The 4 Things That Make Your Life Meaningful

Brought to you by American Express OPEN Forum

Susan Cain is the author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and is the co-founder of Quiet Revolution. Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, and her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic and more. The two recently sat down to discuss where meaning in work and life comes from, why psychological safety is key for productivity, and how small acts of kindness create a culture of belonging.

This conversation has been excerpted from the “Open Minds” video series on American Express OPEN Forum®. View the complete video and series for more on productivity.

For more on productivity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.

Susan: One of my favorite things in your book is a quiz that helps you figure out the way of finding meaning that is most salient for you. Can you talk a little bit about that quiz and how that works?

Emily: When I wrote this book, I really wanted to understand how people find meaning in their lives. So I interviewed hundreds of people, read through thousands of pages of research, and found four pillars of meaning. When you ask people, “What makes your life meaningful? What makes your work meaningful?” they usually talk about one or all of these four pillars.

The first one is having a sense of belonging, so feeling like you’re in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically, and where you value others too. At work, this means a culture where everyone feels like they fit in, and they’re part of what’s happening, that no one’s left out, no one’s ostracized, and there’s a healthy, friendly, collegiate culture.

The second pillar of meaning is purpose. This is about having some long-term goal that organizes everything else that you do and involves making a contribution to the world. We talked about how most companies exist because they’re putting something in the world that wasn’t there before. That’s a value to people. Purpose is tying what you do to that larger goal, that larger company mission.

The third pillar is storytelling. This is the story you tell yourself about what you’re doing, how you’re living, and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why am I working at this company? What is it doing in the world that’s a value that I can really connect with? Maybe the company isn’t doing something in the world that’s meaningful to me, but maybe there’s something in the day-to-day operations here that’s meaningful to me.

The fourth pillar is transcendence—this is really about stepping above the hustle and bustle of daily life and feeling connected to something beyond yourself. In work, this manifests itself most clearly at those moments when you get into the zone, feel connected to whatever it is you’re doing, and lose all sense of time and place because you’re so committed to the work that you’re doing. Psychologists call this a state of flow.

Susan Cain, author

It’s important for small business owners and managers to realize that different people are going to find meaning in different ways, so you don’t mandate meaning from the top. If you create an open culture where meaning is a value, they’re probably going to find meaning in their own ways, as long as there’s openness and receptivity in the culture towards making meaning.

Susan: As you know, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied flow, characterizes it as the place where you’re surfing between boredom and anxiety. And I think it’s worth it for employees and business owners to think about how they can be experiencing flow. One of the ways to get there that we don’t pay enough attention to is creating psychological safety in your workplaces.

A major technology company identified which were its best-performing teams, and they wanted to figure out what made these teams do so well. They had a whole bunch of hypothetical indicators that they were looking at, like maybe it was the team with the most senior people, or the team where the people who knew each other best, etc. It turned out not to be any of those things — the teams that had the greatest amount of psychological safety were the ones that did the best.

Psychological safety meant that people felt like they could be their full selves with their fellow team members. It meant that they felt like they could advance any idea, and even if it turned out to be a really bad idea, they weren’t going to be seen as stupid or dismissed by their team members. It was because they had such a deep comfort level with each other that people weren’t even thinking in those kinds of self-evaluative terms.

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Emily: That makes me think about the importance of a culture of belonging. There’s this important idea of a sense of community at work and of compassion in the workplace, [which] sometimes gets lost. We don’t think of offices as a place where we should turn to for compassion and community, but the reality is most people spend most of their time in these work environments, and they’re looking for these human qualities of community and compassion and belonging. And how can we create that for them?

Susan: Peter Frost was an organizational psychologist who suffered from cancer and his experiences led him to start thinking about exactly this. Organizations are a collection of human beings. Human beings, as we know from every single wisdom tradition, all suffer in some way, as part of being human, and yet we don’t create organizations that are designed to name it, let alone to accommodate it. He asked what would happen if we started to do that.

Peter and his colleagues started doing studies around this, and they found really fascinating examples, like [one from] a billing department at a hospital. This particular billing department had such a compassionate workplace culture, beyond any degree you could imagine. Everything from dealing with their colleagues’ illnesses to just people who’d had a bad day, they had this culture where everybody would mobilize around it and really express support, and they had a 2% turnover rate, which was was lower than any other bill department in this industry. We tend to think of this as soft, squishy stuff, but it’s absolutely about bottom line.

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Emily: There’s another study focusing on hospital cleaners and the study found that the hospital cleaners are interacting with people all day long, whether it’s the patients or the doctors or the nurses, and that the quality of those interactions really affects how they view themselves and how they view the work that they do. For example, so many hospital cleaners talked about how they’d be mopping, cleaning up, and that doctors would walk right through the work that they were doing, or if they were coming through with their big cleaning carts, that people would stand in the way and never move. The cleaners said, “This makes me feel like I’m invisible, and like the work that I do doesn’t matter.” Research tells us that when people feel that way, they’re going to be less motivated to do that work.

The positive side is that these cleaners also told stories about moments when there was a real sense of connection—simple things like the nurses inviting them to a potluck lunch or a doctor noticing one of the cleaners bent over in pain, saying, “Hey, is everything okay?” and then following up a couple weeks later, asking “Did you ever get that stomach issue resolved?” Those experiences lit the cleaners up, and really made them feel more motivated, helped them be more productive and engaged with the work that they were doing. They weren’t just cleaners, they were part of this bigger team that was there to help people heal.

It’s these little acts that can make a big difference in how people view themselves and the sense of their work and if we put the time in to practice compassion and kindness, it engages our employees in ways that we might not even recognize.

Left: Emily Esfahani Smith, Right: Susan Cain

Susan: So what advice, then, would you give to somebody who’s thinking, “Huh, am I doing a good enough job walking the talk here?”

Emily: There are two things that I’ve found really powerful, as I’ve been talking to different businesses and people about meaning. One, for people to get together and talk about a moment in their work when they really felt like what they were doing was really meaningful. What was going on, what were they doing, and what can we learn from that? If we share these stories, can we each connect to our work more deeply?

The other thing is talking about those moments when things didn’t feel so meaningful, where we were struggling, where there was an emptiness, where we were wondering, “Does what I do here matter?” I think we all struggle with this question. Even if you’re working at the most meaningful nonprofit in the world, at a certain point, you wonder, “Am I really making a difference here, the difference that I want to be making?”

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For the leaders to step up and share stories where they struggled would be really powerful for the entire culture and the entire community. Then the employees know, “It’s okay that I’m struggling right now, and that’s part of living a meaningful life and doing meaningful work. It’s not always easy, it’s not always going to feel rich and fulfilling, but ultimately, I can move through this and still be working towards that larger purpose that we’re all here to serve.”

Susan: What do you say to a leader who has legitimate concerns about being too upfront with their struggles? We also know from the research that people do judge each other based on how competent they appear. Does it undercut your competence if you’re going around talking about all the different things that we all struggle with.

Emily: I think that you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re confessing everything that ever went wrong in your career. One of the great things about good stories is that there are lessons to be drawn from them, so select your stories carefully. Don’t just talk about the struggle and that’s it, but add what you learned from the struggle. What helped you get through it? We don’t want to hear stories of struggle alone, we want to hear stories of struggles that are overcome, and us moving through them in a positive way, because we want lessons for ourselves.

For more on productivity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.