Saturday, March 21, 2009


With each additional piece of news about foreclosures, layoffs, and organizations declaring bankruptcy and going out of business, our individual and collective anxiety rises. The stories we hear and tell about losing jobs and houses or shrinking retirement funds, are frequently met with sighs of recognition and resignation, which only serves to reinforce and amplify our sense of fear and helplessness.
It would only seem natural, then, that during times like these, a sense of gloom might overpower the desire to create meaning in our work and lives. We tell ourselves that meaning is a luxury, and can well be put on hold until the crisis passes or at least until things begin to get better. That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw. What if, however, we are in a very long cycle (think Japan in the 1990’s) of economic stress? Do you want to spend all that time feeling anxious and waiting until things are settled before you begin to build meaning into your work and life?
I recognize the depth of this anxiety, and at the same time, believe that this is a good time to begin building meaning into one’s work life. There are two reasons for this. First of all, times of transition create openings for new awareness and learning. This can be a time for exploring areas and ideas that have been previously ignored or put on hold. Secondly, when there is much stress and disruption around us, there are opportunities for seeing and creating new possibilities. During times of high anxiety, however, keeping these in mind may be a real challenge.
So, if one wanted to work toward meaning during this time, how would the process begin? At a minimum, there are three things one can do right now. First of all, you can take time for reflection to clarify your purpose. I recommend a daily routine of quiet where you can sit and ask yourself: “What is most important to me and what am I here to achieve?” Secondly, you can commit to building your sense of purpose into the stories you tell yourself and others. That is, you can make sure that even the most anxiety-inducing stories are connected to your long-range vision. And finally, when you hear the anxious stories of friends and colleagues, you can share with them your renewed sense of purpose and commitment to same, while offering them a “reframing,” or a new way of looking at and thinking about their circumstances.
This growing sense of anxiety, just as with our on-going need for meaning, is as much about outlook and mindset as it is about our actual circumstances. Each of us has choice about how to see and interpret our work and lives and we believe that many of us have “defaulted” into our anxiety. We’d like to suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way; that we can also focus on creating meaning. In making that choice we reverse the equation: Meaning Up; Anxiety Down.
Best wishes.

Mark Guterman