The Flight of the Corporate Refugee
5 November 2018 at 8:50 am
Psychologist Adam Blanch considers why moving from the corporate sector to the social purpose space doesn’t always deliver a sense of meaning.
Dear Adam, I’m a classic corporate refugee who abandoned the pursuit of endless profit and came over to the social purpose space in the hope of having a job that meant something to me. These days I do the same type of work, but for less pay and with far less resources, which makes it stressful. I don’t regret it, I love what we do, but I must admit that the sense of meaning I was seeking is still a bit lacking. Any thoughts?
Dear disenchanted, welcome to the reality of social purpose sector. We all want to save the world, but the world rather stubbornly refuses to be saved. I think it’s important to draw a distinction that often gets lost in the hype about living a meaningful life. There is a difference between living a purposeful life and a meaningful one.
For some people, a sense of purpose burns inside them like a fire, driving their life with a consuming passion. Though it usually brings them great challenges, and often great suffering, they can no more turn away from it than they can stop breathing. It is literally who they are.
It’s hard to know if such a sense of purpose is a gift or a curse. The cost is usually more than many people can bear. Even the idea can be intolerable to live with. Today a great many people are searching for their purpose in life, having been told that this is the essence of a meaningful life – to be driven by something greater than yourself.
Unfortunately, this idea has set a great many people up to fail.
This is because meaning and purpose are not the same thing, but different ends of a spectrum. Purpose is always about “changing” something. Whether that is bringing something new to the world, or righting a wrong, it involves the destruction or superseding of something that already exists.
For the automobile to flourish, thousands of coachmakers had to find new employment and millions of horses had to die. Air travel meant the death of rail. Electricity brought the end of dozens of industries and millions of jobs. They all replaced it with something, for better or worse, but the journey brought both excitement and suffering.
This is what purpose does, it destroys and recreates the world as we know it. No wonder it must be driven by an all-consuming passion, it faces a great many obstacles. Change is always opposed by those for whom the current status is comfortable. Those with power and privilege often find themselves struggling to retain it when winds of change blow, and they usually fight.
For most of us, it’s a little more moderate than all that. We may feel a sense of direction, an urge to express a talent or a commitment to a cause, but it doesn’t demand everything there is from us. Our purpose sits alongside something else. Though not consumed by the fire of a great passion, our lives are not without meaning.
Meaning is the other end of the spectrum. It comes not from changing the world, but from sustaining life. Meaning exists in the ebb and flow of our daily interactions. Every act of kindness, reciprocity, support and nurture towards another gives us a sense of meaning. Every handshake, hug, affirming word and affectionate touch gives our life meaning.
I believe that meaning is relational, it occurs in the space between living things. Whether that is another person, an animal, a garden or a group does not matter. It only matters that the act is one of sustaining and supporting the continuance of life.
Most people find meaning in their work, and it matters not if you are a janitor, a waiter, a therapist, a chef, a secretary or a plumber. If your work serves the needs and the wellbeing of others it is meaningful, if you allow it to be. It may not be what you want to do forever, and if it is not aligned with some sense of purpose or talent, it probably won’t be. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important in the scheme of things.
Meaning can be found in many things – nature, art, relationships, service to others and learning to name a few. It is specific to each person to some extent, in that we have different value sets that motivate us, but there are also broad commonalities. People who are aligned with their natural talents and values and live accordingly usually report their life to be meaningful.
Balancing the Boat
So, people have different levels of meaning and purpose. The more feminine you are (not female) the more likely you are to seek meaning in life through the daily giving and receiving of love and care. The more masculine you are (not male) the more likely you are to seek out a sense of purpose and to be driven to change and create things.
Neither purpose or meaning are better than the other. If everyone was trying to change the world we would have utter chaos and constant conflict, because everyone would be trying to make it differently. People would be acting with no regard for anything but their own vision, and social cohesion would disintegrate.
On the other hand, if everyone was trying to sustain the status quo we would never have progress and the excitement of new and novel realities. We would be smothered in tradition and rules and slowly falling into decay and entropy. One person’s meaningful belief or tradition is another person’s prison. A psychopath can be very purposeful but is unlikely to create meaning. Purpose is exciting and arousing, but meaning is where contentment seems to come from.
It takes people at all points along the spectrum of meaning and purpose to make the world work, and it takes a balance of the two to keep it going. So, if you are satisfied with the purpose you find in your work, perhaps it is your relationships and lifestyle that needs attention. Perhaps you are ready for new growth and development, or to change course in the type of work you do, or to get more hands-on in how you work. Perhaps it’s your private life that needs attention, and it’s time to fill some of those relationship holes we experience on occasion.
I hope that helps.