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  • AutorenbildJulia Holewa

Navigating towards meaning: Our inner metrics we unlearned to manage

„A job with real purpose. The latest marketing message of the white-collar job market. The ultimate jackpot it seems. That 10/10 job. Displayed in the storefront of career websites and LinkedIn posts, decorated with even more fashionable terms like „new work“ or „impact“.

I read buzzwords like that everywhere I look. Maybe they’re put there to create relevance, or to just jump on the hype. I don’t know. Unfortunately, the inflationary use makes it harder and harder to put in effort to see beyond the glitter and reflect on the depth of those concepts. The more often it seems to simply fill verbal voids, the harder it gets to hear what it means. Like with every other buzzword: Everybody can talk about it. Only a handful really have insight or knowledge about it. And only a few can understand and feel the weight and significance of it. The factor here is experience. Whether they are empty phrases or not — the difference lies in the actual experience.

It makes me wonder though: we are asking for meaningful work but are we even equipped for the path toward an answer? If only direct experience turns an empty word into something significant, what is our direct, personal experience with meaning? What do we mean when we say meaningful?

A longing of a lifetime vs. an attention span of a minute

The desire to find value and significance in what we do and how we spend our time is nothing novel. Neither modern society nor our decentralized work world invented anything about it. It is part of our essence to have a task or mission in this world. It is nothing less than who we are. Certainly not an easy endeavor in a globalized world of exponential advancements and uncertainty.

Humans crave deep connection, but big parts of society prioritize individualistic success. Modern industries demand constant action, but this world sometimes leaves us paralyzed on how to move on. Our hearts seek stability that doesn’t exist. We try to find our place while we deconstruct flawed systems and destructive narratives. The pace of it all doesn’t really help with that, either. Our nervous systems are overloaded, our attention span shrunk to a tenth of the last paragraph (glad you’re still reading).

In the midst of all this, work is where we spend the biggest part of our precious lifetime (I guess it’s debatable whether we generally like that fact or not, but it just is what it is). Understandably, people are more and more longing for a compass to make sustainable decisions and create a life around work that matters to them.

So I guess at some point, the purpose discussion found its way out of philosophical conversations under the moonlight onto the table of professional interviews and performance reviews. Purpose, as in „why do I exist?“ or „what’s the meaning of life?“, now translates into „why do I do what I do?“ and „what’s the meaning of my work?“

The fact that an idealistic concept like that managed to slip (back) into an emotionally sterile environment like our capitalist work world tells us a lot about us as humans. And the fact that there’s a whole purpose economy emerging also shows us that the questions are here to stay. We just seem to have some difficulties answering them. Why is that?

Our never-ending urge to simplify

With all that complexity and us being badly out of breath in a wicked environment, we have this urge to simplify. So we are frantically trying to break. It. Down. We seek ease and simplicity like nothing else. No friction, please. It’s disturbing my numbness.

The only problem is that finding a purpose somehow became a task we set ourselves over the weekends. Sometimes, it even turns up as a bullet point on a two-hour workshop agenda with the team. We treat it as something hidden, beneficial once it’s carved out under substantial effort. Something „worth having“. We are turning it into a status symbol.

How do I find a purpose? What are the steps I need to take to have a purposeful career? My friends say they found true meaning in their job, do I need to have that, too? Should I quit my job? What if I don’t find meaning in the next one, either?

We are compulsively trying to apply tools and techniques as if we were moving through a predictable, rational sphere, hoping for a simplistic, actionable outcome. We want to determine the numbers, do the math and get a result. Fast. Deeply stuck in our cognitive modus operandi — spellbound by achievement culture.

Our brains are pretty good at simplifying everything. I just think we are simplifying the big things a little too much. Like ourselves. How we move through life. Our essence and our self-expression. Some things just aren’t simple. Or easy, for that matter. A job role can be conveyed in a simple, two-sentence way, yes. But how purpose is experienced can never be. Humans can never be. We are the most complex thing there is. And the irony is that we seem to forget that when it comes to us in the context of work.

So in the spirit of not-simplifying: There sometimes is no simple answer to complex questions. The same way there is no simple way to describe a complex experience. And what if we are equipped for the path towards purpose and meaning, but just lost sight of the right tools within us?

A noble quest with good intentions — and no inventory

We are constantly intellectualizing our experience in the work world. Always thinking we can think our way through everything. Fair enough, though. Our individual brain performance is pretty much what our professional contribution is often all about. Thinking is what white-collar workers are paid for.

