How To Find Meaning At Work

Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who dared to challenge the gods of Olympus, lost the battle, and was punished as a result. And what was his punishment? Torture? Death? Imprisonment? In fact, it was none of these. Zeus, king of the gods, showed a little more inventiveness, condemning him to push a heavy stone up a mountain and watch it roll back down, over and over again, for eternity. His punishment was ultimately the tragedy of not being able to give any meaning to what you are doing.

In twentieth century South Africa, the myth of Sisyphus was recreated on Robben Island, in the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 16 terrible years. When I visited this place, a former prisoner who accompanied me told me that inmates used to have to work every day in a small limestone mine. Every week, they would excavate a certain amount of stone; and every other week, the ruthless prison leaders made them put the same amount back. Many went mad. To read the full article go to Weforum

Most of us, thankfully, do not face such torment; but the myth of Sisyphus remains a potent metaphor for meaningless drudgery in the workplace. As I’m exploring in a series of articles, it’s a workplace that needs to be overhauled to allow for a healthier definition of success and meaning.

A well in Cameroon and the pursuit of meaning

Back when I was with the World Bank on an agricultural project in 1995, I found meaning for the work I was doing in a remote village in Cameroon. The driver, George, had taken me to visit an agricultural project; after several hours of dirt and dusty roads, he stopped in front of a well and told me that, before it was built, his mother had to walk 12 kilometers to go to the river to collect water. Then the World Bank had built that well, just a few hundred meters from the village where he lived, and his life was changed. George wanted to thank me, though I had nothing to do with the well, and so he took me to his village. I met his mother, a woman with an amazing dignity, who clasped me in a long embrace. Making the return journey in the car, my heart had finally realised the real purpose behind my trip to that forgotten village.

We are all purpose-seekers, we all need to find meaning in existence, even in the unlikeliest places. The psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously made this case in his stunning memoir, “Man’s search for meaning”. His theory, known as “logotherapy” (from “logos”, the Greek word for “meaning”), holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful.
We spent most of our lives in work. Our professional purpose should not therefore be defined by the title on the business card, nor the promotion to the next level up in the hierarchy. Purpose is not about what we do and how fast we do it; but why we do it, and how we do it.