Purpose and Meaning to Life
21 December 2018
This is the 29th CLR in the past 14 years. Many of you have attended an
average of 8 to 10 CLRs, and that translates into 32-40 days of intense discussions.
This is over and above what transpires in Track 1 within schools. The impact of these
sessions has unfortunately been limited, and has possibly benefitted just about 10
percent. We need to raise the bar to 20 percent.
One, the absence of intrinsic motivation because of one’s inability to give
meaning to work and life.
Two, little or no reflection and introspection post-retreat.
Three, lack of desired competencies.
My Influences
Deep Reading
Close to his 50s, Tolstoy faced an existential vacuum in his life. By then he
had become famous, rich and an established author - War and Peace and
Anna Karenina. A few years later, he expressed his dilemma in My
Confession and Death of Ivan Ilyich, an autobiographical account of his
struggle with life’s existential crisis, when he even considered suicide as
an option.
Despite fame and wealth, Tolstoy remained unhappy right till his death on
20 November 1910 in a wayside railway station.
Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov.
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding
something to live for.”
“Man is a mystery. If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do
not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery,
because I want to be a man.”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Sadbhavna, a crucible experience to win over alienated communities into the
Happiness, success, passion, excellence, innovation, self-esteem, academic
rigour and peak performance in sports and aesthetics, arises from intrinsic motivation.
This form of motivation stems forth when a person gives meaning to his life.
The Existential Crisis in Life
When an individual questions whether her life has any meaning or value?
Loneliness and boredom. Teaching is just another job, and life is about 9 to 5.
There is no other reason to get out of bed every morning.
Identity crisis:
Who am I?
What is my purpose?
Where am I going?
No beliefs that I practice.
Facing the grim realities of the mysteries of life as well as conditions of life,
Sickness and suffering
Career setbacks
Symptoms of Existential Crisis in Teachers
Absence of universal values.
Lack of creativity and innovation.
Declining empathy levels as evidenced in reluctance to serve the community
and to teach the child. Delivering content is the ultimate and only goal.
No aspirations to be a lifelong learner and unlock one’s potential.
Reluctance to follow well established systems and processes such as:
Written goals/OKRs for teachers and students for the entire academic
Going into class with a daily lesson plan
Receiving student feedback
Conducting walkthroughs
Absence of the book-reading habit.
Stress and frustration because of:
VUCA conditions
Inability to adapt to inevitable changes
Lack of clarity and conviction in teacher’s role: to teach the child and not
content alone.
Negativity and pessimism.
Often, when a task is assigned or views are elicited, the first and immediate
response is that it cannot be done!
We seldom ask ourselves: could I have done more; or better?
Strategies to Give Meaning to Life
Life per se has no meaning; we have to create meaning for life. We give
meaning through the pursuit of a higher purpose. A purpose has to be transcendental,
that is to say, it is larger than you, and beyond the confines of one’s immediate circle
- our family, friends and followers of one’s faith. In our deep thoughts we often wish
to know whether we have unlocked our potential? The answer lies in whether we have
unlocked someone else’s potential. We give meaning by pursuing a higher purpose,
which could be in of anyone of the following in descending order:
We define our purpose in life by finding it outside of us. However, as human
beings we have the power to create meaning out of meaningfulness.
The central question before us is: if live is meaningless, how do we give
meaning to our life? Imagination alone is not enough. We give meaning by connecting
our work, our life, to a higher purpose. For example, a teacher teaches the child, and
not the subject alone; because her higher purpose is to prepare the child for a future
we do not know. Likewise, a stone mason chips blocks of stone to make a house of
prayers for followers to see divine healing and solace.
In the process of reaching out, we reach in. We create meaning. Having a
purpose or meaning is not enough - the job is incomplete - we must give others a
meaning to life. To give others a meaning, is to create meaning for ourselves. For
example, true happiness arises only when we make others happy - share our
happiness. This is shown schematically.
Strategy 1: A Higher Purpose
A higher purpose is derived from a crucible experience like the train incident
when Gandhi was thrown out of the first class compartment in South Africa.
Sadbhavna was my crucible experience. A higher purpose is a life-altering experience
that has a transformational effect on the lives of a large number of people in society,
and more often than not, it turns into a mass socio-political movement.
In the absence of a crucible experience, the purpose could be the:
Innovation in one’s area of mastery or expertise.
Pursuit of one’s belief system.
Living a master value.
Unlocking potential
A code of living or credo, like the Hebrew tradition of Tikkun Olam, Japanese Ikigai,
Swedish Lagom, the Danish Hygee, and the Hindu Karam Yoga (duty without
concerns for the fruits of one’s actions).
The fundamentals of one’s religion, as long as they are applied universally, and not
limited to one’s specific faith.
Strategy 2: Innovation
To develop a concept and technology to provide equal-opportunity education
to the less-privileged children of the world.
