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“Finding a purpose to life is man’s primary motivational force.” writes Dr. Victor E Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. Dr. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist endured years of horror in Nazi death camps, by finding something worthwhile to live for.

This article is about meaning.

What role does it play in our lives? Where does it come from? How do we find it? Does it change over time? Do we define it or does it define us?

I have two choices.

Choice one. Explore these questions from a variety of intellectual perspectives.

Choice two. Explore the lives of few people I know, including myself, to see how these questions on meaning and purpose have unfolded in their lives.

The people whose lives I will explore are real people. I know them. However, the dialogues, settings and names are fictional. The idea is to bring forth the meaningful essence of each person, as I have experienced them, not so much to reproduce accurate data.

Let’s hear what they have to say.

The Corporate Achiever

I met Neeta during a work assignment.

I was conducting interviews to understand the organization by meeting a few employees. It was the last interview of a tiring day. As she walked into the room, I noticed her tight fitting black trouser and plain white corporate shirt.  Hair tied in a bun and eyes tired after a long days work. We shook hands and I explained to her that there was no structure for the interview. She could start by sharing about her background and then about her work, colleagues and future aspirations. She picked the glass of water lying on the table, took a sip, and after a pause started sharing.

“I come from a small town in Gujarat. My father was a school teacher and my mother a housewife. I am the only daughter. I have two brothers, one elder and the other younger. Right since my childhood, I was a go getter. I did well in school and never let anyone take me for granted. It wasn’t easy, since men were always given preferential treatment.

I had a great desire to prove myself. I still do. It is like an aggressive energy driving me forward. For me it meant going to the city, getting a high paying job and being in a senior position of a corporation. Which I did. The first time I came to Mumbai was to study. I joined an Art school, since I was quite creative. However, I was clear that I had to get a corporate job. It is my ambition to be the head of an organization. I took up this job of heading the creative department of a publishing company. I have worked for seven years here, however I realize if I have to grow then I have to be in business development. Selling is at the forefront of any organization and if one has to grow, one needs to be able to get more business. Soon I will move to the sales team.”

“What about your relations with your colleagues and your future plans?” I inquired. “They say I am short tempered. I agree. At times I loose my temper, but then I cannot tolerate mediocrity. If there is a task that needs to be done, then it needs to be done! Sometimes my temper gets me into trouble. I am working on it. However, I do not wish to let go of my aggressive nature. Achieving my goal is essential to who I am. It gives me meaning. Eventually I would like to be the head of an organization. I know I am capable of it. ”

The Musical Banker

I met Naresh during a trek some years back. Our friendship has stood the test of time. We had a lot in common. Both came from urban middle-class families, were qualified chartered accountants and had corporate jobs that did not satisfy us, but were a means for a livelihood.  Naresh is an amiable fellow and makes friends easily. He has a passion for music. Classical music.

We met at a club. He shared that the current financial crisis may cost him his bank job.

“They are laying of people. I do not know what I will do if I lose my job. Probably take a sabbatical for two months. I don’t know if I can afford to do that.” he shared.  “But Naresh, you have been saying that to me for the past three years, and you still have your job.” I interjected, unsure whether I wanted him to lose his job to do something meaningful or retain it for the financial security it gave him.

Yes I do, but you never know. It is just a means to earn a living. I go there do my work and come back. I have been doing more or less similar work for the past seven years. Moving files and shuffling papers.” he says with his trademark humour. “The boss is a pain. But that is how we middle class people make money, pay our EMIs and take care of our families. We do our time over the week so that we can live our lives over the weekends,” he added. “What do you do on weekends?” I questioned.

“I go for my music classes. I have been practising that for the past ten years. My grandmother introduced me to it and I shall always be grateful to her for that. When I sing, I feel closest to God. It is the cornerstone of my life. At times, I attend concerts with my mother. It is a soulful experience.”  “Can’t you do something around music?” the idealist in me inquired.

“Who will pay me for it and what could I do?” he responds “Let us be practical after all the world is maintained by people like us who do 9 to 6 jobs, six days a week. No one is interested in whether you find your job meaningful or not. I do my job and that is the end of it. It is a job after all.”

The Teacher Mother

Lakshmi works as a senior executive in an education company, that has created a successful brand of franchisee schools. She has worked there for the past seventeen years. She started her career in the same company as a pre-school teacher. A chance encounter with the founder, when the company had only begun with a single pre-school.

