Existential thoughts

Life in the room of confusion

Many of the modern career theories and approaches to guidance have moved away from the focus on objective measures of person-environment fit to an increasing emphasis on the importance of personal meaning within career choice.

But what about meaninglessness?

Shouldn’t we be looking at that too?

If we want to spend time pondering the essential pointlessness of all human activity, where better to go than existentialism?

In a nutshell, existentialism proposes that our life has no ultimate or absolute meaning other than the meaning that we ourselves give to it through our actions and our attitudes. We are ultimately responsible for giving our lives a purpose.

A number of people have tried to apply elements of existentialism to careers work. For a quick summary of some of the main themes, see this pdf.

However, I recently came across an article which links existential thinking to career change. What appealed to me most about it was the use of a metaphor called ‘The Four-Roomed Apartment of Change’. This rather picturesque image is used to capture some of the things that happen to people and organisations when they experience change.

The four rooms represent four frames of mind that an individual may pass through as they encounter a change in their lives. They are as follows:

  • The room of Contentment. In this room people feel relaxed and free from threat. They are focussed on the present moment. They may even be a bit complacent. From this room it is hard to picture any change or need for change. Spend too long in this room and there is a danger that you will end up in the Sun Lounge, ignoring the real world altogether.
  • When people do begin to perceive change they might  fall down the trapdoor into the Denial room. There is no direct way back to contentment from here. In this room people try to find excuses for what is happening to them outside themselves. They may try to cling on to old ways and hope that everything will just go away. In order to move out of this room, people need to acknowledge that change is inevitable and that they have to engage with it somehow. If they don’t, they may end up stuck in the ‘Dungeon of Denial’.
  • The door into the next room doesn’t open easily and people may have to push their way into it. When they get there, they will find the room of Confusion. This is where people have to re-examine themselves and face up to their existential uncertainty. People may react irrationally and impulsively here as they struggle with the responsibility of finding new meaning for their lives. They might fall into the ‘Pit of Paralysis’; finding that the responsibility of taking charge of their own lives is too much for them. It is very likely that they will go through the ‘Revolving Door of Reality’ a few times as they experiment with new identities.
  • Eventually, the fog may clear and they will find the ladder which leads to the Renewal room. Here things begin to come together as people start to see a future which might hold meaning for them, and they start to get excited about it. At the same time they start to impose their own meaning on to the turmoil they have been through. There is a potential danger in this room; the floor is sloping and you could end up wandering unintentionally into the room of Contentment if you are not careful.

Four room model of change

Estate agents found it hard to shift this apartment

I’ve come across models of transition before, but I have a feeling that this one will stick in my mind for a while.

  • Existential issues do sometimes come up in my work with career changers, but do you think they could also apply to students and people at an earlier stage in their career?
  • Given the number of people who are likely to be facing enforced change because of government cuts, do you think that this model could be helpful?
  • What room are you in at the moment?

Further reading

Related post: What happened to my mid-life crisis?

More existential thoughts

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  1. #1 by John King on 30 July 2010 - 22:21

    Oh dear, tough week at work David? Existentialism, really?

    The reaction to this – and possibly something that has not had the impact it deserves – is humanistic psychology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanistic_psychology

    It will make you feel better, honest!

    The point being, of course, that it is far more useful to look at happy, successful people and work backwards to find out what we should be encouraging amongst our clients. Rather than trying to work out what is wrong with clients who are only coming to see us because they aren’t happy.

  2. #2 by John King on 30 July 2010 - 22:42

    A new wave of positivism here:


    Hopefully this has given this web page some meaning 😉

  3. #3 by John King on 30 July 2010 - 22:49

    Evidence that positive attitudes engender success – rather than the other way round

    Click to access bul-1316803.pdf

  4. #4 by Vinny on 2 August 2010 - 15:25


    I’d like to defend Existentialism against the view that it is negative. Apart from Sartre (who I will admit was a little depressive to read, especially his “La Nausee”) existentialism need not be a negative philosophy. In fact, for many, it can be liberating and extremely positive. For example, Buddist philosophy is predicated on existential thought, and is geared towards the pursuit of contentment.

