Business Lessons from Man’s Search for Meaning

Published by Timothy Reed on

Business Lessons from Man’s Search for Meaning

by Matt Bradley

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Introduction: Digging the Postmodern Pit

Before I joined the hearth industry three years ago, I taught English classes at public schools for over a decade. During that time, I had the opportunity to teach thousands of clever and caring students with different beliefs, backgrounds, and passions. Yet despite their apparent variety, I noticed a striking similarity among many of them—namely, that they often felt their lives lacked meaning.

It turns out they’re not alone.

In fact, a recent study conducted by the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University found that 58% of young adults in America feel that their lives lack meaning.

Even though this trend saddens me, it doesn’t shock me. As someone who loves intellectual history, I know that the Postmodern worldview currently dominates popular American culture. And one of the basic tenets of that worldview is this: All significant ideals—including meaning and morality—are nothing more than illusory social constructs. As such, there’s no ideal worth living for and no ideal worth dying for—there are simply different ideas that fall in and out of fashion due to the ongoing battle between popular discourses and the endless evolution of social constructs.

Now, if people truly internalize this idea—as many folks in our culture have—what’s the point of life? Well, if there’s any point at all, it’s this: Pursue as much pleasure as possible. Because unlike those illusory ideals of the past, pleasure is real—so real that anyone can feel it.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that pursuing endless pleasure is a pit instead of a paradise. Indeed, it just takes a bit of experience: A drunk always ends in a hangover; a high always ends with a low; a one-night stand always ends in the morning. At that point, the only reprieve is to jump back into the pleasure pit—until the hole gets so deep that there’s no climbing out. And even if the pleasure pit doesn’t physically kill its victims (which sadly, it often does), it emotionally and spiritually destroys them by eating away at their sense of meaning. After all, meaning is the sense of significance that humans derive from using their greatest strengths toward the greater good—which means you can’t get it by pursuing pleasure alone.

...meaning is the sense of significance that humans derive from using their greatest strengths toward the greater good—which means you can’t get it by pursuing pleasure alone.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what all this philosophy has to do with your daily life as a business leader. Well, here’s one way to answer that question: The widespread lack of meaning in our society is one of the main reasons you’re having trouble hiring, inspiring, cultivating, and retaining your team members (especially those in Gen Z).

The good news is that countless people are desperately searching for a serious alternative to the Postmodern lifestyle, so if your company can provide a path to something better, you’ll be able to hire, inspire, cultivate, and retain team members like never before. 

If you’re ready to help the people you lead climb out of the Postmodern pleasure pit—or if you’re looking to get out of it yourself—then I’d suggest reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. As a clinical psychologist who survived several Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, Frankl knew a thing or two about what motivates humans to survive and thrive—even during terrible times—and that’s the main subject of his book. As the title implies, Frankl’s central argument is that the main motivator of human behavior is not pleasure (as Freud believed) or power (as Neiztche suggested) but meaning. Frankl further contends that meaning comes from three main sources: connection, creation, and choice. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at these three sources of meaning, then explore how your business can help your team tap into each one.

To grow a successful company you must confront the brutal facts—no matter how severe—and simultaneously never lose faith that you will prevail in the end.


First and foremost, Frankl asserts that the most important source of meaning is our connection to those outside ourselves. This insight runs counter to most of the songs, memes, and ads created in contemporary American culture, which tend to send the same monotonous message over and over again: “Your life is about you! Do what you want to do! Don’t let anyone tell you differently!”

But Frankl’s book rebukes such sentiments, suggesting that they’re foolish, selfish, and self-destructive. Instead of focusing on ourselves, he argues, we should focus on others—at least if we want to survive and thrive during tough times. After all, our connections to others afford us the opportunity to use our greatest strengths toward their greater good—and that’s the sort of stuff that gives life meaning. “When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized,” Frankl writes, “it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him . . . will never be able to throw away his life.” Simply put, we’re more likely to carry on when we’re connected to other people who are counting on us. 