She has a twenty three year old son Tapan, who is pursuing his graduation studies in Australia.

One pleasant morning, during one of our occasional morning walks, I ask her “What has been most meaningful in your life?” She looks at me, a little surprised at the question, unsure what to say. “I am writing an article on what different people find meaningful in their lives,” I add, hoping to elicit a response. It does.

“My most meaningful experience is of being a mother.” she responds in a voice laced with emotion.

“My son is the most precious to me. Nothing in the world is more valuable to me, than him. When he left for Australia three years back, my world came crashing down. My entire world revolved around him. Suddenly there was this huge emptiness. I could not eat for days. I spiraled into a depression. Thankfully, my friends stood by me. It was the most difficult experience of my life. Letting go of my son. It left me detached and wondering at the play of life. It gives and then it takes away. I just could not make meaning of it. My desire to find some explanation made me join astrology classes. Now I can see things from a larger perspective. Every person has his own destiny. There is not much in our hands beyond a point. That realization brings balance into my life.”

We walk silently for the next few steps.

“What about your work?” I probe further.

“When I began I was extremely passionate about what I did. I taught toddlers in pre-school. Since the organization was just beginning I did all kinds of work – clerical, marketing, training, curriculum development, even being a school principal. There is no department I have not worked in. I did not mind working late. As the company grew, we began to corporatize systems. I was moved to central office as an executive. My interaction with schools was restricted in my new role. That killed my passion. All that was meaningful for me, was taken away by my new role. The irony was that I had a better designation and a bigger salary, yet the fulfilment I got from my work diminished. It became a job. It is funny when I look back, the organization that gave me meaning, also took it away when we became successful.”

“What keeps you going then?” I ask

“I still like my work, but the passion of those initial years is missing. Once I am able to fulfill my financial responsibilities, I would like to work with underprivileged children in a non-profit organization. Not for money, just for the joy of it. That would give me new meaning.”

The Urban Seeker

This is about my journey of finding meaning and purpose in life.

Different things have been important to me at different times of my life. Yet if there is one thread that ran through all my past experiences, it was to find my calling. To be able to do work that would quench my thirst for self-expression. Interestingly that journey began after my education, when I started working.

“I have met many people who are doing things that they are not meant to be doing, yet I haven’t  come across anyone who is as divorced from his natural self and the work one does, as you are” said a friend to me once.  At that time I was working as management accountant, in the finance department of a multinational company.  She was right. I did not like my work one bit. I have no interest or aptitude for numbers, which people find hard to believe considering I qualified as a chartered accountant. I attribute it to a cocktail of poor awareness, fear of being a failure and desire for social recognition. I could further attribute it to a poor education system that rewards learning by rote, parenting that defines success by social parameters or my destiny. Having said that, yet if I were to look at it from a larger perspective, everything had its place, time and reason. What did not make sense earlier, made sense later. The fact remains all that I have learnt is from unlearning all that I had learnt, like peeling layer after layer to uncover my natural self.  Perhaps it is essential to lose yourself, before you can find yourself.

It was not an easy process though. I remember the time when I quit my high paying job, with the hope of becoming a corporate trainer. I thought then, if I had to work with people that was the only way to go about it. I remember the vulnerability of not having a job for a few months. I remember going back again to the security of a job, out of the fear of not being able to support myself. I remember the immense boredom of it, yet not knowing or having the guts to try again, after having failed once. I remember moving from finance to human resources, something unheard of. I remember the dissatisfaction and failure at being a trainer, simply because I did not believe in it and could not modulate my voice to engage my audience. And, I remember clearly sitting one day with my head in my hands, with every cell in my body crying out for self-expression, yet not knowing what it was, that I was meant to do.

The work I do now is not only an expression of who I am, it is a culmination of a long journey in finding meaning. There is no path I can point to and say it got me here. Yet one thing stands out. All that I did, that was not organic to me, dropped off one after another. Borrowed causes I call them. Every  new turn, even though scary at that instance, got me closer to what I was meant to do. What finally remained was truly mine.

There are various labels to what I do now. Organization development consultant, management consultant, human resource trainer, facilitator, coach or change catalyst. Yet the truth is all I am doing is being myself. Just as writing this article does not make me a writer. It is simply a means of self-expression. In hindsight, the journey was not of finding my calling; the journey was of finding my-self.

