As an executive coach, I have the privilege of talking with people about their very personal hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. And, over the past little while, I’ve worked with several clients who have been struggling with finding meaning in their lives. A freelance musician told me that reading and writing fiction make her heart sing, but that she doesn’t have the time to do either. An IT executive explained that he craves intellectual stimulation, but feels deeply unchallenged in his job. An HR Vice-President desperately wants to pursue some volunteer work, but feels constrained by her professional responsibilities and a need to tend to her children and husband.
Unfortunately, I hear these types of grievances from clients all the time.
In today’s world, most of us are told to “do what we love,” or at least are constantly reminded of the importance of “work-life balance.” The mythology of the first seeks to remind us that we can make a living doing something pleasurable — even though we’re not all privileged enough to have this luxury. The second presumably instructs us to carve out enough time in our “lives” (separate from “work”) to pursue our passions. Both of these scenarios can be easier said than done.
As a result, many people see the the options as follows: either sacrifice steady income to follow your dreams, or stay in your current situation, feeling stuck because other options seem too risky.
Existential psychologists argue that a central aspect of the human condition is to imbue life with a sense of “meaning.” In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that searching for meaning is “a primary motivation” for each of our lives, and that it must be “unique and specific” depending on the person.
Finding meaning is indeed a tall order. Because of this, many resign themselves to inertia, and an ongoing sense of dissatisfaction.
Does this sound uncomfortably familiar to you? If so, consider this as a gentle nudge, and here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Remind yourself that life really is too short.
Of course, we all know that death is inevitable — but how often do we really think about it with a conscious reminder? While this seems a little morbid, reminding yourself that you won’t be here forever is a powerful motivator to shift from inertia into action.
A recent study supports this as well. When a largely female sample of undergraduates were told to live the next month like it was their last in a particular city, they were found to have twice as much of an increase in their sense of well-being at the end of the study compared to a control group. Let this reminder make you more connected to yourself, your desires, the present moment, and those around you. Merely increasing your sense of connection and presence will enrich your sense of meaning day to day. And that’s a great place to start.
2. Take small steps — and notice your satisfaction at each one.
When clients of mine believe they will have to drop everything in their current life to pursue a greater sense of meaning, I’m quick to reassure them that such rash action isn’t required.
I’ll tell them to start doing something — anything! Small as their first action step may be, it will be more fulfilling than procrastinating. If you enjoy writing, for example, then try free-writing just for fun, or create a blog. If you want to be of service, find opportunities to volunteer. Want to create a business? Take a course, investigate how you might do it, or get something started on the side. Instead of having to deal with the gnawing feeling that you’re not doing anything, you’ll find that engaging in activities that bring you joy will give you a greater sense of purpose in your life — even if they don’t become a new career for you.
3. Recognize the meaning that’s already here.
In our ongoing quest for self-improvement, we often overlook the good that is all around us, and lose sight of the present moment. When we reflect on our own mortality, we are not only better prepared to reflect on how we spend our time, but we’re also primed to adjust our perspective at large.
For example, in the aforementioned study, researchers found that participants who thought about their time as limited were more likely to savor their experiences by focusing on the positive. This is like the last day of a vacation, when you try to squeeze out every last bit of enjoyment so you can imprint it into your memory.
Try to shift from focusing on everything that you see as “not enough” in your life, and instead, savor the goodness that is already there. It might just change your overall world view.
A few years before my father died, I asked him some questions about aging — specifically, what surprised him about the aging process, and what he would do differently. He said he had been surprised by how swiftly time passes, and, that if he were to go back, he would probably spend more time slowing down, smelling the roses, and connecting with those close to him. When I asked my mother, she added that she would have tried more things, and not have sold herself short in some areas. (These observations are consistent with other research in this area, suggesting that when people look back on their lives, they regret the chances they didn’t take and not fully savoring the potentially meaningful experiences in their day-to-day lives).
Remember, it’s up to you to live your life in a way that is meaningful to you. I hope you’ll take the challenge, and get started with some step, no matter how small, today.
A mindfulness practice can also help you to experience greater meaning. To learn more, click here.
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There are few things more frustrating than feeling stuck in your job. Languishing in your current, ill-suited position can make you feel completely powerless. You may find yourself constantly wondering about what you could possibly do to get that promotion you so clearly deserve (at least in your mind).
