Meaningful Action

June 1, 2011 by

We want to know that we are having an effect

More than money, more than prestige, most of us are motivated by a sense of purpose, the sense that our actions make a difference. Our choices of when and where to act, and our definitions of what is meaningful, are as unique as we are.

When we feel in alignment with our sense of purpose, it is easy to move forward and gain traction. When we don’t – or when we are distracted by immediate conditions – we feel frustrated or resigned.

In many cases, it’s hard to know what effect our actions are having. This may be a result of our own fuzziness: we don’t know what we want. Or it may be a result of not getting feedback. In some workplaces, people can labor on for weeks without receiving responses to work they have submitted. They have to create some kind of meaning to keep going. Maybe we don’t know our effect because our vision is long-term and big-picture, and we see both progress and obstacles.

A SYNTAX skill that is good to have is the skill of defining goals and recognizing what is meaningful in them. Making evidence explicit gives us indicators of forward motion.

Not knowing what effect our actions are having could be the result of goals that are not well-formed: we are trying to have someone else change and no matter what we do, we are not in charge of that. It is a distraction from creating our own meaning.

At a very basic level, I can get feedback on actions I take – if I turn the corners of my mouth up, I feel happier (each time I re-read that, I like the result). As my goals get large, wanting to have an effect in the world, the results are less and less easy to control and harder to measure.

One of the unique aspects of our individual paths is the extent of the difference we want to make – and do make – in the world. Highly visible people, from politicians to rock stars to TV hosts, send huge ripples through the culture, though none can control the results.

All of us who are less famous have to use our own personal Nielsen ratings to know our reach and whether we have made the difference we want to make.

When we play in finite games,* i.e. those which have a set ending and certain rules, we can take home a trophy when we win. Our name will live on in memory as long as that kind of trophy lives on. Many people’s lives are meaningful because they are pursuing excellence and recognition in finite games.

We may play in finite games as part of a larger scheme of things, and the trophies are not where the meaning lies. We see some celebrities who demonstrate that, as they go beyond winning awards to becoming messengers. Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Martin are among those who come to mind.

When we play in infinite games; which are those that have no specific ending, have rules that evolve, and that aim for participation and for the continuation of play; the results are less predictable. This realm is where breakthroughs can occur.

However large a net we cast, we all want to know that we have an effect, preferably a positive one. The path to a positive effect may include having to hear negative feedback and use it as a learning step, making us aware of what we didn’t know that we didn’t know.

To feel that our actions are meaningful, we need to define what matters and go in that direction. It is helpful to find community with others, since we can feel alone in our unique journey.

It is also helpful to have sources of solid feedback for ourselves personally, for our causes, and for our organizations, so that the stories we weave on our journeys result in genuine contributions to the well-being of life.
One thing for sure: signals that our actions are having an effect help us thrive. It’s something we all want. Besides noticing how you are setting your own goals and gathering feedback, how can you provide motivating feedback to other people today? Your meaningful action will have a ripple effect.

(*See Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Karse for deep and extensive discussion of this concept.)

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