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The elusive species 🦄 of meaning & purpose

Meaning and purpose aren’t the same thing. They are hard, elusive, and difficult to handle in a workplace. A guide to finding the calling.

August 6th, 2009. I was returning home to Pune from one of my work trips to Jakarta, Indonesia. I was flying Thai, so there was a mandatory layover in Bangkok. This was the time when the world was coming to terms with a deadly outbreak of H1N1 (Swine Flu).  While at the airport lounge, I met none other than Barkha Dutt! Barkha is an award winning Indian journalist. I exchanged a couple of pleasantries and she enquired where I was headed? When I mentioned Pune, she told me that Pune had reported first ever death in India from the H1N1 pandemic. I was somewhat shaken, but brushed it off…  

Abhi and Barkha Dutt
Abhi & Barkha Dutt in Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok

Things were about to get more interesting! A day after I landed, I started developing mild symptoms. My father (a doctor and a Microbiologist) was prompt in taking me for a test at the infectious diseases centre in Pune. I took treatment for H1N1. Also, I made a full recovery.  Strangest thing was, that I never got my test results.

I must have made tens of trips to Indonesia in those couple of years. Despite my ordeal, I remember feeling extremely proud. The opportunity to be a crucial part of the team that was setting up a new bank was awesome! I was excited to be able to travel to another country and make a difference. I could engage the business directly, and solve their problems, I conducted many training sessions. Also, I learnt a lot more about banking!   

Abhi at a training in Jakarta
One of the many enjoyable training sessions in Jakarta

It turns out, when we were about to hit the live button, the entire project had to be abandoned. Almost 18 months of sweat and tears… all in vain!   There was some regret, but I vividly remember this as one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. 

Distinguishing between meaning & purpose

An acquaintance of mine, a general physician recently got diagnosed with COVID-19.  The source was his clinic! He had to be on a ventilator and his life was in danger.

I asked him, what gave him the strength to discharge his duties? He cited the oath that he took as a medical professional. He also implied that his identity, values and his sense of self would be worthless if he didn’t discharge his duties.. In other words, his sacrifice gives him a sense of meaning.

I grew up in a family with modest means. This meant we lived in a rather small house. My parents had to juggle multiple incomes to keep food on the table and afford us decent education. The first-hand experience of scarcity left an indelible impression on me. I have a greater appreciation for opportunity and growth. Many people simply don’t get enough opportunities to grow. Most people lack the guidance and resources to succeed. This gives me a sense of purpose. I always strive to help others realise their potential. It also makes me disappointed when I see people with a sense of entitlement.

My self-worth is not directly linked with helping people realise their potential. However, it certainly provides me motivation to undertake a few activities such as mentoring. This definitely bolsters my sense of self-worth. Therefore, there is a whole to the part relationship between meaning and purpose. Meaning is what defines us, our values and our sense of self-worth. This includes purpose.

What was the last time you defined what you meant to yourself?

Existentialism gives an interesting mental model to think about this very question. In essence, it says that people are born without meaning in a world which doesn’t make any sense.

You are special!

This idea is quite liberating. It suggests that we are all going to die one day. It seems quite radical to start with a grim end in mind. However, once you go past that part, every person can begin to think clearly about their own meaningfulness.. The more original our experiences the better we are at “meaning-making”. At work and in our lives, we must therefore strive as much as possible to gain varied experiences. This also helps us distance ourselves from dogma, and indoctrination. For instance, your self-worth is not linked with which company you work for, or how much money you make. Your self-worth is also not linked with which brands you wear or drive. Your self-worth is unique.

Meaningfulness and happiness need not always go together.

According to Stanford research, thinking about the past and the future and connecting it with the present makes people’s lives more meaningful. It also takes away your happiness. Wait… what?

High levels of meaningfulness don’t mean high levels of happiness. This is true, for a social worker, an activist, and in case of my acquaintance i.e. a medical professional. Meaningfulness assumes a much greater importance for them than their happiness. Not an easy feat.

This is applicable to workplace as well. For instance, while building a great team you think about past performance and attitudes displayed by your team. You must address any gaps. While this may cause short term pain, it protects the future. The flip-side of higher happiness and lower meaningfulness is dangerous. You can seek short term happiness with a shallow and selfish life & career. You should judge for yourself which one is more sustainable.

