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Man’s Search for Meaning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock 
February 25, 2022

Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was a Jewish psychoanalyst who survived Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. The first half of his book describes his experiences, focusing on how he psychologically and spiritually survived the brutality of the camps. The second half describes his psychoanalytic approach, logotherapy.

Frankl believed in the importance of the “internal life,” such that preserving spiritual freedom, even in the most dire situations, makes life meaningful and purposeful. Frankl noted that “it is not the physical pain which hurts the most…it is the unreasonableness of it all…. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom…even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress…. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl deemed that the search for meaning is primary to human existence—even more important than other basic needs. For Freud, the will to pleasure was primary. For Adler, it was the will to power. For Frankl, it was the will for meaning. He understood that suffering was an “ineradicable” part of life and “if there is meaning in life at all then there must be a meaning in suffering…. The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

While it is improper at best to compare a concentration camp experience to the past two years of the pandemic, Frankl argued, suffering, whether great or small, fills the soul and mind, and our responses to current times have been similar: shock, apathy, and despair. As we viewed our public workplaces, we saw employees who were in disbelief about the pandemic, then grudgingly accepting of the limitations and finally seeing it as something over which they had no control and that was seemingly endless.

The response to this is to help others find meaning in their current situations. This should be the first responsibility of any leader—to take care of those who work for them. Typically, we frame this as setting goals, supervising work and evaluating performance. What might happen if we added to that by helping them to find meaning in their work?

In discussing logotherapy, Frankl provided examples of how these conversations might happen: “We should not be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill.” Meaning can be found “by creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” If managers invest in honest relationships and significant communication, they can help employees find meaning in this new work environment.

The public service motivation literature speaks of the role of meaning in work, but primarily as a foundational element of those who choose to work in the public sphere. This motivation can be degraded or discarded when faced with overwhelming opposition, financial or political barriers or other situations which challenge the ability to do one’s work competently and completely. I confess, I cannot recall a single instance of having a “meaning” conversation—as opposed to “goal setting”—with an employee, and certainly not when we were struggling against organizational or environmental obstacles. Nor do I recall personally searching for meaning when faced with organizational dysfunction and crisis. How might such conversations or meditations have affected future performance?

If the first takeaway is the role of a manager in helping others to find meaning, the second is equally important: that it is essential to leading an ethical life. The loss of “the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal values” can lead to the loss of values altogether if not anchored to higher, more spiritual things. Having meaning leads to responsibility or, as Frankl wrote, “We needed to stop thinking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life. Our answer must consist … in right action and in right conduct…. It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us…. Each man is questioned by life; and he can only respond by being responsible…. Responsibleness (is) the very essence of human existence.” It is important to remember this as we teach, or consider, ethical behavior in public service.

Reading of the horrors of the Holocaust is never easy, and I was tempted to put down the book. Yet Frankl’s goal was not to provide another description of this shocking history, but rather to demonstrate that having meaning makes anything more bearable—something to remember as we lead others in the post-pandemic environment.

Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in public leadership and in state and local government. She lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030. She welcomes your suggestions as to books that might be reviewed.

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