Practical analysis for investment professionals
20 October 2017

Weekend Reads: Facebook, Tribalism, and the Search for Meaning

Here I go again. In search of meaning. This quest emerges every now and then, usually spurred by something I’ve heard or read. But not always. Sometimes it just materializes.

The first time it happened (at least as far as I can recall) was in early 2010 after I listened to “The Parent Trap” episode on the popular US radio show This American Life. The stories that day centered on parents setting accidental traps for their children. Act One, “Letter Day Saint,” tells the story of Rebecca, who was 16 when her mother, Elizabeth, died of cancer. Before she died, however, Elizabeth wrote a series of letters to her daughter to be opened, one at a time, on Rebecca’s birthday, for the next 13 years, and on her wedding day. Many contained advice on how to live. Rebecca recalls:

“For example, when I decided I didn’t have the confidence to go to medical school and I wasn’t going to do it, the letter that year basically said, ‘You need to find ethical expression in your work.’ [. . .] There was just no way I could have become a banker in the setting of these letters. Not that bankers don’t have ethical expression. But for most of college, I think I had this enormous sense of purpose that I had a responsibility to do something meaningful. Both to me and to other people.”

I had left The Financial Times the year before the episode aired, and the words “ethical expression in your work” stuck in my mind. I was fixated on finding meaningful work — and figuring out what “meaningful” meant to me.

Fast forward to last week: I was scrolling through my newsfeed when I clicked on an article that included a slide presentation. I snapped the screenshot below. (The material is adapted from “How to Build a Meaningful Career,” from the Harvard Business Review.)

It was as if the thought bubble above my head had been projected onto a slide.

That got me going again — back down the rabbit hole of “meaningful work” and meaning in life.

It also got me thinking about a TEDx Talk I watched recently and the prosaic question we often feel obliged to ask when making idle conversation: “What do you do for a living?”

Does that really tell us anything important about the person? It’s about as useful as the question that always baffled me when I first arrived in the United States — especially since it was often one of the first things someone would ask — “What school did you go to?”

Lalin Anik, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, believes the better way to start a conversation is by asking, “What gets you up in the morning?”

When you ask, “What do you do for a living?” Anik says, most people respond with a short description of their jobs. This “puts them and the ensuing conversation in a box that can give participants a belief there’s nothing new to learn about other people.” But when you ask, “What gets you up in the morning?” the conversation can end up taking a wholly unexpected — and more meaningful — turn.

  • Continuing in this vein, Celeste Headlee, a radio host and writer, would like to see us all become more considerate conversationalists. The first step is to become aware of “conversational narcissism,” or “the desire to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself.” Headlee knows a thing or two about holding better conversations: Her 2015 TEDx Talk on 10 ways to have a better conversation has garnered over eight million views. (TED)
  • Speaking of TEDx Talks, a friend recommended I watch “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford. So, I did. It’s all about applying design thinking to your life. I enjoyed his take on what he calls “dysfunctional beliefs” — dysfunctional belief No. 1: “What’s your passion?”; No. 2: “You should know by now”; and No.3: “Are you being the best possible version of you?” The talk also exposed me to the concept of a “gravity problem.” Burnett has co-authored a bestseller on this approach with Dave Evans. This is how Evans explained a “gravity problem” to Shankar Vedantam, host of Hidden Brain:

Dave Evans: I happen to be a cyclist, and I’m getting older, so I’m doing that thing of putting on a little extra weight. And it’s starting to bother me, so if I said, “Shankar, I’ve got this terrible problem. It’s gravity.”

Shankar Vedantam: It might sound ridiculous, but Dave says . . .

A lot of people are in fact dealing with a problem that’s just like gravity.

So let’s say your problem is that you desperately want to be a musician, but you can’t make any money doing that.

That’s not a problem. That’s a fact.

Dave says, “Once you accept that fact, you can find ways to design your life around it. You can figure out how to live on much less money while being a rising, starving musician.”

Or I could ask the question, since I’m never going to get to be a professional musician, “How can I craft a lifestyle that keeps my income going while making my avocation, the thing I do for love not money called music, as satisfying as possible?” That’s a life I could design.

This is the heart of design thinking. It isn’t about becoming your perfect self. It’s about looking very honestly at your circumstances and asking what room you have to maneuver.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Enjoy your weekend.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

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About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster is a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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