At a certain point in life, people transition from “time to live” to “time left to live.” This shift creates a new sense of urgency about identifying the purpose of our existence. And as people confront this challenge, they come up against a set of fundamental human needs that collectively define how we experience the meaning of our existence: belonging, purpose, competence, control, and transcendence. Thinking about these five pillars of meaning can help you reinvent your life.
Paul, an executive participating in my C-suite seminar at INSEAD, told me that the reason he had decided to enroll in my program was that he felt lost. On the surface he was a very successful businessman, but his many achievements no longer gave him a sense of satisfaction. What he felt instead was boredom and dread.
When I asked Paul to reflect on the recurring patterns in his life, he realized he had been a one-trick-pony. Apart from work, there had never been much else in his life. As a result, while he had many business acquaintances, he had made no real friends. He and his wife had become like two people just boarding together, and he had little personal connection with her or even their children. When I asked Paul if he had ever dreamt of an alternative career, he told me that he had once wanted to be an orchestra conductor but his father had opposed the idea.
Listening to Paul called to mind a poignant observation made by Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist: “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” Paul’s is not the only such story; I have heard many variations on this theme during my workshops. At a certain point in life, we transition from “time to live” to “time left to live.” This shift creates a new sense of urgency about identifying the purpose of our existence. And as people confront this challenge, they come up against a set of fundamental human needs that collectively define how we experience the meaning of our existence. I call them the five pillars of meaning:
Belonging. Humans are social animals, and for most people, meaning is anchored in affectionate interpersonal relationships. Each interaction we have, be it of joy, disgust, anger, or sadness, allows us to learn more about who we are and what we want. When we are supported by others through such experiences and challenges, we cope much more effectively with them. All too often, however, people are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges. Paul’s story makes clear that he did not make much of an “investment” in this critical part of his life.
Purpose. To thrive, people need a direction and goals to look forward to; people who lack a clear sense of purpose find little meaning in whatever they’re doing. As people approach the end of a phase in their lives, they begin to suffer from a lack of future-looking purpose. Although Paul clearly had purpose at some point (he had created many companies), that purpose was disappearing as he approached the end of his active career — how many more companies could he feasibly create?
Competence. People derive much of their identity from what they do — how they use and master their unique talents. A sense of competence provides confidence in people’s ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead of them. High levels of competence often involve being “in the zone,” completely and utterly immersed in whatever we’re doing. It was in part Paul’s talents in financial matters, which he enjoyed putting to use, that had helped him find meaning during his career.
Control. People are readier to find meaning in their choices if they believe they took them freely — that the choices really were theirs to make. At the time I met Paul, he had started wondering whether he had chosen to get married because he really wanted to or because everybody at his age was already married. This sense of having someone else’s meaning imposed on his was also something that he experienced in his choice of career — business, as I’ve already noted, had been his second option.
Transcendence. As an old Greek proverb notes, “society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” We find our most profound meaning when we move beyond self-interest and self-fulfillment to make room within ourselves for other people to whom we are not personally close — when we connect ourselves purposefully to our community and society at large. It was clear that transcendence had never been part of Paul’s make-up; he had been too obsessed with the success of the companies he had founded
With these five pillars in mind, I wondered how could I help Paul build a sense of meaning and direction at this crossroad in his life? Should I suggest that he focus on his relationship with wife and children — given the importance of belonging for wellbeing? Or was it too late? Given his present financial security, should he devote his time to other activities, music being his original passion? Or become a patron of the arts, thereby tapping into his original passion while also transcending personal concerns by investing in the passion of others? By making these various changes, would Paul acquire a greater sense of purpose and control over his life path?
Moments of existential crises, like the ones Paul was facing, can be great learning opportunities. I believe it was Herman Hesse who said: “I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” Overcoming challenges is also a way to make life more meaningful. I was hopeful for Paul: there were still many options open to explore new things and gain a sense of meaningful direction. The choice, however, would be up to him.