I talk a lot, on this site, about the importance of purpose and meaning, especially in terms of how to weigh conflicting life decisions. I devoted two posts in December (More Evidence on the Power of Purpose and Community and More on the Importance of a Meaningful Job and Path), in fact, to the the power and impact–not just on others, but even on your own mental fatigue or energy levels–of feeling as if what you do matters.

I also believe that, from a company or organizational standpoint, the best way to improve the performance of a team, and build teamwork, is to get its members to realize why their common goal matters; why getting across that goal line is meaningful, for reasons other than just the bottom line. A team united by a common belief that their common goal is both important and meaningful is far more likely to work cohesively and effectively toward it. A vision of accomplishing something important and meaningful is the fuel that sparks passion, dedication and perseverance for that goal.

Given all that, I was both intrigued and a bit taken aback when I read a column in The New York Times, a while ago, entitled The Problem With Meaning. The thrust of it was that although we all feel this hunger and desire for “meaning” in our lives, pursuing our own definition of “meaning” (as opposed to following a societal guideline about what is meaningful) is a kind of selfish, squishy kind of motivation, “based solely on emotion,” and “fleeting.”

It helps to know that the author, David Brooks, was working on a book about “character” at the time he wrote this particular column. It also helps to know he is a big believer in social structures as motivators.. He believes, as he says in the piece, that people who have had some of the greatest impact on the world (Nelson Mandela, Albert Schweitzer, Abraham Lincoln) “subscribed to moral systems … that recommended specific ways of being and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.” (I presume Brooks means after Mandela renounced violence as a valid means to his ends.)

Brooks concedes that a desire for “meaning” in one’s life is about more than material success. That it’s about “giving,” “serving others,” and “significance.” His issue, it seems, is that we allow everyone to decide for themselves what is meaningful, and for how long. Today, you might find meaning in working for social justice, but tomorrow, you might decide there’s more meaning to be found in painting. And in the end, the person you’re really serving in that desire for meaning is yourself, not others.

Two points there. First, I think Brooks is conflating an individually-driven search for meaning with a lack of long-term commitment to any particular goal, effort, or cause. And I don’t think those two elements are linked. [click to continue…]

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When I was growing up, my father repeatedly told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, if I wanted it badly enough. It was wonderful aspirational encouragement, and I love him for being so supportive of my dreams. But in truth, he was only partly right. No matter how badly I might want to be a top quarterback in the NFL or a prima ballerina in the New York City Ballet, it was never going to happen. I don’t have the right gender, in the case of the NFL, or the right body type, in the case of the ballerina. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of talent. Not everyone can throw a 95-mph fastball, no matter how hard or long they try.

There’s also all the fickle elements of luck, serendipity, connections, opportunity and timing that make such a difference in people’s “success.” (I don’t disagree with Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion about all this in his book Outliers … I just don’t think it’s a new or ground-breaking idea.) I’ve always understood that many things–a number of them out of our control–play a role in how “successful” any of us are. The task for any entrepreneur or dream-chaser is to do the best you can at the parts you do control, and hope for fair winds and favor from the gods on the rest.

But my father was right about one thing: part of being successful at something is how badly you want that goal. As a mountain-climbing friend put it to me once, “summiting isn’t about being the most talented or the best trained climber out there. Assuming you have the basic required conditioning and skill, whether or not you make the peak often comes down to ‘how bad do you want the mountain?’” Do you want the goal badly enough to make the sacrifices great goals require? To sign on for the pain, the long-haul endurance, the suffering, the discomfort, the self-discipline, the pushing through, the risk, and the cost?

Now that I’m older, I know that my father didn’t mean those words lightly, either. “If you want it badly enough” may bring to mind Disney-movie images of a kid trying just that much harder on a sports team, but I think my father meant to convey more cautionary advice. “For if you want to shoot high, there will be sacrifices and trade-offs involved–some of them significant,” he could have added.

It’s why I’m such a big believer in the importance of figuring out what’s most important to you; what your real, no-kidding, down-to-brass-tacks priorities are, before you go chasing after a dream or envying someone who has a different life path. Because everything has trade-offs associated with it. Every life path, every job, every relationship, every accomplishment. Happiness isn’t about having it all–it’s about understanding that what you have is what’s most important to you.

And that includes achieving the high luster of “greatness.” [click to continue…]

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In Search of Greatness Part I: Mt. Everest Then and Now

by Lane Wallace

Compared to the thousands recently killed in the cities and towns of Nepal, the 18 climbers and Sherpas lost on Mt. Everest in an avalanche caused by the first of recent earthquakes there is a small number. But it still rates as the worst annual death toll so far on the mountain, topping even last [...]

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Can You Be an Explorer if You Sit at a Desk?

by Lane Wallace

The Explorer’s Club, now a prestigious New York institution, was founded in 1904 with the mission of advancing “field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.” The club is famous for its luminary members’ “firsts” (although many of those people were made honorary members after the fact): first [...]

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When the Adventure IS the Reward

by Lane Wallace

I‘m big on lessons. Anyone who’s read any of my writing knows that. For all the adventure writing I’ve done, over the past 25 years (including my “Flying Lessons” aviation column), the adventure itself was rarely the point. Typically, even when I’m telling an adventure story, I’m using the story to illustrate some bigger lesson [...]

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David Carr and the Power of Voice

by Lane Wallace

A few days after the sudden death of New York Times columnist David Carr (referenced in my last post), the paper ran a final column, pulled from comments and curriculum notes Carr made in a class he was teaching at Boston University. The class, titled “Press Play,” focused on “making and distributing content in the [...]

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Jon Stewart, Brian Williams and the Power of Authenticity

by Lane Wallace

Ed note: I wrote this post the day David Carr’s analysis of Brian Williams and Jon Stewart’s contrasting approaches and situations (referenced in the post) came out. Shockingly, David Carr collapsed that night in the New York Times newsroom and died. The piece he wrote, and I referenced here, was his very last. I’m posting [...]

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The Super Bowl, Everest, and Decision Making Under Pressure

by Lane Wallace

In the wake of last week’s jaw-dropping Super Bowl finish, for which Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is still being criticized for a critical play call that cost Seattle a probable victory, a few thoughts on decision-making under pressure–relevant to any adventurer, entrepreneur or, yes, even business leader.
For anyone who didn’t watch the Super Bowl [...]

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The Power of Powering Down

by Lane Wallace

I had planned to write this post next anyway, even before the events of the past week, which gave me new evidence of its truth. After all, I’d had a clipping (yes, I still get print newspapers, and I still “clip” articles that spark ideas for discussion topics in my mind) about the importance of [...]

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New Year’s Resolutions: Seeking what leads to happiness

by Lane Wallace

The dawning of a new year! Aside from a good opportunity to throw a great party, it’s a good opportunity to press the “restart” button (more on this in my next post), and at least make an attempt to do some things better, or differently, in the future, than we did in the past.
Resolutions are [...]

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