It feels like coming home.

***

I am unsure how these stories answer the questions on meaning and purpose in your life.

Perhaps there are no absolute answers. Each individual has to find his own answers. And his own meaning. Often the questions and meanings keep changing. What used to be the answers once, get converted into questions later.

Dr. Frankl would sometimes ask his patients. “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answers he could find a guide line for their therapy: in one’s life there is love for one’s children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving. These slender threads weaved meaning into people’s lives and gave them a reason to live. What gave them meaning, gave them life.

As Nietzsche, the German philosopher says “He who has a why to live can bear with any how.”

***

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“What do you do?” We are often asked. The question leaves us stumped. Depending on who’s asking, our answers may range from – organisation development, HR consulting, leadership development or team building. Some people end up thinking we offer life skills. Well the actual answer is peculiar. We do neither of the above, yet all of the above. Let me explain.

First, why is it difficult to explain what we do? Second, what we do and what emerges out of it.

My work is purely experiential, hence difficult to explain. It is like asking someone eating a chocolate ice cream what does it taste like. He will say “it tastes like chocolate ice cream”. Now, if you have tasted chocolate ice cream you will recall that taste from memory. But if you have never eaten it before, then chocolate ice cream are simply words and you are as clueless as before.  Since what I do is not something I have experienced others do, I don’t really have words to explain it. In which case I use common words that people will relate to – OD, HR, Training, Coaching etc. Of course these have so many connotations based on the listener’s association with these words, that he simply puts my work under one of these buckets, and is quite satisfied thinking he has understood what I do. But that is not what I do.

So what do I do? Simply put, I engage people in conversations. With themselves or with each other. It is my belief that all that is manifest in the outer world is on account of the inner conversations of people. These conversations may comprise of beliefs, values, ideas, notions, concepts, theories, philosophies, prejudices, perceptions, views, opinions, judgements. Call it what you may, all these form part of our inner conversation, that becomes our self-identity. When this personal inner world relates to another person’s inner world it creates a relationship. When there are more people bound together, it creates a culture. Cultures gives rise to systems, processes, policies – stated or unstated- to manage a social unit. Be it a family, organisation or a nation.

In the work we have done, I have observed that engaging people in facilitative conversations brings awareness of mindsets, values, strengths, weaknesses, cultures, roles, systems. It also highlights how these are related to each other and helps to identify what is functional and dysfunctional in a particular situation. These conversations are very real. By that I mean pertinent to the person’s current life situation. Since neither of this is intellectual or cognitive, it impacts people at a feeling level. These conversations have the capability to impact mindsets and beliefs, during the course of the conversations itself. Even views the person may hold about himself. Quite unlike intellectual learning, where concepts are gathered, to be put to good use later. Which in my experience rarely happens. It only adds to the concept bank of a person, without creating any shift in consciousness.

So what use is this? The beauty of it is, that it can be put to any use. Ranging from helping individuals get in touch with themselves more deeply, facilitating full self-expression to building organisation cultures. The outcome is mostly a by-product of these conversations. A recent interview and interactive process we did with the leadership team of an organization to my mind built individual and group self-awareness, opened communication blocks, examined individual styles to organizational roles, identified key organizational blocks, built ownership to the organisation brand and vision and identified the next strategic initiatives for organizational growth. Did we start with these objectives? No. We simply started and ended with facilitating conversations that were unarticulated. Bringing multiple perspectives to awareness for exploration and enhancing the gestalt of an individual to experience himself and another. Whatever objectives were achieved, were an outcome that of that process.

I often tell people, what I do cannot be told or sold. It can only be experienced and recommended. People who have experienced our work and found value in it, become our brand ambassadors. We recently did a group coaching exercise for young adults, as a part of a two year leadership program called Gandhi Fellowship. Enclosed below is a testimonial from Tripti, the Head of that program. It was one of the most fulfilling assignments and the comprehensive testimonial is reflective of how we work. Even though the focus in this assignment was the individual and not the organisation, our approach in all cases remain the same. Facilitating the unsaid.

In conclusion I am reminded of the saying “The proof of the pudding lies in eating it.”

And, knowing what Flow does lies in experiencing it!

