About a year ago, I was struggling. I was the CEO of a technology startup. We were going through some tough times, but we were okay. I wasn’t.
Looking back, I realized that my struggle was that while I was interested in what we were doing, it simply wasn’t meaningful to me. Being a CEO is a tough job. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I became one. I’m not afraid of tough jobs. In fact, I run marathons because I believe the struggle is often the point of the journey. But it has to be meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just struggle for the sake of struggle.
I’ve spent the last several months thinking about what I want to do next. I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve considered a lot of different things. Nothing felt right. Until recently.
Over the past two months, i took the time to answer the question, what is meaningful to me? It wasn’t easy. I didn’t do it in one sitting. I refined it over time. I imagine I’ll continue to refine it over the rest of my life. But today, I have a list of 13 values or virtues that I believe shape who I am today.
Five of them might be universal: gratitude, self-compassion, curiosity, authenticity, and growth or challenge. Over the past four years, I’ve deliberately focused on cultivating these traits. For some, like curiosity and authenticity, they’ve always been a big part of my life. But for others, like gratitude and self-compassion, they were brand new. Those last two were particularly helpful, in coming to grips with anxiety in general, and social anxiety specifically.
Four of them, are elements, that as long as I maintain some control over my life, they will always be a part of, they include: adventure, freedom, altruism, and big ideas. Now everyone, and particularly Americans, will say they value freedom. But freedom ranks so high on my list, that I’m willing to give up the benefits of say getting a job in order to preserve my freedom. I struggle with the concept of marriage and being a parent, because I value freedom so much. Understanding this, has made it far easier for me to accept that the “traditional” path might not be the right one for me.
The last four are more practical. At the end of the day, you have to get stuff done and this set represents how I want to get stuff done. They include: simplicity, teamwork, ownership, and grit.
And so now, you might ask, so what? What does this have to do with product?
I’ve worked on a lot of different products. I worked with a Science editor on creating a visual map of cellular pathways. I’ve worked on a continuing medical education product. I’ve worked on a search engine, a shopping site, a community platform, a recruiting service. And I was deeply interested in each and every one of them.
But if I’ve learned anything, it is interesting isn’t enough. When things get hard, when things go wrong, if you are merely interested, you lose interest. There’s nothing that motivates you to keep pushing through. It’s not about interesting. It’s about meaningful.
Building products is hard. Building products that people will actually use is really hard. I spent the past few months terrified that I might not find something that interested me enough to take action. Everything seemed exhausting. Nothing seemed quite worth it. I have a whole new appreciation for just how hard it is.
But then I focused on my values. I looked for my meaning. And today, if I ask myself, would I be happy spending my entire life building products that helped people be more grateful, or more curious, or more adventurous, the answer is absolutely yes. I can’t wait to get started.
Have you taken the time to identify what’s meaningful to you? It’s not easy. But I can tell you, it’s absolutely worth it.
Thanks Teresa for sharing this. It’s one of those things we all struggle with, I think, continuously.
During my Kellogg MBA days I remember one particular marketing class when this issue hit me pretty hard. We had guest speakers – a couple of young, smart marketers from a Chicago firm. They were really doing some amazing stuff trying to understand their consumers, using a variety of sophisticated methods to do so. And they were backed by an incredible set of resources: technology, people, funding. But the product that was the focus of all this intellectual energy was – Hamburger Helper.
Now – this was a long time ago. But I so clearly remember just losing track of what words were coming out of the speakers’ mouths while I was thinking: Hamburger Helper? Really? How could you get so jazzed about that? Maybe it’s interesting. I had a hard time making the leap toward meaningful.
It’s not easy to check yourself on whether you are doing meaningful work in your own career. An even more difficult trick is for companies to ask themselves the same question: Are WE doing meaningful work? But I gotta believe we need to keep asking both questions.
Thanks, Jeff. I can definitely relate to the Hamburger Helper example. But I also love that I’m sure there are people out there for whom Hamburger Helper is meaningful. I’m more than happy to leave that work to them. 🙂
I think a lot of people are struggling with these very same questions. I know it helps me to hear them from your own personal perspective. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.
Chas, I’m glad you found it useful. Best of luck!
I love this Teresa – Life is full of struggles, to be sure. But life is too short for us to struggle just for the sake of struggling (love this). I also think life is too short to work just for the sake of working. I’m with you on finding meaning in our work rather than mere interest. I’m also with you in that we need to take the time to understand what is meaningful to us. As you say, it’s the meaning that will push us through the struggle.
Thanks for sharing – best wishes as you continue your journey of meaning.
Thank you for this. Simplicity, gratitude, ownership, grit, big ideas…magical mix.
A few years ago I attended a powerful workshop called Envision Your Life where we identified our key values.
I need to go dig out my notes from that workshop after reading your post!
Keeley, the workshop looks really interesting. it’s funny, I’ve been through a similar session, and at the time it didn’t really resonate with me. I mean, I did come up with a value list, but it wasn’t very profound or earth shattering. It just seemed like a list. I think a few things happened differently for me this time around.
First, I think having been a CEO, really broke me out of the pattern of looking at what’s next. I think I spent a lot of my career striving or achieving just to strive or achieve. But as a CEO, the next step is really unclear, and you have to define what’s next yourself. Not that there is any shortage of things that could be next, but you have to define it yourself, rather than look to your company or society to tell you what it is.
