Finding meaning and purpose in work and life

This post was originally part of my newsletter Doctor’s Note.

My most recent Power of Ten podcast episode is with Jungian Psychoanalyst and author Dr James Hollis (pictured below) in which he shares his many years of wisdom about finding meaning and purpose in life. Dr Hollis has written 16 books about navigating the middle passage — the transition into the second half of life that often occurs in your late 30s to late 40s.

I have drawn upon Dr Hollis’s work for many years, both personally and professionally in my leadership coaching. I say “leadership” coaching, but a great deal of my coaching practice is working with coachees going through as much a personal transition and development as a professional one. It is often triggered by the self-confidence dip of moving into leadership role and feeling like an imposter, a creative fish in a business ocean. It’s the self questioning that is the real brief behind the brief. As James Hollis says, “it’s not about what it’s about.”

Faced with others looking to you for leadership, for guidance, structure and culture building, it can often be the first time there is nobody above you telling you what to do. Now it’s up to you and that gives rise to the questions of who you really are and what your values are. Answering those questions often leads to questions about what you want to be doing with the brief time you have left on the planet. It’s not uncommon to realise the work you are doing and what you feel you really should be doing are at odds with each other.

A paradox of “the grind” and busywork is that it feels like the hard work is productive, but somehow the weeks, months and years roll by with little sense of direction. You will have experienced this if you’ve ever had a busy day and, at the end of it, your partner asks you what you did and you can’t really remember apart from “lots of meetings.”

Without that sense of the shape of you as a compass for your purpose, it is very difficult to progress into the latter half of life. For many of us, that inner purpose is replaced by a pseudo one from our employer, parents or industry. The next level, the next title, the next role, the next pay rise, the next award. And yet we get there and it’s still unfulfilling, because it’s not done with our own agency and intent. It’s still running someone else’s script. It’s all extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation.

Work should not be made miserable

Doing your inner work on this is essential, not just for you, but those around you. In the worst case, you can inflict your complexes and issue on everyone else. We’re seeing in America how one man’s unresolved psychological complexes have occupied the mental energy of people all around the world. But you don’t have to look far to see smaller scale versions of that happening everywhere.

I wrote a little rant on LinkedIn a few weeks ago that work should not be miserable. I didn’t mean that work should always be pleasant or that the aim of life is to be permanently happy. That would indicate a neurosis in itself, like being an Instagram influencer.

Work can be unpleasant and difficult sometimes, but you can still feel satisfied by it if you’re empowered and if it feels purposeful to you. I’m aware there is a position of privilege here and many people are trapped in shitty jobs due to structural inequality, but the point still holds: Work misery is most often imposed by others externally, it’s far less often intrinsic to the work itself.

In my coaching practice I see the impact of senior executive’s behaviour that is unconscious, at best, and abusive at worst. It’s often couched in corporate bullshit language like “driving” growth/results/projects at speed/pace/scale. Although being driven can be positive, “driving” things and people has plenty of negative connotations — slave drivers, driving cattle, driving someone mad.

“Driving” a project can often mean putting your people under extraordinary personal pressure, because everything becomes a priority, which means nothing is. Or, at least, nothing other than work. If you or your boss give directions such as, “you just need to find a way to get it done,” you’re most probably asking people to work their evenings, weekends and take time away from the people they love and the activities that nourish them. You’re asking them to sacrifice their life (quite literally – time spent is life spent) for your own goals ends and/or those of the business. A sacrifice for which they are unlikely to gain anything near an equitable return. Work cultures like this have many of the hallmarks of abusive relationships and it makes people miserable.

Contented, engaged, and healthy staff work better, stay with you longer and it’s the morally and ethically the right way to treat people. So check your language (and that of your LinkedIn profile). Instead of using the leadership mindset of driving, think of leadership as being an enabler. I choose the word deliberately for it’s positive and negative connotations. You either enable people to be the best they can be, or you enable bad habits, in the same way one enables an addict. What you enable is a choice.

Most negative behaviour comes from fear and anxiety. While there are plenty of useful conversations to be had about “managing upwards,” this can easily morph into tiptoeing around the minefield (and mind-field) of someone senior, desperately trying not to trigger them. And so we enable, rationalise and normalise that behaviour as “getting the job done.” It behooves senior leaders to do the inner work and become aware of when they’re acting out and inflicting that fear and anxiety on others.

The biggest work lie is “it’s not personal, it’s business.” It’s all personal. We are all triggered and act out from time to time, but self-reflection in those moments is key to addressing it. You can’t do that if you don’t create time and mental space for it, which busywork otherwise fills. Ultimately, it’s not what you did but the way you treated people on the way that will stick with them.

If this resonates with your situation, I offer coaching to those going through this transition.

James Hollis photo courtesy of James Hollis.
“I am not a commerce machine” photo: Darius Bashar on Unsplash.

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