However, when it comes to creating a meaningful path through the jungle of challenges and opportunities out there, intellectualizing it won’t do the trick. The funny thing about feeling, on the other hand, is that it makes up 90% of our experience but we all pretend we don’t do it. Not only are emotional expressions stigmatized in the work world. How many times have you heard the phrase „it’s nothing personal“ in the work sphere? I encourage you to rethink that. It actually can be and it can actually be a good thing. Longing is personal. Doubting is personal. Caring is personal. The only question is what you make personal.

Thinking vs. feeling is a false dichotomy anyway. Science knows that. And there’s no point in evaluating which one can do what. What I believe we truly lack is the capacity to monitor. To seriously check in with our path. To probe if we are actually on the right track by our own standards. Measuring our authentic purpose metric, if you will. We teach new skills and preach openness to change while constantly trying to cope. We think about all the ways to optimize. But we don’t ever really learn to navigate. Maybe we just unlearned to look at the right place within ourselves and the vocabulary to express our experience and make sense of what we find. With wanting meaning in our work life, we are on a noble quest with good intentions — but just lack the right inventory. What I think we should be practicing is sensing. Not thinking thoughts. Not feeling emotions. But sensing resonance.

On data and Mission Control

Navigating life is not at all about the outside. I am starting to understand that myself the older I get. It is about what’s going on inside of us. And it’s like with all the big things in life: searching for an answer to an inward question on the outside will probably leave you empty-handed.

But for all the rational thinkers out there: let’s approach this less philosophically: Let’s talk data and measurement. What is the nature of the information we need to gather to make an informed decision towards more meaning and actualization in our work life? And what is the baseline? And what’s the measurement tool? You see, we won’t get very far even if we think about that real hard. You can workshop the sh* out of that question and it still won’t feel true to you.

That’s the thing with real meaning in the job. We need to re-install our ability to sense what is going on within us whenever making decisions around work life and career and de-intellectualize our path of navigating what is already here.

Examples of what already is there: that little spark you get with receiving a specific task. This one idea that keeps coming back and moves through your brain and disappears again. The excitement about specific things. The indifference about other things. Spontaneous reactions to topics or statements. It’s what we resonate with positively or negatively. Becoming aware of resonance is the best compass we have to navigate what is. Resonance is our most important inner metric and we unlearned to measure it.

Of course, we do navigate. Obviously. But we’re not doing it consciously most of the time. We find a hundred ways of reverse-intellectualizing a decision when it was already made long before, somewhere inside of us. We choose a path and avoid reflecting on why. We take opportunities as they arise, or we don’t. But we often pay minor attention to the signals that led us to this decision. We react on them but not to them. We are a powerful action engine that has lost the signal from mission control: our innermost self.

An invitation for inquiry

I am not going to tell you what shape, form, extent or importance meaning or purpose in the context of work should have for you. It is not my place and it is not anyone else’s, either. But I want to encourage you to practice sensing. What resonates with you? Where does it resonate in your body? Recognize it. Note it. Remember it. Try to learn what it feels like when something resonates. In a positive or in a negative way. Practice sensing things at work. This is your direct experience with meaning.

Maybe start an energy journal: what gives you energy throughout the day? Note it down. What are the random thoughts about your work that entertain you and make you feel good? Write them down. What gives you a sensation in your body? Those things have meaning for you. It’s there. Try to go where there’s more of it. What types of sparks do you recognize? Note down how they feel different in your own words. There is no template for your own path.

Once you start measuring resonance within you, there’s a second player that will take the stage: fear. But both fear and resonance are the two signals that can actually tell us something about our experience. While resonance is your compass, fear is your teacher. The compass doesn’t tell you where to go, it helps you navigate directions. The teacher also doesn’t tell you where to go, but they tell you what to learn wherever you go. You can still go wherever you choose to go. This is what people call following their heart or trusting their gut. It honestly never makes anything easier. Following your intuition doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. But you’re doing it despite the fear. Because it resonates.

Amid all this noise, I encourage you to tune in with your own radio signals. No need to find, carve out or define anything. Just sense what’s there. Don’t desire having meaning. Desire the inquiry within yourself to explore what means something to you. Desire doing it in a deep, sustainable way. Not a 14-day challenge kind of way. Try acknowledging and becoming aware of those things. And try to not try to make too much rational sense of it. Embrace the complexity, let it resonate, and take the courage to follow it.


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