3 powerful ways to find meaning in difficult times

Leadership is tough. Without a deep sense of meaning, You’ll probably give up long before you’ve reached your destination.

You should not embark on the challenging task of leadership without a deep sense of meaning. Meaning is the foundation of great leadership. One person who deeply understood the power of meaning is holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl.

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp, along with his wife and parents. Although Frankl was released in April 1945, his mother Elsa and brother Walter died at Auschwitz, and his wife died in Bergen-Belsen.

In 1946, Frankl published his bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning, where he shares his experience as a prisoner of war in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl describes how meaning is what gave prisoners the hope that kept them alive.

Prisoners in the concentration camps lost everything: their family, all their possessions, their friends, and even their identities. Many believed they had no reason to live,so they abandoned hope. However, a few of the prisoners found a sense of meaning. It was those prisoners who were able to endure the suffering. They found a reason to live and survived the horrors of the concentration camps. It was the prisoners who knew the “why” of their existence that could withstand any how.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Frankl came to the conclusion that the determining factor between those who lived and those who died in the camps was the presence of meaning. He believed that the drive to find meaning is the “primary motivational force in man”. Meaning is what gives man the resilience necessary to overcome painful experiences. Life is not the quest for pleasure, power, and riches–life is a quest for meaning.

The work of Viktor Frankl offers us important insights that are useful for leading in difficult times. The three most important sources of meaning, as inspired by the work of Viktor Frankl, are described below:

1. Doing purposeful work

Meaning comes from doing purposeful work. Purposeful work is not about the kind of work you do. It’s about why you do the work you do. It’s not what you do. It’s how you see what you do.

“Purpose is a stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” – William Damon, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Cotton Bronk, “The Development of Purpose During Adolescence

The above definition highlights two important factors concerning purpose. Firstly, purpose is a kind of goal. The researchers describe purposeful goals as being “more stable and far-reaching than low-level goals such as ‘to get to the movie on time.” The first part of purpose then is having a big, forward-looking goal you’re working towards. The second dimension of purpose is an external one: the desire to make a difference “of consequence to the world beyond the self.” Making a difference in the world and in the lives of others is the focus of purposeful work.

Sadly, many of the jobs of today fail to provide a strong source of meaning. Consider the following list of jobs. These jobs are reported as providing the most meaning:

  1. Clergy — 98%
  2. English Language and Literature Teachers, Postsecondary — 96%
  3. Directors, Religious Activities and Education — 96%
  4. Surgeons — 96%
  5. Education Administrators, Elementary and Secondary School — 95%
  6. Radiation Therapists — 93%
  7. Chiropractors — 92%
  8. Psychiatrists — 92%
  9. Anesthesiologists — 91%
  10. Rehabilitation Counselors — 91%

All of the jobs reported to provide the most meaning were jobs that help other people. It’s work that helps others that provides a strong sense of meaning. The most meaningful jobs tend to be service jobs.

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Is your purpose focused on helping others?

2. Belonging

Humans have a deep-seated need for belonging. As social beings, we have the need to be understood, to receive affection, to be loved, and to belong.

As social beings, we crave human interaction and seek relationships based on mutual care. It’s these close relationships that increase our sense of meaning. When you’re valued by others and when others treat you as valuable, you believe you’re valuable. It’s this sense of mutual value, community, and belonging that provides meaning.

“Having a sense of belonging is to have a relationship with people, or a group of people, that brings about a secure feeling of fitting in. As such, sense of belonging is not the same as simply having social relationships. Nor is it synonymous with having positive, close relationships. Our use of the term belonging is similar to that suggested by Brewer (2008), who proposed that belonging is appropriate for describing group membership, whereas bonding is preferable when discussing close attachments. The current work suggests that belonging, in the sense of fitting in with others, is closely related to finding meaning in life.” – “To Belong Is to Matter Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life

Belonging to a social group provides meaning because group membership creates stability, a shared identity, and allows you to pursue bigger goals, such as purposeful work.

3. Your attitude and response to difficult times


Leadership happens within a turbulent, hostile, and difficult world. Viktor Frankl knows, more so than most, just how difficult and challenging life’s circumstances can become. As a prisoner in a concentration camp, one would think that life would become devoid of meaning. Prisoners are completely controlled by their surroundings. And yet, even in the most challenging of circumstances, there are always choices to make. It’s recognising that we have the power to choose, even in the most difficult of circumstances, that provides meaning.

Whilst you may not have the power to change a situation, you do have the power to change your attitude towards the situation. This is what Victor Frankl called the last of the human freedoms. Whilst you cannot choose the forest through which you must walk, you’re free to choose your own path and you’re free to choose your own way.

“We who lived in concentration camps, can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’ s Search for Meaning

Every hour of every day, you’re faced with a decision: the decision to submit to circumstances that seek to rob you of yourself, your freedom, and to make you a victim. The question is, how will you respond? What attitude will you choose in life’s difficult situations? Those inmates “who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” chose freedom over becoming a victim. They chose a different response, and in so doing, they found meaning. The kind of person that a prisoner becomes is the result of an inner choice and not the result of the terrible conditions of the concentration camp.

Even in the most difficult of life circumstances, you can decide what will become of you. When the world is pressing against you, seeking to push you around, how do you respond? What is your reaction? What attitude will you choose?

Frankl’s insight shows that you can find meaning in even the most difficult of situations by choosing how you’ll respond. The first step is to be aware that in any situation, you have a choice and how you respond to life is a choice. You can have everything taken from you except the last freedom: the freedom to choose your attitude in any given situation.

Your turn

Here are some questions to challenge you and help you find meaning in the midst of life’s difficulties:

  1. Purposeful work: Purposeful work is focused on improving the lives of others. Are you leading people by providing purposeful work? Is your leadership having a positive impact on the lives of others? How can you reframe your job to focus on serving others?
  2. Belonging: As we spend the majority of our time at work, it’s critical for leaders to develop a sense of belonging for their organisations and teams. For leaders, this means leading through influence (not the exercising of power), caring for the people they lead, and building positive team norms and psychological safety. How can you increase the sense of belonging in the groups you’re a member of? How can you help others feel that they belong?
  3. Your response to difficult times: As a leader in this fast changing world, you will go through difficult and challenging times, and you will experience suffering. To find meaning in these difficult times, you’ll need to learn to suffer well. Leading others through difficult times requires you to choose your attitude and to help others choose theirs wisely. What attitude do you choose during difficult times? How can you help others choose the right attitude and not become victims of circumstance?