Why Are We So Frustrated at Work and at Home?

Several months ago, we were walking along a parkway on Stanford University's campus and a sign that was posted in an outward-facing classroom window caught our attention. It read: "1/2 of the world is in a crisis of poverty. The other 1/2 is in a crisis of meaning."

The poster was simple yet profoundly insightful. Though many of us in the developed world are fortunate enough to consider ourselves free of the pains of poverty, many toil under the daily void of meaning. And this void exists all over. From the firms on Wall Street, to small businesses in small towns, to the very students who scurried to and fro on our walk that day, many of us are struggling to find the fulfillment that comes from pursuing that which we consider meaningful. In fact, according to the numbers, 55 percent of U.S. workers are unfulfilled and disengaged in their work.

Though our society-wide struggle to find greater meaning is certainly attributable to a variety of nuanced factors, we have found that one of the biggest reasons is that, simply, people aren't aligned. By that we mean that people don't build an external reality that is in line with their internal selves and values. When your inside world and your outside world are misaligned, it's easy to feel frustrated, unhappy, and adrift. However, when they move into alignment, our lives are pervaded with a sense of satisfaction and happiness -- feelings that researchers have shown contribute significantly to how well we perform and our sense of meaning.


Although it's easy to label this misalignment as a goal-achievement problem, it's often a calibration problem. More often than not the issue is not that we are perpetually falling short of our desires (though we may be), but that we don't understand our true desires. We've seen this time and time again with our clients and students. When we're coaching them to achieve a greater sense of meaning and the well-being as well as productivity that comes along with it, we take them through a three-step process we call KNOW-BE-LEAD.

  1. KNOW: Rather than begin with how to go about better achieving goals, we start by questioning the existing goals and desires. We do so by tackling one of life's fundamental yet most challenging and ambiguous questions -- who am I? The goal of this phase isn't to generate a concrete answer; it's to enhance self-awareness. Ask yourself: What are moments that make me truly feel alive? What does that say about my values?
  2. BE: Once we increase self-understanding, we dive into the goal-setting and behavioral modification phase. BE is all about how to figure out how to actually live in alignment with your core values and truest self. Though it sometimes seems like this entails some drastic life overhaul, it's most commonly done -- and is often most effective -- through incremental tweak changes. Ask yourself: What's something that will really motivate me to make a small change toward greater alignment? Who can I enlist to hold me accountable?
  3. LEAD: The beauty of the first two steps is that there is an innate and virtuous pay-it-forward element to them. As you become more self-aware and aligned, you automatically begin becoming a more authentic, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent leader. You begin to give meaning to others as well as to yourself. Ask yourself: In what ways can I better KNOW those people who really matter to me? What actions can I take to help them BE in greater alignment?

Time and time again, we've seen the confluence of these three steps create powerful meaning for people in their organization, career, and life situation in general. It's a core element of our work philosophy -- whether we're working with Fortune 500 executives, start-up leaders, or students. Think about it. We think you'll like what you find.

Behnam Tabrizi and Michael Terrell are the authors of the book, The Inside Out Effect: A practical guide to leadership transformation.