Illustration by Steve McCracken
Making meaning and purpose central to life and work is more art than science. But as Heinz Christian Prechter Executive in Residence J. Douglas Holladay explains, certain practices offer a road map to living such a life.
1. Understand the important difference between happiness and meaning.
Happiness is circumstantial. I got a raise, I am in good health, etc. Is child rearing a happy task? Well, yes and no. Is it the most meaningful role one could do? Yes. Meaning is far deeper and illusive than happiness and, as Albert Einstein observed, both beautiful and utterly mysterious. We often understand meaning by its absence. Suffering and setback are keys that clear the clutter to reveal meaning — what’s truly important.
2. Define success for yourself.
Peter Buffett once told me, “We are all born into someone else’s story.” Becoming his own person — a musician, in his case — required finding his unique path and deciding not to live his powerful father’s story. Finding your own voice and place in the world begins with a sober assessment of your parents and caregivers, their values and expectations, as well as your environments. Are you living your story or theirs?
3. Your point of identity is not your strengths but your weaknesses.
None of us feels we are smart enough, rich enough, or accomplished enough. We are all posers and frauds. Your peers and colleagues don’t want you to be perfect, just authentic. People are drawn to authenticity and those who are real. Turn your fear of revealing your imperfections and failures into the jet fuel that will connect you with others and propel you in ways unimaginable.
4. Create space in your life for reflection.
Many of us think of solitude as punitive — i.e., solitary confinement — or sought out only by reclusive mystics. I disagree. We all need space to consider what matters most. Neuroscience confirms that the simple act of reflecting upon life’s blessings actually changes the structure of the brain. Start modestly, five minutes per day. Write down a few things for which you are genuinely grateful and then be still and ponder.
5. Relationships are central to a meaningful life.
Ironically, being comfortable alone enables healthy relationships with others, which are essential to emotional well-being. A Harvard Grant study, which tracked the well-being of Harvard graduates for 75 years, found one compelling factor above all others that led to a satisfying life — loving relationships. Loneliness, on the other hand, is associated with a shorter life span and a greater impact on health compared with obesity. All of us need others for this challenging life journey. Find your posse, those special souls who are true friends and who are there for you in all seasons.
Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2017