The Highlands Company Blog

The Measure of Meaning

Any American who’s traveled outside the U. S. borders quickly discovers that the rest of the world measures things much differently than we do. To those accustomed to miles, pounds, and teaspoons, the global standard of meters, kilograms and liters can be quite confusing. We draw comfort from predictable measurements, from familiar ways of describing our reality, and these unfamiliar standards can create dissonance.

We all have something we use to measure the impact and meaning of our lives. I see a similar dissonance when people leave the measurements of a familiar career to embark on a new chapter of life.

Let’s say that for the past forty years, you’ve been celebrated and recognized for your accomplishments. That affirmation becomes an important measure of something–usually success. From there, it can easily become the primary way we measure our personal significance. If that is our primary metric, we will perpetually pursue more accomplishment, yearning for more of whatever we think it symbolizes.

For others, income is their primary metric. If living within a particular socio-economic stratum defines success or even my self-worth, then what happens if/when income drops in the next leg of the journey?

In my coaching practice, I specialize in guiding people toward a meaningful “Second Rodeo,” my term for whatever comes next after a successful primary career. Our need for meaningful measurement is part of what makes this transition so difficult to navigate individually.

When familiar standards and measurements are no longer visible, a lot of people in transition initially substitute busyness. Ask any recent retiree how it’s going, and you’ll likely get some variation of this response: “I’m so busy now, I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work!” Which is interesting, because I don’t recall anyone explicitly saying, “I want to be really busy when I retire.” In fact, we usually hear the opposite.

Folks generally speak of hoping to slow down, relax, take it easy. Yet time after time, we hear people use the word busy as a primary descriptor of their lives.

In our work-obsessed western culture, we abhor laziness. We like the idea of slowing down, but we sure don’t want others to perceive us as being lazy. So “busy” is the socially acceptable answer.

For a while, busy keeps me distracted from whatever else I might be feeling. Busy creates the illusion that I’m fine. Plus, busy is easy. All that’s required is that I say yes to every request for a little bit of my time. Initially that feels right. Other people need me, which affirms I still have value. And hey, I now have all this time on my hands. I don’t want to be bored. So sure, I’ll say yes now, only to ask later, How did I get myself into this cycle of meaningless activity?

Busyness is, at best, a short-term distraction. As a measurement, busyness may not be the most meaningful way of accounting for my life.

As part of our Investigative Life Planning process, I often ask clients to work through an exercise to find a word that best describes the life they’d prefer to be living. Happiness comes up a lot, but it’s so fleeting, so elusive that most people eventually come to see happiness as an occasional by-product of something deeper. Some people are all about finding purpose. Others are on a search for meaning. Significance comes up a lot. All these are metrics that move toward something more substantial than busy.

One of my own measurements is the word satisfying. A couple of personal examples. Like most solopreneurs, I do some things just because they must get done and there’s no one else to do them, things like paying quarterly estimated taxes. An hour or two of administrative tasks exhausts to me. But when I spend a long day with back-to-back clients, I usually find deep satisfaction, especially when I witness them making breakthroughs in self-discovery.

Beyond work, I like to participate in endurance cycling events. I recently completed a hundred-kilometer (62+ miles) bike race, at altitude, with a significant climb over the first 12 miles. When I crossed the finish line, my wife asked, “how do you feel?” I think the answer she expected was “exhausted,” and that was true!

However, I came in well-trained and prepared. I paced myself appropriately and left it all on the course. “Satisfied,” was my response.

In using the Highlands Ability Battery with my clients, we very quickly discover those things that are satisfying to them. When we discover what we do best, when we’re living in harmony with the way we’re wired, satisfaction becomes a much more common descriptor of how we spend our days and our lives.

Take, for example, one of the Driving Abilities: Spatial Relations Visualization. In plain English, if a person scores high in this ability, they often find satisfaction in tangible, hands-on activities. People with low scores in this ability may find satisfaction in more abstract pursuits such as writing, teaching, and research.

There are so many paths toward a more satisfying life, no matter where you might be right now in your journey. Socrates’ counsel to “Know Thyself” continues to be some of the all-time best advice for living a meaningful life.

Every so often, we get an opportunity for a clean start. Retirement is one such opportunity. There’s also been a lot of buzz in the past few years about “The Great Resignation.” The pandemic gave people a reason to self-reflect and determine if they were on a path that was in line with their strengths, passions, and values–in other words, a satisfying life. As a result of that work, many have found a different track that, at least for now, feels more sustainable and meaningful.

It’s incredibly easy to fall into a rut and stay there. Rather than always taking the path of least resistance, or following someone else’s plan for your life, take the time to discover how you’re wired as a means of discovering a more satisfying path forward. If that journey of discovery is daunting, reach out to those who have guided others. Instead of settling for busy, decide that satisfaction is a real option. We can help you find it.

As a professional certified coach (PCC) with the International Coaching Federation, Ed Rowell guides successful people to reinvent themselves in ways that lead to a deep sense of significance. He also serves as an instructor and mentor coach with Flow Coaching Institute in Toronto, ON, utilizing the principles of positive psychology, neuroscience, somatic methods, and the adaptation of creative therapy tools and strategies to equip the next generation of coaches.

Ed Rowell, PCC, is founder and creative director of Second Rodeo, LLC. Second Rodeo guides successful people to create the next meaningful chapter of their story.