The magic quadrant of happiness & meaning (Representation of Stanford Research)

You can strike a balance though. Practice gratitude. Grateful people always contribute positively to the lives of others and the community. Do what you love, and that makes you money. I understand it’s easy to say.

Purpose is a key building block of meaning

As discussed before, purpose and meaning have a mandatory part to the whole relationship. Without purpose, there is no meaning and without meaning there is no purpose!

Purpose can arise from unlikeliest of places. Many years ago, one of my friends recommended a book called, “If god was a banker“. The main plot of the book revolves around lives of two professionals and their journey with different set of values. Even though it was fiction, the book left a lasting impression on me. It taught me early lessons about the value of integrity and slow but steady growth. Pursuit of “long-term” has been a major value for me since then. Slowly it has become part of how I make decisions.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how

Friedrich Nietzsche

Similar to meaning-making, purpose is a function of experiences gained directly or indirectly. Reading is an amazing lever for experiencing the world through someone else’s mind. It can be a major source of values and purpose.

Writing is even better! as I write this, I am forced to recollect so many instances and memories. I am also forced to re-affirm what is meaningful to me and my sense of purpose. This is powerful.

Purpose can arise from Pain & suffering

My wife lost her father in 2009. Deepika’s mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer just a couple of months later. A happy family turned upside down just in a few weeks. Aftermath was grief, stress, grit and determination. I am so proud of how those experiences shaped her being. Deepika strongly believes in values of family, living in the moment and is extremely resilient. I too have learnt so much from her experiences.

Purpose is inherently a social phenomenon.

In my stint with HSBC, me and my team looked after a high value payment system. It was a mission critical and high pressure environment. It was a global application that moved payments worth hundreds of billions of dollars every day. We would be on call few times a month to look after issues often in the middle of night. It was stressful but we loved every bit of it. Firstly, the person on call wouldn’t be alone to deal with the crisis. They would have another person working with him / her. There would be immense learning as every time we received a call, we would learn something new about the system. The jokes, the shared learning, and shared crises brought us closer together. They enshrined a collective sense of purpose in us. To do our best, to be our best, even in the most critical situations.

This is probably why, people often come closer after experiencing intense situations, or altercations. Leadership plays a big role in shaping these experiences for teams. Imagine that you are traveling to a destination. If you chart a path you will often find others that are traveling with you. If you do not chart a path, you will feel lost, and may not find any company to your destination. Your job as a leader is to ensure we chart a common path, often a collective objective that is lofty, but achievable, something that people can connect with and something that makes an impact.

Finally, sense of purpose can also be bolstered with gratitude & altruism. Simple but meaningful acts of kindness. For instance, last summer I met this beautiful soul on a traffic light. I paid him some money. Read full caption below. However, what followed was significant. I repeated this for many children in distress, since. I have also contributed in support and money for two charities focused on homeless children. This is not an advertisement of my contributions to the less fortunate. At that traffic light, I found a new purpose that is an enduring part of me now.

Your networks shape your sense of meaning & purpose

I am in touch with 90% of my ex-bosses. I am also in touch with a 100% of my mentors. Throughout my career, I have derived joy from helping young graduates navigate their careers. I have also actively sought opportunities to help a greater cause. It may be building a community, or running a Hackathon.

Karma is the most important principle of networking. Do good, and you shall get good in return. Not today, perhaps not even tomorrow. However in the long run, you can count on it. You don’t want to start networking when you need something. That would be silly! you want the network to deliver when you need something.

More importantly, through value based networking you will meet like-minded people. You will meet people that will shape your lives and careers for years to come. This is priceless. You cannot assume you know everything and that your sense of meaning and purpose is the only truth on our planet. Your networks, especially close networks have a really crucial role to play as you navigate the complex world of perception, psychology, politics, and purpose.

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By Abhinandan Shah

Hi, I’m Abhi. After living many years in London, me and my family re-located back to India in the summer of 2017. I spend most of my time working with a high performing team at Barclays in Pune, India and the rest with my son Anik! I have spent half of my career in commercial product roles and half in technology. I have also spent over 9 years living outside India, and have traveled to over 27 countries. Visit the Bio section of this website to learn more about me.

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