Mid-Career Thoughts on the Search for Meaning

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A Man Stressed over his Laptop

San Francisco / October 22, 2021

I've been having a certain type of conversation with several high-achieving friends over the past few months. On paper, these friends are very successful. They are graduates of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford. They have worked at McKinsey, Bain, Goldman, Google, and Facebook. The youngest among these friends is 24 and some are in their mid 30s. They have high-paying and high-status jobs in consulting, finance, or the technology sector. These friends seem stable and successful on paper, but something is less-than-ideal. They want to change their path but they don't know what to do next.

Every person's career and life situation is different, but the core issue for these friends is the pursuit of meaning. They want meaning in their career and lives, but they are not sure how to find it.

Meaning is a story you are telling yourself.

The narratives on meaning vary across cultures, religions, and communities. In Silicon Valley, many startups construct a mission statement that suggests the company is advancing a meaningful cause. The startup Lattice actually builds software that is designed to help HR departments create more meaningful experiences for employees.

I have friends who are running for political office or posturing for high-ranking positions in the Biden Administration. They tell themselves that once they become a US Senator or Cabinet member, they will advance meaningful policy.

Actually, most high-level government policy has unpredictable outcomes. Look at the US mission in Afghanistan that recently ended. No one in that project predicted the Taliban would control more territory in September 2021 than September 2001.

In Pakistani culture, the eldest son has an obligation to financially provide for the parents as they advance in age. Earlier in my career, my core motivation on the job was to figure out how to make money so I could take care of my parents. Once I solved that issue, I struggled with motivation at work.

Before I moved to Silicon Valley to start companies, I worked as a human rights activist in Lahore. I led a team to document human rights abuses in the Pakistani prison system. That project led to practical changes in how their prisons are run. That project felt meaningful.

Ray Dalio encourages his employees to imagine they are providing financially for their families as they do their day-to-day work. Dalio wants his employees to feel their work is meaningful.

I have an uncle who was a senior executive at Google. His manager was not a good guy and made work difficult for him and everyone around him. But the money was too good and my uncle rationalized the hassle as a necessary step to pay for his children to go to college. Many Google employees rationalize their work in these terms.

The takeaway is that -- meaning is a narrative.

 

You must construct a narrative that feels authentic to you. Also, it is easier to feel you are living a meaningful life if you venture outside your comfort zone. William James said you must actively take risks if you want to live a meaningful life.

For anyone who feels they are on a "track" that is successful but dull, take a risk. Pick a new goal. Reinvent yourself. You cannot fake your feelings. If your day-to-day routines do not "feel" right, you will know. Keep exploring.