Monday, August 21, 2006

The Management of Meaning

One of the latest books I'm reading is Viktor Frankl's classic work, "Man's Search For Meaning."

In this book, Frankl explains his theory that man's fundamental drive is to find meaning in his life. Indeed, as Frankl points out, this drive is so strong that people are willing to die for their ideals. Frankl also illustrates his point with examples from his own life in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz--those who felt that their lives had something to give them meaning were the ones who had the will to survive.

As Nietzche put it, "He who has a why to live for can bear any how."

Frankl saw that the world was going through a crisis in meaning, an existential vacuum. Unlike animals, modern man can't rely on instinct to make his decisions for him. Unlike his forebears, he can't rely on tradition to tell him what to do. In a relative and tolerant world, he has to construct his own meaning.

If Frankl's observations were true in the 1950s, they are even more true today. Frankl also pointed out that man often fell into either conformity (finding meaning in what others believe) or totalitarianism (letting someone else define meaning), or tried to fill the existential vacuum with hedonism and sexuality.

Somehow, I've just come to understand Paris Hilton and "The Simple Life."

Yet in crisis lies opportunity. More than ever, people hunger for meaning in their lives. As an entrepreneur or manager, you can make your company an outlet for that meaning, either by giving your team members the flexibility to construct their own meaning, or by dedicating your company to a meaning.

As Steve Jobs famously said to John Sculley, "Do you want to join me and change the world, or do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water?"

Does your organization provide opportunities for meaning? Or do you spend your precious human capital convincing people to write up TPS reports?

Do you tap into fundamental human drives to create value, or do your people come to work to collect a paycheck?

Providing an enviroment conducive to meaning can be good business, as well as good.

P.S. According to Amazon, 41% of people who view "Man's Search For Meaning" end up buying the book. 31% buy "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey (shudder).

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