The Meaning Triangle

The search for infinity - Chris Halderman

In the search for meaning it is often helpful to carry a violin and wear a coat made of flames.

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:
Meaning Triangle

  • 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.

Further reading

  • 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.

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  1. #1 by Vinny on 24 January 2011 - 14:32

    I’m not sure I’m convinced by the rule of 3. Ithink it may be a little simpler. I have a rule of 2.

    Do you feel good doing the work? (showing they find the work itself meaningful)
    Do you feel good after you have done the work? (showing that they find the associated rewards such as pay and recognition meaningful.)

    Basically if either one or the other isn’t fulfilled, then this can cause a problem.

    I recently had an interesting discussion with someone who wanted to change career and become an accountant. They said that they would have found the work itself very meaningful, but the “after” aspects (the commute, the pay and and time away from family) would have taken them further from other parts of their life which were meaningful.

    Work rarely provides people with all the meaning in their life, so to be properly meaningful work, it therefore must provide the opportunities for you to find meaning in other parts of your life (by providing enough pay to go skydiving, enough time to be with family or enough recognition from your peers etc)

    • #2 by David Winter on 24 January 2011 - 15:14

      Thanks Vinny, but if you think about it, what you have described are only two vertices of a triangle – you’re missing something.

      You have described:

      What you think about the work while you are doing it – Present

      What you think about the work after you have finished it – Past

      The one you seem to have missed out is:

      What you think about the work as you anticipate it – Future

      In this element you uncover how the client construes their work. What worries or expectations do they project onto it. Within this too, you can think about how the work develops over time. Where is it going in the future? Does it lead to meaning eventually?

      So, the rule of three… er… rules!

      • #3 by Vinny on 24 January 2011 - 15:27

        Not sure I quite meant it in terms of past present and future. I think I meant something more like:

        Internal – The meaning that the job itself gives you and

        External – The meaning that other things give you, but which the job provides opportunites for through pay, time and other benefits.

        So still 2. But nice try!

      • #4 by David Winter on 24 January 2011 - 15:52

        But what you have there are the first two elements of Martin’s motives (or perhaps you have combined Craft and Moral motives into your first point)

      • #5 by Vinny on 25 January 2011 - 09:56

        Yes, you’re almost right.

        I think that moral motives can be subsumed into both craft and compensation, depending on whether the job allows you to do moral things (i.e. working for a charity) or allows you through indirect means to do moral things (i.e. providing enough time and the financial means to do moral things – like fundraising walks etc).
        So basically I think the Moral motive is an unnecessary addition.

        So why not cut through the rule of three with Occams Razor and reduce it to two.

  2. #6 by David Winter on 25 January 2011 - 16:00

    (Just starting a new comment otherwise it will be too squeezed up).

    I can see what you’re saying. However, the reason I’m not keen to lose the moral motive is because, without it, it is all to easy to focus only on the immediate. The moral motive makes you look for bigger things.

    Frankl talked about two (not three) levels of meaning:

    • Meaning of the moment – looking for the day-to-day meaning of your actions. What does it mean in context?
    • Ultimate meaning – How do these individual moments and fragments of meaning combine to make a bigger picture? Is there a longer term purpose to your life?

    We don’t often tackle that ultimate meaning question with our clients, but maybe we should more. After all, this post was meant to be about existentialism.

  3. #7 by John king on 26 January 2011 - 21:05

    Maslow’s hierarchy, although being the best known element of his work, was actually pretty early on and his later work was much closer to those you are outlining above. Still a bit triangle-y, though.

  4. #8 by David Winter on 27 January 2011 - 11:03

    • #9 by Vinny on 27 January 2011 - 11:06

      Thanks David for uploading my attempt to defy the rule of three. I’ve tried to encorporate the internal/external with Frankl’s moment/ultimate meaning.
      I think you’ll agree that it is much less “Triangle-y.”

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