Personalization of learning without the use of sophisticated technology.
Re-inventing yourself.
Collaborative learning by robots/holograms and human teachers.
Strategy 3: Belief System
Strategy 4: Servant-Leadership
Community service, an area not popular with the teaching fraternity, as it
considers this extraneous to their profession.
Strategy 5: Living a Master Value
Values are spiritual, and when practised, help in making a person self-aware.
To know and practise a value is to know yourself. Values define who we are.
Know Value = Know Me
No Value = No Me
By living a value we give meaning to life. The most sustainable way to
transform an organization, like a school, into an institution, is by operationalizing
anyone or more of its core values. At Indus, our core values are empathy, love, respect
and discipline. The following steps are recommended.
Step 1: Select any value you consider to be most important to you. While doing so,
have complete clarity on your understanding of what that value means. In my
experience this is difficult. For example, love is not about possession but sacrificing
what is most precious to you. Likewise, discipline is not external, but more to do with
self-control and moderation.
Step 2: Translate that value into a set of at least three key behaviors inside the
classroom and within the larger community. These skill-based behaviors should be
capable of being taught, observed and measured. An example of three behaviors that
support the value of love could be:
1. I teach mathematics to X number of children in grade 10 in the local
community, at least twice a week.
2. I spend about 90 minutes thrice a week after school hours, to provide
pedagogical support to stragglers in my class.
3. I mentor six children to unlock their potential.
Step 3: Take continuous feedback from superiors, or peers and students on how
effectively I am living the value.
Strategy 6: Personal Lifetime Challenges - the Bucket List
Having goals at one’s workplace are not enough. While they are functionally
necessary, these goals are tactical and have defined destinations. They do not give
meaning to life or work.
What is required is a bucket-list, a list of lifetime strategic challenges that give
meaning to oneself. When pursued serially or in tandem, regardless of whether they
are achieved or not, they are motivating and make one self-aware. The benefits are
Each time one achieves a challenge, or even attempts it, one conquers
oneself. The challenges demand detailed and long-term planning, and could be
spread across the following categories as an example:
Travel: visit the seven wonders of the world.
Adventure: free-fall parachuting, swimming with dolphins, or climbing the
highest peaks in each continent, and running the marathon in all seven
Personal achievements: speak and write a foreign language or Sanskrit, or
write a novel for teenagers.
Meet five famous leaders of the world.
Value of empathy.
Strategy 7: Unlocking Potential
To unlock the potential of students by challenging goals.
Code of Living for Seeking Purpose and Meaning
Happiness is the ultimate human aspiration, and arises through self-
awareness and being able to give meaning to one’s life and work. Being happy
oneself is not enough; one has to make others happy. Believers, agnostics and
atheists pursue this spiritual objective by seeking a higher purpose; a purpose that is
larger than the individual, and is, therefore, transcendental. Put simply, the purpose is
to benefit others.
Believers argue that their purpose is practising the fundamentals of their
religion. Strictly speaking, this argument is narrow since man does it primarily for
himself and his religious flock, and not for humans belonging to other religious and
non-religious denominations. However there are religions like Sikhism and Christianity
which are altruistic and require service to all humanity in need, not just those of their
own persuasion and beliefs. For that matter so is Hinduism, which also regards all
created beings as part of the family of man (Vasudeva Kutumbakam).
Irrespective of what route is selected, one requires a platform, to pursue a
higher purpose. This platform is one’s code of living. I believe that the probability of
achieving one’s higher purpose increases, when if it is supported by an appropriate
credo. The Japanese call it their Ikigai, and the Swedes, the Danes and the Finns,
describe it as lagom, hygge, and sisu, respectively. Although these lifestyles are
cultural in nature, they are designed around the following common concepts.
1. Balanced living by avoidance of extremes and practising moderation as a
virtue, i.e., “not too little, not too much, but just enough.” Work-life balance,
gender balance, environmental sustainability and fair play, are intrinsic subsets
of this concept.
2. There is a big difference between mental fitness and robustness. The former is
cognitive and includes self-efficacy, mindfulness ability to focus on ones 20:80
and exercise self-control. Mental Robustness, is a state that goes well
beyond mental fitness, and includes emotional intelligence as well as
spirituality. This will include:
Mindfulness that induces flow
Emotional Intelligence
Standing up for one’s beliefs and ethical principles
Setting challenging goals to unlock one’s potential
Competing against oneself, and not others
Having a positive mental attitude
Celebrating failure and discomfort as the first step towards success, and
being resilient to bounce back into the game.
The battle is more often than not won and lost in the mind.
3. Aloneness, by focusing on oneself, to include deep reading, meditation,
exercise, and minimum seven hours sleep daily.
4. Being with Nature as often as possible, in tune with all creation.