As the post on existentialism has been one of my most popular, I thought I would do something more on the subject of meaningfulness.
And when it comes to meaning, it seems that three is a magic number.
But first a short story (involving three workers)…
A traveller comes across a group of three men who are working hard smashing boulders with large hammers.
He asks them what they are doing.
The first man answers, ‘I’m using my strength and skill to make big rocks into small rocks.’
The second man answers, ‘I’m working to earn money so that I can feed and support my family.’
The third man answers, ‘I’m preparing the raw materials to build a cathedral for the glory of God.’
Which of these three men was doing the most meaningful work?
According to Mike Martin (in Overell, 2008), it’s possible that all three might be doing meaningful work. He identifies three motives for meaningfulness:
- Craft motives: Pursuing something that evokes your talents and interests, a desire for feelings of professionalism and expertise.
- Compensation motives: Rewards for work, such as money, power, authority, recognition.
- Moral motives: Working towards a higher goal, being of service and expressing care for humanity.
Neal Chalofsky (2003, 2009) has identified another three prerequisites for meaningful work:
- Sense of self: In order for work to be meaningful for an individual, that person needs to have a clear sense of their own identity and values. Having established that, an individual needs to have an understanding of his/her connection to others. (See the post Identity crisis.)
- Work itself: This is the requirement that the performance of the work is consistent with those values and connections, and that it promotes personal growth. Chalofsky links this element to the idea of flow discussed in an earlier post, in which people are making use of their skills to meet an absorbing challenge.
- Sense of balance: This element looks at how work fits into the whole of someone’s life, whether it competes or complements their other duties and identities.
This triad seems reminiscent of the three elements of Kaleidoscope Careers (authenticity, challenge & balance).
So far we have flirted around the edges of existentialism, now it’s time to plunge in the deep end.
Viktor Frankl was an existential philosopher and psychiatrist who developed Logotherapy. According to Frankl, there are three ways in which we discover meaning in our lives:
- Creativity: Giving something to the world. Using your talents. Self-expression.
- Experience: Receiving from the world. Using your perceptions. Self-gratification.
- Attitude change: Choosing how you respond to life’s challenges and the things you cannot change. Rising above your limitations. Self-transcendence.
(I’ve toned down the final element from the original formulation which was how we find meaning in the face of unavoidable suffering, although that may be appropriate for some people who are stuck in a career they hate in order to support their families.)
It strikes me that all three of these triads cover some of the same themes, but they look at them from slightly different angles. Perhaps we need all three to really understand meaningful work.
With each of these constructions, meaning arises from the combination of the three elements. Each individual will have a different ideal combination, putting them in a different location in the area of the triangle. I think that this approach is more promising than a hierarchical approach such as Maslow. After all, people don’t necessarily wait until they have their physiological needs sorted before they start thinking about self-actualisation.
- Story adapted from Ryan, J. J. (1977). Humanistic work: Its philosophical and cultural implications. In W. J. Heisler & J. W. Houck (Eds.) A matter of dignity: Inquiries into the humanization of work. University of Notre Dame Press, pp. 11-22.
- Martin, M. (2000) Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, Oxford University Press.
- Chalofsky, N. (2003). An emerging construct for meaningful work. Human Resource Development International, 6(1), 69-83. DOI: 10.1080/1367886022000016785
- Chalofsky, N. & Krishna, V. (2009). Meaningfulness, commitment, and engagement: The intersection of a deeper level of intrinsic motivation. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 11(2), 189-203. DOI: 10.1177/1523422309333147
- Overell, S. (2008). Inwardness: The Rise of Meaningful Work. Provocation Series Vol. 4 No. 2. The Work Foundation.
- Frankl, V.E. (1969) The Will to Meaning. New American Library.