Testimonial from Kaivalya Education Foundation

{http://www.gandhifellowship.org}

Flow conducted a five day Personal Reflection process for the fellows of the Gandhi Fellowship program. The brief to Flow was to design a process that would enhance the fellows’ self-awareness, get them to systematically begin exploring the question, “Who am I?” and thus be able to reach clarity about themselves so as to enable each fellow to articulate to herself his/her early version of their ‘private dream’; which is a the pivot around which the Gandhi Fellowship program is designed.

 Flow had to design a process that explored the innermost questions of each individual but it had to be done in a group and it had to be designed for 40 people. How to design a standard process that can be customized to the needs of each individual? And most importantly how to do this an environment that is emotionally and psychologically safe? These were the issues around which Flow had to work.

 Added to this was the challenge that these were no regular corporate employees, who would do a process simply because they had been asked to. The Fellows are individuals who will not do anything only for the sake of it and they are people who will ask questions and demand reasons for what they are getting in to.

 Flow Consulting designed a process that effectively and intelligently worked around the above-mentioned challenges and constraints. The design of the process was accurate to the last minute and yet left room for ideas and emotions to flow when needed. Within a tight design there was room for adaptation, participation and even co-facilitation. The beauty of the process was that by the second day fellows themselves had begun to contribute to the facilitation process.

 The process stretched the limits of all, the fellows and of members from Flow Consulting too. A process of such intense nature that extends for five days can be a emotionally and psychologically draining but Ajay, Payal and Jaya flowed through the ebb and flow of intense emotions with consummate ease.

 What I appreciate most was their ability to connect with, respect and appreciate the uniqueness of the Gandhi Fellows. This attitude percolated to the fellows and so they were able to draw  real appreciation and respect from the Fellows.

The most evident outcome of the process has been that the Fellows have learnt how to accept the emotion they are feeling at a given moment and  then give word to their emotions. This ability to connect to the ebb and flow of one’s emotions is the first step towards taking responsibility for one’s feelings, which in turn is a giant step in reaching true maturity. Flow has made a huge contribution to this growth in the journey of the 40 fellows.

Tripti Vyas

Head: Gandhi Fellowship Programme

Kaivalya Education Foundation

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Having just completed a workshop for a group of young and energetic twenty year olds, I wondered what I would have to say to myself if I came across my 20 something avatar now. Here is a letter to him with a decade of experience.

***

Dear Ajay,

Relax. It will all turn out fine.

Actually, it is all fine even now. Except you think it is not and that you need to do something to make things right. A vague haze of getting a job, making a living and getting married someday. The haze will lift in its own time, until then it will make you run in circles, leaving you dizzy and exhausted at times.

All your hard work to become a Chartered Accountant will be reduced to nought. You will forget all that you studied, except the three basic principles of accounting. Which you shall not make use of anyway. The only time you will mention your degree will be to share about your journey from numbers to people. Mostly to emphasize that people need to follow their passion. Infact that will become your passion – helping others get in touch with their passion.

Your girlfriend will eventually marry your college friend. You will be confused how best to relate to the opposite sex for a long time. Just know you are not the only one. You will come across many definitions of love. Neither of it will help you in anyway. For love cannot be learnt, much less taught.  You may find it hard to understand this now, yet, love has nothing to do with a man-woman relationship. Neither, is it exclusive or conditional. It will take another decade and more than a few heartbreaks for you to live this insight. You will discover many flavours of love. Intimacy is one, letting go is another.

You will struggle very hard in your corporate life. It will not interest you. Yet you will not know what else to do. You will shift from finance to human resources thinking it will give you a chance to work with people, growth and awareness. Gradually you will realize that that the prime purpose of corporations is to grow profits not people. Human resource training will be mostly scripted modules where the latest leadership model will be delivered, in an entertaining manner. The impact of these trainings will be temporary and will not have any lasting impact on organisation or human reality. Some day you will drop all models and theories of change. Become empty and realize the value of ‘I don’t know’. You will call this flow.

Many gurus and ashrams will feature in your path of self-discovery. A good amount of books and workshops too. They will give you a new identity of a seeker. It will make you a scholar on the subject of life. Not a practitioner. You will forsake being in touch with your so-called negative feelings of anger and lust, to be perceived as a spiritual person. One day you will have a volcanic eruption and all that you have suppressed will emerge. This will be far more therapeutic than all the books you would have read on self-expression.

