the bigger picture.

Finally, realise that we always have a choice and that nothing is forever. On this point…

3. We can choose our response

We may not always control the situation, but we can choose how we respond to it.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl shares his powerful insights as a survivor of the Holocaust. He describes how everything that people clung to in their normal lives disappeared within a moment. Whether it was their professional identity, their possessions, or their loved ones. Frankl found that those who lost hope quickly deteriorated.

Through suffering, Frankl described how he found an opportunity to respond courageously despite the situation. One of the most powerful aspects of his fight to survive was in developing an ability to use humour and seeing things through a humorous light. Despite his situation, Frankl explains that he did not harbour any anger.

He explains:

“… everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom…”

Man’s Search for Meaning, page 75

There is a paradoxical aspect at play here. I’m sure you know many people who have everything in this life but are miserable despite their relatively good fortune. And people who have suffered many things (including losing loved ones, severe illness, or plain bad luck) who have no anger and bear their suffering with grace. And of course, there is a wide spectrum of people in between.

Strange as it might be, it appears to come down to how we choose to respond to any given situation.

4. It’s OK to feel anything else other than “happy”

We live in a society addicted to “happiness”. And it’s making us terribly unhappy.

Manoj described that there is a huge pressure in society to constantly look happy, be happy and feel happy. The upshot of this? That something is clearly wrong with you if you’re not happy—a gap that needs fixing by drinking celery juice, yoga or binge shopping.

Frankl also describes this situation as well by citing a fellow psychologist:

“… ‘our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.’ …

‘… the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading’ so that ‘he is not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy.’”

Man’s Search for Meaning, page 118

So next time you feel like ****? Remember that it’s a normal part of being human.

5. Be gentle on yourself

A common symptom in many lawyers is the level of self-doubt in one’s abilities. This is often magnified in women, who downplay their achievements and constantly doubt themselves. It leads to the person beating themselves up over not having done things perfectly. Comparing yourself with others doesn’t help:

“Constantly comparing myself to others had paralysed me. The fear of falling short was a powerful force that kept me in a job I hated. It stopped me from taking my health seriously. It stopped me from doing anything that I feared would confirm that compared to everyone else I was deeply inadequate.”
Breaking Badly, page 164

You know what? No one thinks about that so-and-so-lawyer-who-failed-so-bad because they didn’t put a full-stop at the end of the sentence. For those of you who beat yourself up over little things, or feel like you’re not where you’re supposed to be at in terms of skills, ability, or whatever in life—remember that your fears are unfounded. Chances are, you’re probably overcorrecting and carrying a lot of worries around.

It’s time to be gentle with yourself.

Manoj noted the importance of developing compassion within yourself and for others. We are not going to be perfect from Day 1, and we will never be. You didn’t pop out of the womb and started drafting contracts on Day 2 did you? So why are we beating ourselves up? Life is a journey, with lots of learning along the way. And that’s OK.

6. Serving others as the highest purpose

A good way of taking the focus off the self is by serving others. In this modern age, putting others first isn’t always high on the agenda. But it is an important part of meaningful work. In the past few months, I spoke to various people who expressed a malaise or neutrality about what they do. It is often accompanied by statements like, “I don’t care about what I do at work, I just want to get paid so that I can pay off my mortgage.” Everyone has their own objectives, so I’m in no place to judge. However, when you start looking inwards, our worlds can only get smaller and smaller—such that work and life can become meaningless.

“The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

Man’s Search for Meaning, page 115

However, Frankl cautions that self-actualisation is “not an attainable aim at all”—as in, if you aim to do it for your own benefit, then you will miss the point completely. Finding meaning is only possible if you go beyond caring about yourself to focusing on serving others.

7. Don’t aim for “success”

Finally, aiming for “success” is the biggest barrier to finding meaning in work and life.

“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. … listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”
Man’s Search for Meaning, pages 12-13

As with Manoj’s story, success isn’t what it seems from the outside. Life is something that we all go through, with suffering—but working through it can make us stronger.

Please note:

If this has caused you any concerns, please get in touch with Lifeline (13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636, www.beyondblue.org.au).

Further reading:

Further activities:

P.s. Thank you to Jo, Rahul (Disruptive Business Network) and Sam (Lady Ladder) for the bookish inspirations.

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