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1. Armstrong, Karen. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York –Toronto, 2011, p. 64

2. Frankl, Viktor, Man's Search for Meaning. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1959, p. 176

About the Author
Caela Farren, Ph. D.
, President of MasteryWorks, Inc. - a leading Career Development consulting organization offering innovative solutions to large and mid-size companies, including Sony, Northrup Grumman, Bayer, Lockheed-Martin, and Capitol One. MasteryWorks provides enterprise web portals, training, consulting, and an assessment framework for employees and managers. For more than thirty years, Dr. Farren has been a passionate leader around complex issues redefining the workplace. She envisioned the current workplace climate more than a dozen years ago, when she published a cornerstone compendium on career selection, “Who is Running Your Career: Creating Stable Work in Unstable Times” (Bard Press, 1997). Through MasteryWorks, Inc., she oversees solutions that create the foundation for impact-filled “career conversations” - centered on increased contribution, performance, and fit. Her strategic approach consistently delivers on employee engagement and retention goals for her clients

Visit or contact Tom Karl, Executive Vice President at (703) 256-5712 for more information.

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Meaning Matters
by Caela Farren, Ph.D., MasteryWorks, Inc.

The purpose in life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson


People who have a sense of purpose and meaning in their work are energized and continually learning and developing.
Remarkable people are doing meaningful work. People who are doing meaningful work are people who are engaged. We don’t have to worry about developing or retaining them. They are on a mission and they are self-motivated. What we need to do is foster their passion, make room for their creativity, and honor their contributions. Remarkable people are always engaged in meaningful work, breakthrough projects, handling pressures and problems, and relieving the pain and discomfort of others. They see what’s needed and jump in to help. They respond to a call that has meaning for them. Meaning captures their hearts and minds and gives them the emotional power to sometimes find uncommon and novel solutions.

The Search (Quest) for Meaning
Is in Our DNA

The desire to be “of service” or to “take care of others” is at our core. Current brain research shows that the desire to take care of others is built in our brain in the limbic system. Mammals are unique. Mothering, care taking, holding and nurturing is required for our babies to live and thrive. We are totally dependent on others for our survival. We are interdependent beings — not only in infancy and childhood, but throughout our lives. This is true at the individual, family, organization, community and global levels. This empathy or compassions — the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others and feel their pains — is embedded in every human being. Addressing the tug we feel gives us meaning.

Young children have a natural drive to help. I am reminded of Erin Pavlina’s story about looking through a preschool window to check on her four-year old son. As she peeked through the window, a plastic tugboat fell off a shelf and onto a little girl’s head. The little girl started to cry. “What I saw next fascinated me,” she wrote. “There were about 6 kids in her vicinity. When the little girl started to cry they all perked their ears and turned to see what happened. Immediately, they all went towards her. One kid started patting her on the shoulder. Another kid picked up the offending tugboat and put it securely back on the shelf. Another child leaned in to kiss her boo boo. One kid ran to get the teacher and tell her about his injured classmate. My son gave her a hug. I witnessed a spontaneous and immediate display of empathy and compassion in these children. It felt so tribal. When one member of the tribe was injured the other members sprang into action. Each child helped in a different way. They continued to support her until she stopped crying, and only then did they meander back to their own toys. It was a beautiful display of compassion.”

I wonder what happens to kids when they grow up and close the door on their age of innocence. How does something as noble as compassion all too often find itself buried in the back of our moral cubbyholes? Compassion and empathy are emotions that certainly need to be replenished. Karen Armstrong, a renowned spiritual historian and recipient of the TED prize in 2008 wrote that “the prophets of old (Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Jesus) were innovative thinkers, ready to use whatever tools lay to hand in order to reorient the human mind, assuage suffering and pull their societies back from the brink. They did not cynically throw up their hands in despair, but insisted that every human being had the ability to become an icon of kindness and selfless empathy in a world that seemed ruthlessly self-destructive. We need that energy and conviction today.” [1] Although the ancient prophets did not have the sophisticated brain research that we can access today, they knew that meaning in life centers around helping others; this spelled overwhelming triumph over the reptilian brain that triggers us to fight, flee, oppress, or kill to survive. As humans we have a natural capacity for cruelty or compassion. It’s our choice.

According to Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, "We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating work or doing a deed that matters to us or others; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” [2]

Meaningful Work
When we find meaning in our work, our lives change. Most of us spend over a third of our waking hours working. People who have a sense of purpose and meaning in their work are energized and continually learning and developing. People who are simply doing a job” feel demoralized, depressed, unmotivated, and often are sick or absent. All too often, people who are just “doing a job” feel they are there because they don’t know where else to be and what else to do. They feel trapped or are doing a job” to allow them to do something else they find meaningful or satisfying. In large organizations, people often feel so far removed from the outcome of their work that they can’t see their contributions to the organization or the customers. Do you feel like a cog in a machine? Do you feel that your daily work makes any difference in the lives of others?

What gives you meaning? It might be as simple as bringing a smile to a person’s face or knowing that you’re creating an environment that helps others learn. It may come from coaching leaders to assure that they create a compelling mission, writing a blog that gets attention for something important, providing a great education for your children, or helping an aging parent live the next years with dignity and peace. We’re not all the same. What inspires me and gives me meaning on a day-to-day basis might be quite different from your thoughts about meaning. However, making the lives better for others is the common link in providing meaning to our lives.

Take a second and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What gives you meaning?
  • How much time and energy do you give to that endeavor?
  • How does your work foster or diminish your search for meaning?
  • What is the mission of your organization and how does that give you meaning?
  • What ideas, recommendations, or redesign would better align what gives you meaning with the needs of the organization?

Everyone has the ability to be remarkable and live a life of meaning at home and at work. Meaning captures peoples’ hearts and minds and gives them the emotional power to be fully engaged, creative and become our top contributors on the job and in the world. The desire to be of service” or to take care of others” is at our core from childhood. Meaning in life centers on helping others and when we find meaning in our work, our lives change. We become passionate, optimistic, highly engaged and self-motivated.

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