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Man’s Search for Meaning

Book Review
Man’s Search for Meaning
by
Victor Frankl

 

Man’s Search for Meaning was written by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Psychiatrist. He was imprisoned in a Nazi Concentration Camp at Auschwitz for 3 years and was one of those lucky few who were freed by Allied Troops during the Second World War.


During his stay at the camp he noticed that those people who were able to survive the ordeals of a concentration camp with meager food and extreme weather conditions coupled with harsh treatment by the guards, were not necessarily physically strong. He also noticed that those were physically strong and who were thought to be able to withstand the ordeals were the ones who succumbed to death early. Out of these experiences grew Viktor Frankl’s magnum-opus: Man’s Search for Meaning.


Small digression: Stephen R Covey, the father of Seven Habits revolution, many times mentioned that he drew inspiration for 7 Habits book and subsequent work from the following quote of Viktor Frankl:

Between every stimulus and response there is a space, in that space I have the freedom to choose my response, in my choice lies my success (or failure).

 

In the preface of the book Viktor Frankl says,

“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect pf one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say ! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it”.

 

In today’s happiness and success obsessed world I find this nugget of wisdom even more applicable than 50 years ago when he said it. I read somewhere that ‘all coaching turns to Life Coaching after first two sessions’. What does this mean? To my knowledge this means we help the Client understand the purpose of what he / she is trying to accomplish and provide a sounding board to more clearly unearth the ‘meaning’ and motives behind their actions / plans / goals. It is in this context I find this book a very powerful tool for every coach and client.

 

The book originally had 2 parts: first part talks about Viktor Frankl’s experiences at the Auschwitz concentration camp and his observations as a prisoner and psychiatrist from those experiences, second part presents the technique of ‘Logotherapy’ built on his experiences. In the 1984 revised edition a third part called ‘Case for a Tragic Optimism’ is added, which answers the important question ‘In spite of Pain, Guilt and Death, how is it possible to say yes to life and retain its potential meaning?’.

This book forces one to ask some of the fundamental questions of our existence: Why am I doing what I am doing the way I am doing? What is the meaning of the suffering I am facing in my life?

 

‘Logos’ in Greek means ‘meaning’. Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to Frankl, Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance
which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

Logotherapy, as propounded by Viktor Frankl, focuses on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future . For the purpose of Coaching I think we can easily replace ‘patient’ in the above statement with ‘Client’ and Logotherapy with ‘Coaching’ and still achieve same result. Ofcourse Client is not our patient, nor are we their therapists.

 

My intention in writing this book review is not to present chapter summaries but to share what touched me most as a person and what I think is useful for me as a Coach with the hope that it will help other aspiring Coaches too. Most of the points mentioned below serve as ‘Reflective Inquiry’ tools that can be used with the Client.

Hence I am presenting key nuggets of the wisdom that I gathered from this book below:

  • He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.
  • Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way.
  • You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
  • Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.
  • Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.
  • Don’t aim at success- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you miss it. For success, like Happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue. Happiness must happen and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
  • Humour- soul’s weapon in the fight for self-preservation. It is well-known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.
  • A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely & evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative
  • If there’s a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate & death. Without suffering & death human life cannot be complete.
  • The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives ample opportunity- even under the most difficult circumstances- to add a deeper meaning to his life.
  • It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future. This is his
    salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
  • Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
  • It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
  • We need to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead to think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life- daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.
  • Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems & to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
  • Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.
  • When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
  • There is no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
  • Whatever we had gone through could still be an asset to us in the future.
  • Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.
  • The burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy
  • Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.

 

Relevance of this book to current times

Does fame give you happiness? Then why are people who are famous, also are the ones who take their own lives (example: Hollywood celebrities).
Does money give you happiness and contentment? Then why are kids of rich and famous who are born with Golden spoon (or is it Platinum spoon) in mouth stepping in and out of Rehab?
While fame and money give happiness to a certain extent what gives fulfillment or joy in life is weather we have a meaning to lead our lives. It is the lack of meaning or purpose, which in most cases that leads to the kind of behaviors and decisions that we read about the rich and famous in today’s world.
The reason for increasing mental health problems in the world is this loss of meaning in life and also lack of understanding the meaning of suffering one faces in life. Both these are dealt with in detail in this book.

 

Coaching Application

Coaching is all about ‘Empowering’ the Client. True empowerment cannot happen without the Clarity of Intent or Motive behind any action / pursuit. Clarity cannot be gained without understanding the ‘Meaning’ we want to derive from that pursuit. It is in this context that this book becomes a very valuable resource for every Coach. It helps the Coach to ask probing questions to the Client and to the self and make the whole Coaching exercise more ‘Meaningful’ to both. This is one of those books that I
as a Coach would not hesitate to recommend to my Clients.

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