The Power of Meaning and Grateful Leadership

If we do not bridge the chasm between living a meaningful life and living a modern life, our drift will continue at a major cost. – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning 

Those cautionary words from Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters are supported by an accumulating tally of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal. We feel their truth deep in our bones. Not many years ago we were showered with reports on the crisis in meaning, but lately the din has gone mute. If we didn’t know better, we might be persuaded to believe the crisis has passed. Have we inched past shock towards despair?

Programs abound to bring urgent meaning to troubled youth, isolated seniors and everyone in between who looks close to the brink. But personal meaning is neither first aid nor last minute intervention. Like any kind of deep growth or healing it emerges from the experience of the person who owns it. So how do you come by that unique magic sauce called meaning?

Emily Esfahani Smith believes everyone’s sense of meaning rests on four fundamental pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. Individually, you might be disposed to lean on one or two of the pillars, but over time you will realize the importance of the others too. The author writes of her own happy childhood, being raised in a warm home and lively community, nurtured by the richness of a generously shared Iranian heritage. Belonging and storytelling must have been a big part of all that.

Some people have remarked that millennials tend to be attracted to work for causes or organizations with a strong social vision. Commendable of course, but contrast this with the informed opinion of distinguished meaning researcher, Laura King who teaches young undergraduates. No age group she tests shows such obvious detachment from settled purpose. Are the two observations inconsistent? Not really. One of the strongest indicators of personal meaning is a strong desire for deeper, greater meaning. And step one on the quest is realization of the troublesome gap. Teens and early twenties may struggle to express it, but they care.

Thus, meaning looks forward even as it draws on what we have already learned, on the strengths we acknowledge with increasingly deeper and ever more broadly shared gratitude. We see Smith putting in study hours of writers and thinkers as diverse as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle and the Buddha as she hones her own sense of purpose. In writing this book, she explored inner space, talking to meditators, pilgrims and spiritual seekers as well as outer space, pondering the reflections of astronauts on their extraterrestrial missions, people of widely divergent cultures around the globe, and naturalists diving into the little-known world of the wild surrounds. We follow her as she reaches beyond the day to day towards a more transcendent experience.

Building on her pillars, Smith demonstrates as she shares with her readers the joy and importance of crafting a meaningful life. Grateful leaders take note: While you will be involved with others in your outreach, you are not only meeting a need that stretches their imaginations, but also nourishing your own deep purpose by creating a meaningful place in the world.

Donald Officer

What role does gratitude play in your life? The Gratitude Connection series and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.