And second, i never really took the time or created the space to really think about this deeply. This time around, I spent a lot of time on this and refined it over weeks and weeks. It’s not very often that we have the luxury to do that.
By the way, I’m in no way suggesting that your experience was any different or less meaningful, just thinking out loud about how my experience this time around differed from the past times I’ve tried to do this.
But having said that, it’s quite possible that a few years down the line I’ll look back on this list and feel like it’s out-dated or trivial. But that’s okay. For now, it’s pretty empowering, and seems like a great framework from which to decide how to spend my time. So I’ll take it.
Teresa, I always like hearing about people’s personal journeys. I am blessed, like you, to be able to take some time to reflect on where to go next, and like you, I want to be very purposeful. Making the conscious decision to change course (especially at my age) certainly requires that meaning be a significant part of the equation.
My career coach would liken your virtues/values to what she calls success criteria – your strongest, fundamental bedrock career needs for your success. In thinking about those needs, she suggests you determine how success for each could be measured or quantified. Then, you can create what my coach calls your “meaning magnet” – a simple statement that best defines who you are and what you are striving for. Easier said than done! After nearly two years, I am still working on mine. This work has been humbling yet enlightening, so I know it will reveal itself in due time.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Robin, that sounds like a great process. It sounds very similar to what I went through. I really started out with the goal of answering, how can I determine whether or not I should spend time on a project? Because I find many things interesting, but am finding that meaningful is a much smaller subject, I wanted to outline criteria that I could rely on to help me better understand that difference as I move forward.
John Heisey says
Meaningful? That is a tough one to wrap around. As Jeff noted, turning marketing Hamburger Helper into a meaningful endeavor might just be too much of a challenge. Then there the view of finding the process itself meaningful and valuable. I quite teaching college in 1974, spent 3 years learning the trade of being a business consultant and started my own consultancy in 1978. I have been the CEO and principal partner every since, so I was always responsible for the meaningfulness of the business endeavor. Some of the principles that guided me and my partners through the next 28 years, when I retired, were providing safe, secure and financially rewarding jobs for associates. The consulting business is tough and not everyone could do the consulting job. So we did turn over consultants and creative staff. There were two primary management challenges: Keeping a regular flow of contracts coming in the door so people had work and delivering absolutely top quality service to our clients. Our professionals included writers, trainers, engineers, IT professionals; OD professionals, psychologists: all bringing a powerful variety of educational and experiential backgrounds to bear on client needs.
Getting back to the meaningfulness. I did not always have the luxury of rejecting a client because we could not find intrinsic or extrinsic value on their product or service. We worked for the cigarette industry and as partners for private equity firms doing LBOs and restructuring businesses. We also served as consultants to local, state and federal government agencies of all different flavors from NASA to the Chicago Police Department. Our business was helping organizations learn to productively use and incorporate new technologies into their operational and management processes. Finally, the point. We, as a team, focused on our consulting and change processes and the sense of value and meaningfulness that derives from successfully executing challenging personal and team activities. That was built into and promoted inside our culture. I worked for me and I firmly believe that if worked for many of my associates over the years.
Thank you, John for taking the time to write such a great and detailed comment. I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I also work as a consultant and don’t always have the luxury of turning work away. But I find that by having gone through this process, I have far more clarity on why I choose to do different projects. Sometimes a product doesn’t speak to me, but I’m motivated by the people involved. Altruism and the desire to help is a really strong pull for me. But I also can and often do over extend myself. By taking a look at what is meaningful to me, I have a much stronger foundation from which to make trade-offs when I find that I need to.
Susan Barrett-Kelly says
This is one of those days where the universe sent something I needed. Thank you for this post.
The exploration into meaning and values has always been a challenge for me. Not that I don’t realize their importance – I do. In fact, I think I emphasize them so much that the exercises of “write your values” make me twist up inside. My lists seem too generic, too long and not at all inspiring.
Through trial and error, I learned that it was better to discover values and motivations retrospectively. A few of the exercises from MSLOC, like Lifeline, have been excellent for this purpose. Why was one change experience great and the other painful? In hindsight, establishing a level of trust is key to my personal adaptability. Why did I leave this relationship feeling great? It was because I felt completely honest about my intentions. For me, clarity about my values and motivations come from excavating my personal stories. It comes from looking back vs. forward.
For what it’s worth, I find Julia Cameron’s series on The Artists Journey to be great aids in using all five senses and learning styles to reflect upon and achieve clarity on all sorts of things, but values and motivations are certainly among them.
Susan, I can relate. This was not an easy process for me. And I did get to this list by looking back. I believe that we have themes that get expressed throughout our lives, to which we naturally gravitate. I find that taking the time to uncover those themes is what shows us who we are. I could have come up with a list of values to which I aspired, but that wasn’t my goal. I wanted to uncover what defined me today. I also didn’t do this in isolation. I talked with a lot of people who know me well and asked them for their ideas. I wanted to make sure that I had done an honest assessment and that I wasn’t just kidding myself. As I wrote, I do expect that I’ll continue to refine with time by, of course, looking back.
The Artist’s Way has been on my list for a long time. I’ll bump it up based on your recommendation. Thanks!
Check out this story called Why I Quit My Job. Thought of you when I listened to it.
Great story! Thanks for sharing.