There will come a time when you will feel as though you are standing on crossroads, not knowing what action to take. Anger and fear will give birth to so many voices, that you will not know which one is yours. You will borrow other’s voices for a while, until you find your own. Until then it will be a lonely existence. You will think all is lost. Just hold on because the night is the darkest before the break of a new dawn.

Even though you do not feel him now, there is a frozen child inside of you. He holds all the secret to your joy, love, spontaneity and wisdom. You will have to warm him and bring him back to life. You will receive help from others in doing this, the most unlikely people. You will meet them when the time is right. Just remain open to receiving them. Do not think too much about it. Some will come and go. Others will remain.

You will realize that work is simply an expression of who you are. Moreover, there is no shame in following your bliss. Giving names to relationships robs them from the joy of relating and love can operate only in freedom, not obligation.

Eventually you will come to a point where you will realise self-analysis is not self-growth. Thinking about the past and hoping for a better future will not take you anywhere. Neither will it secure you. You will learn to embrace insecurity as an integral part of being alive. And you will someday, accept yourself as you are and consider what comes with the least effort as what is natural to you. At this point, you will relax into your being and flow in life’s river, floating effortlessly.

Of course I know, no matter what I say, none of this will stop you from falling and hurting. That is essential for you to own your insights. Just want you to finally know.

Relax. It will all turn out fine.

Yours,

Ajay

***

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I just read in the Sunday paper of a celebrity pop star having the words  ‘anuugacchati pravahtattooed on her right arm. Anuugacchati pravah is the Sanskrit version of ‘go with the flow’. Having just started our blog, I was looking for an interesting topic to initiate the blog-voyage. This seemed like an interesting topic to flow with. Even though I have no clue what I would be writing, I stayed true to the spirit of the words and decided to go with the flow.

The idea of Flow germinated precisely a year back on 25th October 2009. Today Flow Consulting celebrates its first birthday. Incidentally, it happens to be my birthday too. Birthdays are a good day to reminisce on the year gone by and visualize what the future will be.

Starting your own venture is a cocktail of emotions. Heady excitement, fidgety nervousness, daring audacity, crippling fear, resurrecting hope – I have experienced all of these, in some measure or the other, this past year. I think the first year of being an entrepreneur is the toughest, yet the most memorable. Perhaps it is similar to becoming a parent for the first time. The first year creates the maximum churn. It is a shift from seeing yourself as being responsible for your-self to becoming responsible for another. An integral extension of you. It makes you reflect, change, grow all at once.

Apart from emotions, it affects your vision. The way you see things. Having been brought up with the conditioned belief of ‘study hard – get a degree – have a job – live happily ever after’ syndrome, I never saw life beyond my corporate cubicle. Now I do. Varieties of systems make up the world. The education system, the corporate system, the social system, the economic system, the political system, the entertainment system, the sports system, the religious system, the spiritual system, the community system, the family system…. All these systems engage within themselves and with each other to create the life experience. We belong to certain systems. They shape who we are and what we believe. If you belong to the majority system good for you, if not too bad, you have to contend with the more powerful systems.

Being on my own has made me reflect on my beliefs. Particularly around faith. When things are bleak one prays to the God of your choice or one consults an astrologer, in the hope that that there is a remedy for a bright hopeful future. After a while, I got tired of playing this game. If the situation was tough – accept it. Take responsibility for managing it and yourself. Look for support if need be. Move on. Finding metaphysical reasons of the divine forces, configuration of the planets and rituals to appease those forces, to remedy the situation, to me is the minds way of managing the fear it cannot deal with. Perhaps it has its own place. I much rather feel the emotion and learn from it. Perhaps it is the first step towards having faith in self and the inherent goodness of human beings.

It has instilled a passion for learning. Since the time I am doing what I love doing, I just cannot get enough time to read. I wish there was a machine that could download book content into the human brain in a few minutes. The way Rajnikanth does it in Robot. I realise that discovering a genuine passion for the subject is an integral part of education. Learning does not happen if it is not backed with feeling for the subject and an opportunity to apply that knowledge. I do not equate simply acquiring more information with education. We have google to do that now.

What do I see in the future for Flow?

Like a proud parent, I am extremely optimistic of a bright flowing future. Life requires two kinds of Vitamin M. Meaning & Money. They are like parallel lines, if your pursue one line you have to often let go of the other. Flow Consulting has given me meaning. Abundance will follow.

Until then ‘anuugacchati pravah’ – Go with the flow.

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