If that’s true (and I believe it is), then we have a huge problem on our hands—because many contemporary Americans are desperately disconnected. Here’s how a recent article in The Atlantic put it:

“From 2003 to 2022, American men reduced their average hours of face-to-face socializing by about 30%. For unmarried Americans, the decline was even bigger—more than 35%. For teenagers, it was more than 45%. Boys and girls ages 15 to 19 reduced their weekly social hangouts by more than three hours a week. In short, there is no statistical record of any other period in U.S. history when people have spent more time on their own.”

If these statistics are setting off your internal alarm bells, then here’s a question worth contemplating: What can your company do to help your team members foster more genuine connections both inside and outside of work?

What can your company do to help your team members foster more genuine connections both inside and outside of work?

For starters, I would suggest closing your showroom on Sundays to give your team weekly time for family and worship. (If you think that’s an impossible practice for a thriving business, just research the wild success of Chick-fil-A.) This small reprieve will grant your employees a regular opportunity to strengthen the most important connections in their lives, and the positive impact of that consistency can’t be overstated. 

On a yearly basis, I would also encourage you to ensure that your employees have some quality vacation time. I don’t have a specific number of days or weeks in mind here, especially since every company is different. But here’s a guiding principle to consider: Default to generosity. You can probably think of a time when you felt burnt out, took a vacation, and came back reenergized. Well, your employees are no different than you: They’re humans who need time off to relax, recharge, and recalibrate. By generously giving them that time, you’re offering them the opportunity to strengthen their connections with the people they love the most, and that’s invaluable to them and your business.

There are also plenty of opportunities to foster genuine connections within the workplace, especially because so many hearth shops are family-owned businesses. If you work with multiple family members, there are obvious opportunities to foster connections with and among them every day. Capitalize on those opportunities, then watch your family connections grow.

Of course, most of you also work with people who aren’t part of your immediate family, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate genuine relationships with them. There are myriad ways to do this—daily check-ins, weekly meetings, monthly one-on-ones, quarterly retreats, and yearly celebrations—but the key thing is to make an intentional plan and stick to it.

Finally, seize the opportunities you have to foster connections between your employees and your customers. Think about it: Every year, your team probably installs wood stoves for elderly couples who need heat sources during power outages, gas inserts for young families who need better safety screens for their kids, and outdoor fireplaces for single folks who need warm spaces for friendly gatherings. In innumerable situations like these, your customers are counting on your company to keep them safe and warm. If you can help your team understand that’s the case, then they’re far more likely to care about—and connect with—each of your customers. And, as we’ve already seen, those connections aren’t just a boon for your business—they’re also a blessing for your employees and your customers alike.


The second source of meaning that Frankl identifies in his book is creation. More specifically, he acknowledges that people can contribute to the greater good by creating a family, a band, a book, or a business—and he also insists that each moral expression of human creativity is an opportunity to cultivate meaning. He writes:

“I remember two cases of would-be suicide [in the camps], which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.”

For starters, this passage clearly reinforces the point that connection gives our lives meaning, as the father Frankl references renews his desire to live by remembering his beloved child. But the passage also conveys Frankl’s belief that creation can serve a similar function, as the scientist mentioned above revives his will to live by remembering his unfinished books. Simply put, both of these men rekindled their drive to survive by realizing that life was still expecting something from them

Helping countless patients like these two men led Frankl to the conclusion that most of us need to fundamentally change “our attitude toward life.” More specifically, Frankl explains that he “had to teach despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected of life, but rather what life expected of us.” As a result, Frankl asserts that we  need “to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who [are] being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist . . . in right action and right conduct.” Because in the end, Frankl argues, life “ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Of course, there are many ways that we can do as Frankl suggests and “find the right answers” to life’s pressing problems. One obvious way is by creating solutions to those problems. By practicing this type of creation, we’re contributing to the common good—and that can give our lives direction, purpose, and meaning.