From that place of frustration and paralysis, it’s only natural to feel inclined to blame others (like your boss!), and to avoid recognizing how you’re contributing to the situation. But instead of blaming your boss for being blind to your potential, here’s a hard truth: you may not be as ready as you think you are.
I recently coached someone I’ll call Karen. She was a marketing professional who was feeling stuck in her middle-management position. She was, however, seen by others as a high-performer in her role — a subject-matter expert who was reliable and hard-working. Yet, despite years in the same position, she hadn’t ever been promoted into a broader leadership position.
Given that she was getting positive performance appraisals, hitting goals, and maintaining positive relationships with her co-workers, she was at a loss for what the hold-up was.
As an executive coach, I’ve worked with numerous “Karens” — employees excelling as individuals at work, but who think that should guarantee them leadership positions. The reality is that being a leader is vastly different from just doing a good job. In Karen’s case, she had done absolutely nothing to demonstrate that she was ready for the next level. She was simply really good at doing what she was asked to do — and delivered consistent results, reliably.
Put yourself in the shoes of hiring managers. Every time they promote someone into a new role, they’re taking a risk. Your job is to make their promoting decisions as easy as possible. Your job is to show them that you already have what it takes to succeed in the job you want. Realizing this can be a profound catalyst in shifting perspective.
In order to secure the promotion Karen thought she deserved, she had to shift her perspective. Instead of just focusing on doing well in her existent role, Karen needed to explore what skills she would need to be successful at the next level. That was the focus of our work together.
Based on this exploration, we highlighted three areas for her:
1. Strategy: Instead of spending all of her time on executing tasks, Karen and I realized that she would need to be more strategic — a thought leader who brought new ideas to the table.
2. Accountability: Karen realized her own passivity, and recognized that she needed to be more assertive. Rather than trying to avoid ruffling feathers, she would need to demonstrate that she could make difficult decisions and deal effectively with conflict.
3. Confidence: Finally, Karen recognized that she would need to exude more confidence and speak less tentatively. By showing she was confident in herself and her vision, others would be more prone to follow her.
Instead of continuing to believe that she would simply develop the skills she needed after getting a promotion, Karen needed to demonstrate them now. She had to make it easy for those around her to see her as a leader already, so they wouldn’t see a promotion as a leap of faith, but as an obvious next step.
Once Karen realized that she had to embody leadership skills, the next step was to figure out how exactly she would do that. As one action item, we focused on honing Karen’s prioritization and time management skills, so that she could create windows of time in her schedule for strategic-planning. We determined new areas of study for Karen that would help her develop a broader knowledge-base from which to draw potential business strategies in her area.
To exude more of a leadership presence, Karen recorded herself speaking so that she could hear her tone of voice — and make changes as needed. She found that the lilt of her voice sometimes made it sound like she was asking questions, not making statements. She asked for feedback from others, and joined Toastmasters so that she could improve her presentation skills.
At our sixth monthly session, Karen announced, “I got the promotion!” Her hard work had paid off, management had seen the difference, and she was being rewarded with more responsibility, a new title, and more money.
If you’re in a similar position as Karen, here are some tips for you:
1. Excel in your current role.
Be honest with yourself. If you’re simply meeting the expectations of your current job description, you’re not pushing yourself beyond the basic requirements — which is necessary for securing a promotion. In this case, the reason you haven’t gotten a promotion is pretty straightforward.
2. Reflect on the skills needed for the role you want.
Think about the role you want. What sort of competencies does it require? If you’re unsure, you might want to ask others in the organization for ideas. Consider both technical skills and leadership skills. Once you explore possible skills, enumerate them clearly so you can familiarize yourself with them.
3. Actually learn those competencies — and embody them.
Like Karen, your next goal is to figure out how you can develop those skills. Some might be as easy as taking a class. For others, you might benefit from working with an executive coach who has experience developing others and helping them to work through problems.
The bottom line? Merely checking the boxes and doing a “good job” often isn’t enough for getting a promotion. Bosses, like most people, can be fearful of making the wrong choice that will lead to potential problems or others questioning their judgment. Therefore, your best bet is to focus on embodying the promotion even before you’re up for consideration. That way, you’ll make the decision a no-brainer, while also setting yourself up for an easier transition.
Interested in becoming a more effective leader? Click here to take my leadership personality quiz to learn more about how your style affects those around you.