The meaning of my life is to help others find meaning in theirs. – Viktor E. Frankl
How often does Frankl’s poignant expression align with yours?
Occasionally? Rarely? Never?
Your answer may, in no small measure, correlate with your physical age. What?
Recently, a dear friend “of a certain age” and I were in a stimulating and lengthy conversation about life, careers and the future. Until you arrive at this lofty chronological plateau, you may not understand the significance of our chat.
We traced our paths from youth until today. Naïve rookies to mature veterans who, despite the occasional ageism that rears its ugly head, feel like we still have much to offer. At least to anyone who might find value in who we are and what we might contribute.
And that’s where the key word emerged: CONTRIBUTE. While that may sound innocuous to you, we found deep significance in the concept — especially the more we “unpacked” the notion.
Our journey through time and life reminded us that we, at various times, have coached, consulted and enjoyed both. Recently I wrote on the important distinctions between coaches and mentors.
Coaching, I opined, “is a process of capacity development. Performance improvement is the goal. An ‘expert’ provides specific guidance, direction and feedback. The coach’s M.O. is to ask thought-provoking questions that hopefully lead to intended answers.”
Coaching most often occurs when a leader has reached a level of such experience and expertise that those are prized by others and can thus be shared with value and purpose. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, the undeniable GOAT in his field (Greatest of All Time) did not lead teams to victory quite as often earlier in his career. But experience begat expertise. And a great coach is the result.
Consulting can be formal or informal. If you’re a problem-solver, you have most likely been called on by others to help them discover solutions. But the professional consultant is one who has a specific expertise that is valued by a specific type of business or organization.
Consultants are entrepreneurial focused. They are leaders who are not remotely risk-averse. The very nature of a consultant requires embracing a “new” mindset — discovering solutions to others’ issues can be exciting but also dangerous to one’s career. Success is always the final grade rubric. Did the consultant help us turn things around? Did we discover new ways to make our business or organization healthy again? You get the point.
And while coaching and consulting are not necessarily life-span related, the need to create meaningful contributions is often a drive that comes later in one’s career.
Contributing. To what? How? For whom? All good questions.
But the bottom line query is really the starting point for this “C.” How do I find relevant and true meaning at this point in my life? For the Spirit-empowered True North leader, the answers may be a bit more obvious. But since this is among the great questions of life for everyone, I’m going to guess that pertinence and meaning have gnawed away at you too from time to time.
Contributors are those who have made a career of helping, growing, developing others. We’ll look at three rather well known examples:
1. 20th Century psychologist and theorist, Erik Erikson
2. 21st Century author and motivator, Simon Sinek, and
3. 9th Century BCE King, Solomon
Unless you’re a Psychology major you may not have heard of Erik Erikson. He may best be known for coining the phrase, “identity crisis.” His career as a developmental psychologist led him to modify Freud’s controversial theory of psychosexual development as a psychosocial theory. His eight stages of development span human life from birth to death.
Erikson theorized that at each stage of development, humans must successfully confront a conflict that then serves as a turning point. When that confrontation is healthy and handled in a positive way, we have the opportunity to grow, mature and gain a sense of competence. Failure to master these tasks often leads to feelings of inadequacy.
So for example, in the first stage “Trust vs. Mistrust,” an infant must learn if the adults in her life can be trusted — or not. Mom and Dad meet the baby’s basic needs, provide safety and love and thus the child feels that the world is safe and predictable.
Let’s focus on Erikson’s final two developmental stages as they pertain to leaders.
Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation
Adults (in this category he spans ages 40–65) are wired to create or nurture organizations, children, employees, concepts or policies that will outlast them. Success at these tasks results in feelings of usefulness and accomplishment. Or, as Erikson labels them, Generativity. Volunteering, mentoring, building a healthy and caring organization are how a strong leader overcomes the conflict in this stage, which is Stagnation. Failure to live up to and promulgate those values the leader holds dear can lead to a sense of life-loss: not leaving a mark on the world in some meaningful way. Consequently, the stagnating leader may have little connection with others and less interest in productivity and self-improvement in the final years of their career.
Meaningful contributions at this stage of life result in a pride of accomplishment. Watching your children — or your employees, your enterprise grow into health. They’ve developed a sense of cohesion and contribution in their callings. Now, that’s a sense of fulfillment.
Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair
The final stages of life (ages 65+) provide ample opportunities for reflection: were my life and career meaningful? Do I feel content and fulfilled? Is there evidence that my contributions have had value for others? Success combating the conflict of personal integrity vs despair determines our senses of closure, fulfillment and knowledge that our contributions mattered.
He’s an optimist. A writer who effectively communicates inspiration which leads to wisdom, he hopes, for leaders. His seminal book Start with Why taught leaders how to motivate by inspiring everyone around them. A later tome Find Your Why, focused on the need for leaders to find purpose for themselves and their teams.
Sinek writes, “Fulfillment is a right and not a privilege. For those who hold a leadership position, creating an environment in which the people in your charge feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves is your responsibility as a leader.” He urges leaders to create environments in which, in the later stages of career or life, we might look back on a job well done. Our contributions mattered.
Reputably history’s wisest and richest monarch. The King’s musings and angst of his life’s accomplishments are explored in his book Ecclesiastes. In the second chapter his emotions wax and wane in an effort to provide a roadmap to meaning in life.
I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I said to myself, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?”
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair…
How did he confront this conflict (in Eriksonian terms)? He summarizes life in a way that seems like pessimism wins, To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
What is the purpose of life then? Solomon wisely acknowledges the inevitability of death. Each career, ministry or life will end. Mine will. Yours will. But the True North leader, understanding God’s intervention in life and His sovereignty over all things, reaches the end with a sense of satisfaction, peace and fulfillment. Why? Because God has proven He’s always been good. He’s joined us along this life journey. And because our calling was to Him first, our contributions mattered.
Author, minister, Robert Fulghum tells the story about an experience on the last day of a seminar he attended in Greece:
“I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light — be it truth or understanding or knowledge — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have, I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the dark places of human hearts — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others seeing it happen will do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.” (Excerpted from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.
True North leaders of every age, here’s a truth — courtesy of King Solomon — you can live by and end well with: Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)