In Dialogue: Starving for Meaning

In Dialogue: Starving for Meaning

A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.


Karl:  We’ve talked a lot about the emotional and psychological challenges of fundraising.  But we haven’t talked a lot about how the people who do this work can manage themselves—their minds, bodies, and spirits—more effectively.  Burnout is such a widespread problem in the nonprofit space.  How do you recharge?  What tools and techniques do you use to get energy and reinforce your sense of commitment?

Jennifer:  I was talking about this recently with our teammate Gunther Weil, whose work we cite in the book.  Gunther’s a master of tai chi and qigong, two traditional Chinese forms of exercise, and he was talking about the different ways we define “relaxation” in the West as compared to the East.

As Gunther says, we in the West often define relaxation as drinking a beer and sitting in front of the TV, turning off our minds and totally escaping from reality.  In the East, relaxation is viewed in a very different way.  They pursue a form of alert relaxation using techniques like meditation, qigong, and yoga.  Rather than trying to escape reality and turn off their minds, they try to recharge and create a sense of mindful stillness from which it’s possible to operate in a more energetic, creative, and peaceful way.  I think it’s a different approach to life that we could learn a lot from.

Jeff:  No question.  I think in some ways the people of the East have been more thoughtful than us in the West because they remain connected to the spiritual place that humans need to return to periodically.  It may also be related to the fact that, here in the West, we’re not connected to one another in groups as often as we used to be.

Americans used to work together more than they do now.  They joined and supported civic organizations in greater numbers. (Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone explored this phenomenon several years ago.)  On weekends, we used to recharge ourselves at church or synagogue.  Sunday was a day of rest—not for shopping or for watching football on television, but for thinking about something bigger than ourselves while we shared a sacred space for an hour and focused on questions about the meaning of life.

We’ve lost a little of that spirit, I think, and now many people are trying to rediscover it through activities like meditation and yoga.

Jennifer:  Gunther and I were talking about that, too.  I like his concept of the Sabbath, which is rooted in Jewish tradition, as a time to consciously turn away from the consumer mentality that dominates our daily lives.  Until recently, stores weren’t open on Sunday.  I don’t advocate going back to those days; it’s convenient for all of us with our busy lives to be able to get shopping done seven days a week.  But we’ve lost something in giving up the idea of a space when we’re not constantly in the mode of more, more, more—do, do, do.

Speaking for myself, I really have a hard time putting down my Blackberry and walking away from it on weekends.  I have to deliberately put aside those nagging pangs of guilt that strike me because I’m not working on Sunday.  So I think we all need a Sabbath in our lives—maybe not a day of the week, but in the form of a little piece of every day where we consciously disconnect and allow ourselves spaciousness and stillness.

Jeff:  Peter Senge, the MIT professor best known for his book about learning organizations, The Fifth Discipline, has done a lot of work on the role of meditation, group activities, and interpersonal connections in revitalizing companies and teams.  Peter is an advocate of something called Theory U, which grows out of work by a man named Otto Scharmer, also at MIT.  In very simplified form, Peter and Otto recommend that people form new groups to ideate around issues or problems, then stop to do a wilderness activity like Outward Bound for two days.  When these groups come back together in the office or work space, they almost always find they’ve become a better group—more connected, energized, creative, and primed for problem-solving.

So when groups of co-workers go to the bar after work to just hang out, sing karaoke, and dance together, they may be instinctively acting out practices that are really rejuvenating and revitalizing.  Scharmer’s book Theory U even talks about how Roman generals discovered the value of teaching soldiers to march.  Why on earth is that useful?  Because it develops the group, just as dance or music can do. It’s a bonding activity, which is why armies still use it today.

Karl:  That’s probably why we sing hymns in church as well.

Jeff:  Absolutely.  It’s so important to do things all together, and so form a psychological and spiritual union as well as a physical one.

Karl:  Jennifer, I know you use the SIM exercise—asking what surprised, inspired, or moved you today—around your family dinner table in the evening.  Maybe this is an important role that families need to play—to provide a space where we shed our roles as workers or consumers, and just exist as human beings open to one another.  If we teach our kids how to do this, perhaps it will serve them well throughout life.

Jennifer:  Too many people come home after a hard day at work or school, and just want to turn off and disconnect—to collapse with a beer in front of the TV, as Gunther Weil says.  I think the seeds of feeling meaningless lie in this automated response.  Instead we need to re-engage and delve deeply within ourselves in order to recapture the sense of meaning in our lives.  The process of self-reflection is so powerful in reminding us why we’re here, and—especially for those of us in the nonprofit world—why we’ve chosen to do the work we do.  People are starving for that sense of meaning.

Jeff:  They are.  Recently I was chatting with a good friend, an active philanthropist and nonprofit supporter, about the challenge of recruiting candidates for the board of an organization she works with.  We discussed a few people we both know, and my friend said about each them, “They’re too busy.”

“What are they doing that makes them so busy?”  I asked.

“Well, they’re running their companies,” she replied.

I said, “That’s exactly why they should join your board—because they’re probably dying to have a part of their life that is disconnected from work and deeply connected to something they’re passionate about.”

Karl:  Isn’t the challenge, Jeff, that many of us have that sense of desperate hunger for meaning but aren’t fully aware of it or don’t really realize what it is that we’re hungry for?

Jennifer:  No question, and so that unexamined hunger gets directed into more work, more competition, more consumerism, more buying.  The existential crisis that everybody faces mostly gets stuffed back down rather than being channeled into a place of collaboration, meaning, and service to each other.  It’s one of the big reasons we have so much heart disease, depression, obesity, substance abuse, and divorce.  We try to make the pain of the illusion go away instead of confronting it.

Karl:  So this is another reason why fundraisers should never feel apologetic for the work that they do.  They’re offering potential partners something of tremendous richness and value that the world desperately needs and wants.

Jeff:  And they’re bringing huge opportunities for joy to the people they’re talking to, even if they may not know it.  Discovering that hidden truth and acting on it is the secret weapon of philanthropy.