Doctor’s Note – Issue 20 - Finding meaning and purpose in life and work.
In this issue: Finding purpose and meaning in life and work / Work should not be miserable / The Linkhole / Book Corner
Finding purpose and meaning in work and life
My most recent Power of Ten podcast episode is with Jungian Psychoanalyst and author Dr James Hollis (pictured above) 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.
The big and the small from Tim Urban’s Wait But Why. Many of you will know I love thinking about zoom levels and the relative size of things in the universe. If you do, too, you’ll love this.
I’m always fascinated by the way that art and music is made. It’s often a very muddy, fragile emergence that design and innovation can learn a lot from. The Netflix series, Song Exploder talks to recording artists about how significant songs were created and pulls apart the master mixes to illustrate the process.
There was a moment in Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher’s Pivot podcast the other day when Galloway argued that what investors were after has shifted over the decades from management skills to tech skills and now to design: “I think you’re going to see many more people with a hardcore background in design in the C-Suite”, he said. Here’s hoping.
I wrote above about leadership being better thought of as enablement. I often hear many aspire to Robert Greenleaf’s “servant leadership,” (though I suspect Simon Sinek’s Leader’s Eat Last is the place many encounter the idea first). There’s a lot of value in there, but the shadow side of that is martyrdom, in which leaders take on the extra work to their own detriment. Renita Kalhorn takes a look at the hidden pitfalls of servant leadership.
And whilst you’re at it, don’t start surveilling your employees at home.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s leadership principles are actually rather good. I particularly liked “bring clarity, not confusion.”
I gave a talk on service design and systems thinking the other day. This piece from Corsairs about the difference between design thinking and systems thinking popped up along the way.
One of the systems we know is broken is the current version of capitalism. Dirk Philipsen writes in Economics for the people on Aeon:
The Achilles heel of modern economies is the exponential nature of economic growth. Based on what economists consider a ‘healthy’ growth rate of about 3 per cent, the economy would have to double in output roughly every 23 years. If such growth is difficult to imagine, that’s because it is absurd. Imagine economies such as the United States with 16 times the output in 100 years, 256 times in just 200 years, or 5,000 times in as little as 300 years. There is one diagram in economic theory, writes Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics (2018), that ‘is so dangerous that it is never actually drawn: the long-term path of GDP growth’.
And if you want to know how we might curb growth, Jason Hickel has a thought experiment for you.
And why bother about de-growth? Because a fifth of countries worldwide are at risk from ecosystem collapse as biodiversity declines, according to Swiss Re. Insurance companies think about this stuff very deeply for good reason.
We’ve been changing the planet for a long time – The deep Anthropocene
I don’t know who is responsible for this series from WeTransfer, but WePresent is an excellent resource. Here’s a wonderful manifesto of eight key rules for living from philosopher Alain de Botton (whose name always gives me schoolboy giggles, poor chap).
Low/no-code is democratizing creation and shifting power into the hands of the designer writes Caitlin Pintavorn. There are a few parts here that connect to my design in the age of synthetic realities essay. I don’t agree with all of it (I think some of the AI stuff will end up simply being like any other plug-ins), but the part about tools built with collaboration front and centre is astute.
Talking of synthetic realities, Nvidia are at it again with AI fixing facial alignment in Zoom calls. I really feel engineers don’t think of the human contexts and consequences of this enough. There’s a lot that could go wrong here.
This system for lifelike gaze in human-robot interactions from Disney Research isn’t creepy at all. Maybe some skin would help?
But a synthetic reality look at history is, conversely, super enlightening. This is old now, but I only just watched it. Imagine what Manhattan Island looked like before New York was there.
James Clear has a list of great speeches on his site. Useful to try giving these yourself if you want to practice speaking. But the now famous one by John Cleese has a mention of Edward de Bono’s “Intermediate Impossibles” – a crucial aspect of creativity that I think many business folk miss out when trying on Design Thinking:
[De Bono] points out the use of an Intermediate Impossible is completely contrary to ordinary logical thinking in which you have to be right at each stage.
It doesn’t matter if the Intermediate Impossible is right or absurd, it can nevertheless be used as a stepping stone to another idea that is right. Another example of how, when you’re playing, nothing is wrong.
As if the above list isn’t enough reading for you, here are a few from the book corner:
James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Only just started. I need to get into the habit of a few more pages. Seriously, though, small changes make a big difference over time.
Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface was a timely, gratifying and somewhat chilling read.
Just started Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare for reasons that should be obvious. Her prose is as delicious as her mind was sharp.
Just started Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time by Gaia Vince. Bonus interview with her here.
Several people have recommended Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez.
Also just out, but not yet read: The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility by Marilyn Gist.
That’s it for this issue. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. I really do appreciate all the shares and feedback. If you have a reading tip, reply to this to let me know or tweet me.