At this point, the connection between meaningful creation and your hearth company might be coming into focus. After all, your team members solve pressing problems for other people all the time: They sell stoves that provide families with reliable heat on stormy days; they install fireplaces that create cozy places to connect in an isolated world; and they service old appliances that would otherwise be a fire danger or health hazard. Teaching your team to serve folks in their community in these ways—and regularly reminding them that those services are important—can help them see that their work matters, if only because they’re finding the right answers to people’s daily problems. In doing so, they’re creatively fulfilling the tasks that life has set before them—and that’s one path toward meaning and purpose, just as Frankl knew.

Teaching your team to serve folks in their community in these ways —and regularly reminding them that those services are important— can help them see that their work matters, if only because they’re finding the right answers to people’s daily problems.


The last source of meaning identified by Frankl—and the one that requires the most clarification—is choice. If you asked a group of Americans to define that word today, most of them would probably say something along these lines: “the autonomy to do whatever you want.”

But that’s not what Frankl means by choice. On the contrary, Frankl’s definition of the word goes something like this: “the freedom to decide how you will react when things don’t go the way you want.” 

You see, during Frankl’s time in the concentration camps, he and his fellow inmates experienced untold horrors. But he also saw people respond to those untold horrors with incredible courage and compassion. He writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Thus, Frankl concludes that “any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. . . . It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

Of course, I would never suggest that the daily lives of most Americans are as difficult as those in the concentration camps—not by a long shot. But it’s also no secret that our country’s going through some tough times right now. Yet even amidst all the contempt, chaos, and pain that’s unfolding across the nation, we still have the freedom to choose how we will respond. Will we feed into the culture of contempt or choose to love our enemies? Will we contribute to the chaos around us or choose to uphold our responsibilities? Will we pass over the pain of others or choose to show them compassion? Our individual responses to these types of questions matter—for our families, our communities, and our country.

As a business leader, it also matters how you respond to similar questions that arise in your company. Will you ignore the rules you set for your team or choose to abide by them? Will you lie when you make mistakes or choose to admit your faults? Will you react to irate customers in kind or choose to respond with grace? Although it’s difficult, choosing the latter option in each of these situations will have an enormous positive impact on your business and your team—not only because you’ll gain meaning in your life by responding to tough situations with strength, but also because they’ll gain meaning in their lives by seeing your positive example.

And who knows? They might just follow suit.  

Conclusion: Opening a Different Door

Sadly, it’s no secret that Americans are more depressed, addicted, and self-destructive than ever before. While I understand that these problems are all incredibly complex, I also believe that they’re at least partially caused by the Postmodern pleasure pit. When popular culture tells us—in large ways and small ways, day in and day out—that ideals are illusions, life is meaningless, and pleasure is the only thing worth pursuing, it’s bound to wear off on people and produce the conditions listed above.

The good news is that your company can help people climb out of the Postmodern pleasure pit. By giving your team members the opportunity to cultivate genuine connections, the skills to create solutions to problems, and the encouragement to choose strength during times of struggle, your business can become a bastion of meaning and hope in a world that’s largely lost its way.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that your company can provide your team members with ultimate and unlimited meaning. No matter how much your business offers team members in terms of connection, creation, and choice, it will never be enough to totally settle what St. Augustine called the “restless” human heart.

That said, I do think your company can open a door to a new world of meaning that many of your team members have never seriously considered. After all, when they discover the joys of connecting with their customers and coworkers, they’re more likely to make that phone call to an old friend; when they experience the satisfaction of creating warm spaces or better businesses, they’re more likely to wonder whether this constructive impulse comes from some ultimate Creator; and when they find the peace that comes from choosing to respond to a terrible situation with courage and compassion, they’re more likely to practice the sacrificial love that our world so desperately needs.

Matt Bradley

Matt Bradley

Matt Bradley is the Partnership Manager of WhyFire where he helps business leaders in the hearth industry take control of their companies by providing them with sales tools to save time and make money.

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