Alice Wang recently completed an Oxford MSc in Economics for Development. She was a member of the 2014-2015 Global Leadership Initiative.
When Viktor Frankl was a high school student, his science teacher declared, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation”. Unable to accept this conclusion, the young Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
These words of protest by Frankl as a teenager are echoed in Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he draws from his experiences during the Holocaust to explore the relationship between meaning and survival. In the book, Frankl documents observations and experiences from the three years he spent in concentration camps. He reflects on the human ability to survive against all odds through his account of those that survived and those that did not. Quoting Nietzsche, Frankl concludes that “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.
Poignant, timeless and deeply moving, the book is influential for Frankl’s autobiographical account of his experiences, his insights into the human condition, and for his unwavering belief in humanity. Frankl shows us not only the best and worst of humanity, but how out of the worst the best can emerge. In addition, Man’s Search for Meaning also offers a number of eloquent reflections on vocation, service and leadership.
While purpose and meaning in life is essential, Frankl considers that it should not be something that is abstract. Instead, we should search for a vocation or mission that is specific and unique to each person. He views responsibility—to society or to a person’s own conscience—to be the very essence of human existence: "Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualises himself.” This responsibility is what defines a person’s life task.
Frankl also recognises that struggle and tension is part and parcel of finding and achieving meaning. He observes that what man needs is “not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him."
In a world facing increasingly pressing and global challenges, the need to think critically and reflectively about leadership and vocation is ever the more critical. As Frankl reminds us at the end of the book: “The world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”