    Existentialism can highlight some of the reasons people may be unhappy, (having a lack of meaning in their lives or feeling that they are not living up to their potential) but it also provides ways in which people can be made happier.

    For example, having existential guilt (feeling bad about not reaching your potential) can provide the motivation necessary to help you change career.

    I would also add that many careers services use one of the underlying assumptions of existentialism in their careers work with clients. This is that ultimately, the client is responsible for their actions and happiness and therefore instead of making decisions for them (i.e. telling them to be a teacher/banker etc), we encourage them to learn the skills they need to take this responsibility and make the decisions themselves.

    So Existentialism can be both liberating and positive.
    (And so is Solipsism, although I wouldn’t use this with a client as I couldn’t be sure that they existed.)

  5. #5 by David Winter on 2 August 2010 - 15:41


    Most of the time I would agree with you wholeheartedly. By nature I tend to take a problem solving approach to things. Why spend time agonising over what went wrong, let’s focus on what will work in the future?

    I know a bit about positive psychology and ‘learned optimism’ but I don’t have any evidence of its efficacy rates. There seems to be quite a lot of talk but not quite so much data.

    However, a similar philosophy of focusing on future behaviours and thinking is behind cognitive behavioural approaches. Again, the approach seems to be ‘Why spend ages trying to find out why you have a phobia about buttons? Let’s just change your thinking so that you’re no longer afraid of them.’

    There’s a fair amount of evidence that this approach is effective for the majority of people in dealing with certain issues.

    And that’s where I pause. It’s effective for the majority – not the totality. It works well for most people, not for all people. It’s effective for some issues, but untried for others. Maybe I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Maybe my standards are too high. But ‘most’ isn’t good enough for me. I don’t want to help most of my clients; I want to help all of my clients.

    I’m fine when I have a client who responds well to a positive, future-focused, problem-solving approach. But every so often I get clients who don’t respond to that approach, or who are not ready for it just yet. I want to help these people too and I need different approaches

    And that’s why I am attracted to things like existentialism. It’s precisely because such ways of thinking don’t come naturally to me that I’m exploring them. I’m trying to expand the scope of my understanding. I don’t know exactly what will work for the people I am less effective with, but the wider I cast my net the more likely I am to come across something that hits the spot.

    And in doing that, I am taking a positive attitude and modelling myself on the successful behaviour of great innovative thinkers.

    I see that Vinny has just written about existentialism not actually being negative, so I don’t need to mention that myself.

    However, I will end on a question that I think you should consider very carefully.

    Whose definitions of ‘happy’ and ‘successful’ are we talking about here?

    If you don’t know what will actually make you happy and if you are unsure what success actually means to you, then you can emulate other people who seem to have the answer all you want and still end up at the wrong destination depressed and disappointed.

  6. #6 by David Winter on 4 August 2010 - 11:12

    Hulk - Savage Chickens
    Even the Incredible Hulk has existential thoughts…

  7. #7 by John king on 10 August 2010 - 20:22

    Definitely agree about the lack of data for positive psychology. Perhaps this will change. Or perhaps psychologists are more interested in negatives. As opposed to most people, who are interested in positives.

    Positive psychology is hugely represented in airport bookshops for example. All the books that (as a Psychology grad) I shudder to touch are flying off the business & personal development shelves.

    Which makes me think: maybe these spades are, in fact, spades. Maybe the people are right and the psychologists are wrong. Maybe there really is something in this positivism, and we are just waiting for the science to catch up.

    Vinny: the tenet you mention is also a feature of positive psychology which branches from existentialism rather than rejecting it and is a reaction to it’s perceived negativity: an attempt to correct existentialisms weaknesses. I was just trying to bait David.

