Creating Meaning in an Alienating Context

A friend who works in a federal agency often experiences discouragement. Yet he invests heavily in trying to practice positive leadership. He recently shared a simple but extraordinary account.
When I was an exchange student in Brazil, I lived in a small rural community in western Sao Paulo state.  Many Japanese farmers had settled there in the early 1900s and some formed communal farms where they had everything in common—but those efforts eventually failed.  Once I asked my host father why the communal farms disbanded; he told me he didn’t know why, but he related this story:
A man was visiting the communal farm.  He was standing inside a farmhouse looking outside as rain poured down.  He noticed a small bicycle in the middle of the courtyard, rusting in the rain.  He asked a child nearby, “Why don’t you go get that bike and bring it in from the rain?”  The boy shrugged and said, “It’s not my bike.”
Yesterday I was talking to a friend at work who was feeling frustrated by the bureaucracy and how she feels like she doesn’t really “own” anything.  I had not thought of the bicycle story in years, but I told her the story and something clicked.  We laughed at how sometimes in a large bureaucracy, people shrug and say, “It’s not my bike.”  We also laughed at how occasionally we have tried to rescue rusting bicycles and how those efforts are not always recognized or rewarded.
Near the end of our conversation, we talked about what we can do to be our best selves.  My colleague spoke of the importance of her yoga practice and letting go of the fiction that we can control everything (or anything).  I am grateful for that conversation and for the challenge to find meaning in my work, regardless of what I “own” and regardless of others’ recognition.  I am thankful for how I feel when I forget myself and go to work.
Any large hierarchy can become an alienating work context. People can feel like objects with no sense of ownership or engagement. Yet Victor Frankle once observed that, even in Nazi concentration camps, a few people were able to transcend their circumstances and live from an internal compass. In the above statement, the author accepts the challenge to find meaning in an alienating context. He recognizes that the key is shifting from self-interested goals to contribution goals. His conclusion is rare, scientifically sound, and worthy of emulation.

  • What do you learn from the story of the bicycle?
  • How often do you feel a lack of ownership?
  • Why in a hierarchy of normally self-interested people would you want to live with an orientation to selfless contribution?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

2 comments on “Creating Meaning in an Alienating Context

  1. What a great post! Thank you. The questions got me thinking about why I keep trying to build meaning with others.
    I, as many of us do, live and serve frequently in alienating environments. Sometimes my efforts to contribute, to make a difference and create meaning, get lost or even are attacked by others. That made me feel ignored, rejected, or hurt. At times I felt contributing meaning when not requested was something pretentious that I should stop doing. Who am I to try and make sense of what we do?
    But I could not stop. I realized not doing it was much worse: it was denying myself my own aim for meaning, transforming my efforts into an empty business or worse, focusing myself on self-serving status seeking.
    I do my best to build meaning and care with others because I need to, because when I don’t, I make little sense. I often fail or fall short of my aspirational standards. It is ok, I can only create something by allowing myself to fail, and so I do.

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