The Meaning of Life (No, Really–This is It)

The Meaning of Life (No, Really–This is It)

Do we search for meaning or do we create it? The answer may surprise you.

“…we all want to be part of something, an organization, a team, a community, a relationship which somehow allows us to exceed our expectations of ourselves.” may seem to be an unlikely place to find the meaning of life, but stick with me and you might be surprised.

There’s a great scene in the movie City Slickers in which Billy Crystal (playing the role of a city dweller in the throes of a mid-life crisis and trying to find himself by visiting a dude ranch) is talking to Jack Palance, an old-time cowboy, about the meaning of life. Palance holds up one cowhide-gloved finger (No, not that finger! His index finger.) as he says, with a cigarette dangling precariously from the corner of his mouth, “Do you know what the secret to life is? This.” Crystal looks a Palance, puzzled and asks, “Your finger?”

Chances are that if you’re reading this you spend a lot of time questioning the meaning of your life because so much of it is dedicated to your work. You’re likely putting in 12-16 hour days–on good days! You have your family and your fortune wrapped up in this journey. And the term work-life balance sounds like the punch line to a really bad joke. Where in all of that is there time to find meaning? Better to wait until you have a big bank balance, have the time to contemplate life, and have climbed up a few more rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy before asking that question, right? Wrong!

Being effective at growing your business means being effective at growing yourself and those around you. When I sift through the hundreds of leaders I’ve worked with one thing has become abundantly clear, those who were successful in keeping their best people, and connecting with their customers all had a deep sense of purpose and meaning to what they were doing, which created enormous gravity.

The reason is simple; we all want to be part of something, an organization, a team, a community, a relationship which somehow allows us to exceed our expectations of ourselves. We are all searching for meaning, from the least to the most successful of us; it is a common human need. It’s why we fall in love, raise kids, volunteer, why some seek spirituality, and, yes, it’s why we work. Fulfill that need and you create something that is really magic; something which binds people together like nothing else can. Karen Armstrong summed it up well in her book, A short History of Myth, “We are meaning-seeking creatures.”

What great leaders know is that building a business is about creating purpose and meaning that elevates our self-esteem and self-worth. That’s why people take pride in being part of a great business and a great brand. You have the incredible opportunity to do that with the business you are building; to make meaning for yourself and all of the people who have decided to take this journey with you. Meaning is not a search but rather a conscious effort to create a vision and a passion around something worthwhile and to then dedicate yourself to it.

As the scene at the dude ranch closes Palance looks at Crystal and smiles wryly as he holds up his finger and goes on to explain the meaning of life, “One thing, just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean #$%@.”

“That’s great, but what’s the one thing?” asks Crystal.

“That’s what you gotta figure out,” says Palance.

Yes indeed, it really is that simple.

Tom Koulopoulos is the author of ten books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc 500 company, which focuses on innovation and the future of business. He is also an adjunct professor at the Boston University Graduate School of Management, an Executive in Residence at Bentley University, the past Executive Director of the Babson College Center for Business Innovation, and a frequent keynote speaker. The late Peter Drucker once said of his writing, that it challenges not only the way you run your business but the way you run yourself. Tom’s latest book is The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping The Future of Business.This post was originally published on

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC.