Business and Meaning

The world of business can provide an endless stream of activities, whether you have a job or run your own company. If you read books or take courses on advancing your career or growing your business, you’ll pick up even more to-do ideas.

I usually enjoy the world of business, but in order to keep my life in balance, I need to regularly refocus on the big picture and avoid drowning in busywork. Sometimes I have to step back from business to regain perspective.

Business can be addictive, whether it’s going well or not. When the results aren’t flowing, there’s a scramble to fix that. And when the results are flowing well, ambition can kick in and make you want to aim even higher. It’s easy to get caught up in these cycles and forget to ask: Why am I doing all this work? What’s the point?

What helps me stay in balance is reminding myself that all of this is temporary and that death is part of the roadmap – death for me and death for any business ventures I participate in. At some point it all ends, even if some of it outlives me.

This perspective helps me think about what’s worth doing and what isn’t. I think carefully about the meaning of the projects I put on my plate and whether they’re purposeful enough to justify the investment of time and energy. I want to feel that my business activities are enhancing my life and those of others. If the meaning isn’t there, however, it makes me feel that I’m spinning my wheels and speeding down the road towards death without enjoying the journey enough. And that realization motivates me to change course sooner or later.

Meaning isn’t static though. What may be a meaningful project one year may feel hollow in a different year. I have to keep checking in to see where the meaning can be found next. Sometimes I’ll find it on the creative side, other times on the social or contribution side, and sometimes in areas of fresh exploration or personal challenge.

I read a lot of business books, and I often find the meaning aspect lacking. Such books may share tips for greater efficiency and systematizing, but they often overlook why that matters. They talk about improving results, but not all business results will feel meaningful. Have you ever achieved results that others may applaud but that feel mostly meaningless to you? Do you want to do more hollow-feeling work?

Growing a business is often accepted as an assumed goal, but a business doesn’t have to grow bigger to deliver meaning and purpose. Sometimes growing bigger may run contrary to purpose, killing the joy in the operation and destroying the meaning. I’ve met people who’ve grown their businesses and seem less happy for it, and I’ve met people who’ve grown their businesses and seem to revel in the experience. One person’s meaning is another person’s albatross.

Even when an author shares the meaning and purpose that led them to make certain business improvements, their meaning may not motivate me in the same way. I still have to find my own meaning if I’m to apply the ideas with sustainable motivation. It’s hard to apply someone else’s ideas if I don’t root them to my own personal meaning.

One practice that works well for me is to incorporate meaning into my project designs. When I begin a major new project, such as creating a new course, I write up a design doc for it. This helps me think through the key details of the project in advance and look at the big picture. An important part of this doc is a section on personal meaning. I consider why I want to do the project and what it means to me, and I type up my answers. Even if I expect a project to create some external results, I still ask myself why I should care about those results.

Sometimes I don’t find enough meaning in a project, at least not in the initial version of it, but while it’s still in the design phase, I can tweak the design until I feel the meaning is strong enough. This can be surprisingly easy. A few small tweaks can make a world of difference. Simply deciding to do a project in a playful style can sometimes make it feel meaningful enough. Finding a meaning often comes down to approaching it from the right angle or framing it the right way, as opposed to doing a major redesign.

When a project feels deeply meaningful, that’s when I can commit to it. That’s when it feels like a worthwhile investment of my life energy. This kind of motivation sustains me.

See this as an invitation to find the beauty in each of your work projects. It’s probably there already if you look at each project from the right angle.

Why did you accept this assignment? Why do the work? Why does this matter to you? What will this do for your character growth? What makes this a worthy investment of your precious life?

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Read Business and Meaning by Steve Pavlina