by Karissa Thacker | June 05, 2017
Toward the end of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, a restaurant hostess opens an envelope that contains the meaning of life. Finally, the answer! She opens the envelope with nonchalance and reads it: "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations." The hostess closes by sardonically saying that this answer is not going to bring people out to see the movie. Pornography would be a better bet!

Not much has changed since the 1980s, except we now know that we should eat some fat. The ever-present quest for meaning at work has cropped back up again in the form of Gen Xers and Millennials pressing the issue. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal was entitled "I Don't Have a Job. I Have A Higher Calling." A job is not just a job anymore as the leadership of all kinds of companies attempt to frame up whatever the company's core task as meaningful. Many employers are essentially trying to make an announcement to everyone to clarify exactly how their work is meaningful. It reminds me of that climactic scene in Monty Python.

Research has made it evident that people who are clear about a higher purpose in their work are more satisfied, engaged, and willing to go the extra mile. However, the process of seeking purpose in your work is an inside job. What is meaningful for one person is not necessarily meaningful to the next. As nice as it would be to have an organization spell it out for us, it is up to us as individuals to figure out what is meaningful to us. There are no shortcuts. People who are authentic are aware of what is meaningful to them. 

The question is not "what is the meaning of work or life in general?" The question for people who want to become more authentic is "what is meaningful to you?"

Your signature contributions will likely come from doing things that you personally find meaningful. Research in psychology has made it clear that meaning is self-determined. How do you figure that out? You must become skilled at noticing when you feel emotions that you connect with meaning and purpose. Positive psychologists have provided a tool to help you get started on the journey to discovering what provides purpose and meaning for you. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman completed an ambitious project that served to organize human virtue and character. Years of study culminated with the development of an assessment instrument entitled the "VIA strengths finder."

The character strengths are organized into six virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Peterson and Seligman studied every culture and every religion throughout the ages to come up with the six major virtues. You can take the assessment here and see what you think about the model and your results.

The VIA character strengths are much closer to what New York Times columnist David Brooks has recently called "eulogy virtues," rather than "résumé virtues." Résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the business -- for instance, do you see opportunities, or know how to pull the levers to make a business profitable? Eulogy virtues are deeper and the things people will say about us when we die. You don't hear much at funerals that could be put on the dead person's résumé. You hear a lot about kindness, bravery, humor, and perspective at funerals. One of the challenges of authentic leadership in business is to lead and promote both résumé and eulogy virtues, or in VIA terms, character strengths. You do not have to choose, but you do have to be clear about what eulogy virtues you hold dear. What would you want said about you at your funeral? Authentic leaders are clear about what is important from a character perspective. This requires self-examination and thought.

On a practical level, figuring out exactly what you hold dear and value is a first step toward deriving meaning from your work. Meaning is derived at work through the expression of your unique character. Character has two definitions. The first definition of character is the mental or moral qualities distinctive to an individual. Our moral qualities or values are unique to us as individuals, and as Peterson and Seligman have clarified there are recurrent patterns throughout history regarding what humans find to be virtuous or meaningful.

The second definition of character also has relevance to the development of authentic leaders. A character is a person in a novel, play, or movie. Characters are developed or revealed in such great works. We must notice how we are developing over time and realize that what gives us meaning at one phase of our professional or personal lives may not give us meaning five years from now. The quest for meaning and purpose is daily and requires us to pay attention because meaning matters.

The Baby Boomers also set out to change the world in the 1960s. The Millennials and Gen Xers entering the workplace and expressing a desire to change the world are not really that shocking. Changing the world only happens when people are practicing their strengths of character. Looking for a way to change the world can actually be a cop-out and help you avoid figuring out how to be yourself. Doing the work of figuring out how to be yourself is much more achievable than an action plan to change the world.

Karissa Thacker is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc., a management training and consulting firm dedicated to elevating people to reach their highest potential and career satisfaction. Over the past two decades Karissa has done just that for countless individuals, working with nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies to drive performance and leadership growth. She specializes in executive coaching and development that balances on-the-job performance with the need for sustained personal fulfillment.