Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (Review/Summary)

I recently finished reading this short book and thought I’d talk about it today as it can be linked to Monday’s post about work.

The unintended side effect of me telling girls that my job is “personal coaching” is that it has put my current work into stark contrast. I can speak with such conviction that it was (is) the right choice, that when I think about logging in the next day, I’m filled with dread. In those few moments where I’m not a corporate stooge anymore, and instead running my own business, it’s like I’m free from all the crap that having a corporate job entails. It’s encouraged me to think about quitting my 9-5 earlier than planned, or at least telling my manager about my intention to leave so that he stops giving me projects and I’m freed from some of the bureaucracy.

Money-wise, it wouldn’t be a problem, because I’ve already saved the two years worth of living expenses that I wanted to have banked before I left. But now I think to myself “If I just stay there for another eight months, until I was due to leave anyway, then I could save up another year’s worth of funds.” So now I feel as if I am in a zone where a real choice is to be made: leave now but have a smaller cushion, or leave later with a bigger one. The added factor here is that I wouldn’t care about taking on a part-time job to make ends meet and so I feel as if the money question should be a lesser one than I’m making it out to be.

Another compounding factor which stops me from leaving is that I actually do very little work these days. It’s mostly just troubleshooting for people when things go wrong. I take two hours lunch breaks as well. But I’m starting to think that I would rather have some traditional work to do rather than living in fear of being handed another bureaucratic task to complete. This was especially highlighted to me when I returned to work this week after having a week off ill and finding that it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been there or not. I decided to mark all my emails as read from when I’d had been away, and see who would follow up on those emails with me: so far, two, I think.

There was also the impact of coming back to work after having time off and the wave of low level stress that accompanies it. So many people want to put their tiny problems on you, and try to make them important to you. The problem is, I just don’t care. Everything has compounded so that I have started telling myself “I just don’t know if I can take this anymore.”

I think the thing that leads to me feeling this dread is the meaninglessness inherent in bureaucracy. It isn’t enough to simply do one’s job, instead you’re expecting to complete reviews, provide training and write procedures, all so that at the end of the year you can put it on an assessment which your managers don’t care about anyway. I log in each day and hope that people will just leave me alone and not give me anything to do. It all feels very meaningless.

And this is where Frankl’s book comes in. The book is split into two sections: the first describing Frankl’s time within various concentration camps, and the other describing his theory of Logotherapy. Logotherapy says that man’s search for meaning is the driving force in life (compared to Freud’s will to pleasure or Nietzshe’s will to power). He explains that he believes that people either find meaning through some external purpose (e.g. their work), through their love for and serving someone else, or through suffering, with the latter being the desire to suffer with dignity becoming the meaning of someone’s life.

I’m probably butchering his theory but it seems to be well summarised by this quote from Nietzsche which he brings up multiple times in the book:

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

Now I’m certainly not saying that my current 9-5 is in any way comparable to being in a concentration camp. It’s more that this book came along at a time where I am starting to question its meaning and wonder whether to make the switch early. Frankl himself says that the first thing to do if you’re suffering is to remove the source of suffering, which seems like the obvious thing to do, but look at me: I’m staying in my current job purely because of money and building a bigger safety net. The question to me, at the moment, is “is that a big enough why?”

I’m also not saying that the profit seeking incentive that the company itself has is meaningless; it’s what it is designed to do, after all. Nor do I hold it against my colleagues who want to play the career-game because they are of course allowed to have their own meanings in life. It is more that the career-game-meaning has no meaning to me, and that I feel as if I am living some kind of lie by participating in a system where I don’t share the same goals, and have to pretend to others that I do.

To make this post relatable to you, if you’re someone who is pushing through a hard time, or even just pushing through the early stages of approach anxiety, then you can read this book and try to put your own experiences in perspective. Actually, there seems to be a hidden meaning inside Frankl’s book in that to begin with you have a morbid curiosity to find out more about what happened to people inside the camps. But then after a while you start to become accustomed to reading about terrible things, and instead, like the author, become interested in why and how people suffered through what they did. If you can zoom out and somehow observe what you are doing and what is happening to you, like a scientist, then you can become detached from it.

That was a meandering post but it’s something which has been heavy on my mind recently, so I wanted to write about it. I recommend reading this book and asking yourself why you do certain things.

Yours unfaithfully,

Thomas Crown

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