  8. #8 by Mike Cook on 7 September 2010 - 06:17

    Hello David,

    The theory you are referring to is the Four Rooms of Change from Claes Janssen. You can find more information at http://www.fourroomsofchange.net.au or http://www.claesjanssen.com. I am unsure of why your readers are now trying to make connections with positive psychology here. The key learning for me with the theory has been that it is okay to be any of the four rooms. It is a natural and healthy part of life – just like the four seasons of Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. In fact, owning our own emotions is critical if we want to move forward. On the other hand, focusing on ‘staying positive’ starts to sound a tiny bit like denial to me.

    • #9 by David Winter on 7 September 2010 - 07:17

      Thanks for the information and links, Mike.

      Are the ‘Sun Lounge’, ‘Dungeon of Denial’, ‘Pit of paralysis’ and ‘Revolving Door of Reality’ part of the original FRoC or an addition by P. Hind? (Because they are my favourite bits!)

      I’m curious about how much the FRoC owes to the Kübler-Ross model of change.

      On this blog we like to discuss and make links between all sorts of things – it’s part of the fun of exploring theory.

      From my limited understanding, I’m not sure that positive psychology proper really advocates ‘staying positive’. It acknowledges that people experience negative emotions but, rather than focusing on why people get stuck in negative experiences, it tries to get people moving towards the room of Renewal by showing them how to develop optimism and constructive behaviours.

  9. #10 by Mike Cook on 9 September 2010 - 07:58

    Hi David,

    I believe the ‘Sun Lounge’, ‘Dungeon of Denial’ and ‘Pit of Paralysis’ were added by Ashridge Business School who borrowed Claes’ model and renamed it as the ‘Change House’. They are nice ideas but there is no actual research that actually confirms their existence. The idea however that an individual can get stuck in one of the four rooms for an extended period time (e.g. 20 years in denial) has been clearly shown. I personally like the idea that there are ‘doors’ which lead you from one room to the next which helps to explain how this can happen. If you can’t find the door, you may never leave the room!

    There appear, on the surface, to be some similarities to the work of Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross but – while they both developed their theories in the 60s and 70s – there is no evidence that she and Claes actually ever met. The transition curve from EKR, William Bridges, Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, Accenture et al maps a response to change against time along a x/y axis. The Four Rooms of Change are four psychological states of mind which can actually be measured – a big difference.

    I like your definition of positive pyschology and I am convinced of the impact of learned optimism in the appropriate context. Although I have to agree with Martin Seligman when he points out that even he would prefer NOT to travel in a plane flown by an optimistic pilot.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  10. #11 by David Winter on 9 September 2010 - 10:14

    I like the Four Rooms because of its metaphorical nature, irrespective of whether the states can be measured. It’s a strong image which is easy to picture and therefore easy to understand. Reality is always more complicated than the model, but a good simple model is an excellent starting point. The metaphor rather than the measurement is what people will take away with them.

    I think the ‘Sun Lounge’, etc., are just picturesque ways of extending the metaphor to make the point that you can get stuck.

    I love the comment about optimistic pilots – I will have to remember that one! Power to the pessimists!

  11. #12 by Jim Bright on 22 August 2012 - 23:12

    One of the features of humanistic approaches is the obsession with contentment or indeed happiness? I think some of the more recent writings of Seligman is suggesting (correctly) in my opinion happiness is not necessarily the only or “best” outcome. Suffering, failing, frustration toil, etc may all result from very valuable social contributions. Working to eliminate starvation may not make one “happy”, may not even be completely attainable (I dont know) but fortunately there are people who prefer to devote their lives to address this problem rather more than personal concerns about their mood.

    The room and doors is attractive, but it also imposes a linear structure on these affective states. For instance not all change is first denied and then followed by confusion. Change can be embraced and then confusion can set in! Renewal can result in Denial, and Contentment does not necessarily require one to be “in the momentum”. (Given my waist line that would have to be a very big moment indeed, and I worry there might not be room for anyone else inside whatever moment I clamber into, and the idea of not being able to share my moment saddens me!!!).

  1. Is your work meaningful? « Careers – in Theory

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