In part one, I relate my personal struggle for creative and professional meaning within societies dominated by a ruling ideology which ranks material and quantitative accomplishments of the individual and the corporation as the standards for evaluating and rewarding success. I challenge the status quo by posing questions concerning alternative ways for leaders to measure themselves according to the quality and harmony of their lives and relations. The questions I raise about these competing worldviews and their respective impacts on social and individual consciousness are:
The most impactful experience of my professional life came from executive producing the “Planet Earth” movie project, which I had the privilege of helping to bring to life and to the world about 15 years ago. Almost two decades later, the film has influenced more than a billion people worldwide and shaped their views of the planet, nature, and the role of humans in conversation. In joining that project, I immersed myself in a story greater than my own as I re-considered my role on this spinning blue-green orb we call home and the ecosphere of plants, animals, and fish with whom we share it. The production itself, the ravishing cinematography, and the arduous filming experience brought me together with some extraordinary people who share the credit. The BBC TV series was already a global success, but the moment which began my transformation occurred at the world premiere of the feature film.
The finished work was projected onto a gigantic screen in San Sebastian, Spain. The screening left the festival audience in an altered state. Everyone in the room, my children included, was silent, visibly moved, touched to the core. It was as if the whole of the theatre became for one moment a single organism. It was not the ecstatic applause after the rapt silence which moved me so: it was the emotional turning within, and the animated exchanges which followed with people of all ages, from all walks of life, engaging me in deeply self-revelatory human conversations.
This phenomenon was not unique to that premiere night. In each country, I found a similar experience that took hold of the audience as the film drew to a close at screenings in each country. The film sparked a near-universal reaction: people began speaking with me and each other about discovering Meaning and how they could apply it in their own lives: newly awakened feelings of connectedness with family, with nature and with Planet Earth.
What this experience unforgettably impressed on me is that we drive the most impact amongst human beings when we engage them around the question of ‘WHY?’ Meaning is the inner core or value around which all else revolves, as in Simon Sinek’s famous concept of the “Golden Circle.” According to Sinek, ‘WHY’ is the central message that an organization or individual communicates: this is the key inspiring people to action and transformation. As Victor Frankl puts it: “The will to meaning” drives our lives and determines our destinies. This is your purpose and the reason you exist and behave as you do. By communicating the passion behind the ‘WHY,’ you can reach the listener’s limbic brain, the center of emotion and memory, where we process feelings such as trust, empathy, and loyalty. And this, it turns out, is where our decision-making is heavily influenced and shaped.
The problem with seemingly rational choices, such as investment decisions, is that they usually take place only on the ‘WHAT’ level since this is the easiest to measure with standard economic or empirical parameters. Our cerebral cortex, the largest part of our brain, is adept at making calculations and executing transactions calculated to return gains over a fixed measure of time. Yet, until Israel-American psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economy, most scholars were loath to acknowledge Homo Economicus as a myth divorced from the realities of the human psyche and the complexity of life.
Kahneman wittily deconstructs the myth of purely rational decision-making as a psychological distortion – a combination of suppression, ignorance and rationalization that therefore becomes irrational and unconscious. “We are emotional beings who use logic to justify our emotions,” setting himself against the long-held belief in the rationalism of people and markets. To quote the German-Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carola Meier-Seethaler: “In other words, reason separated from emotion is not only one-sided, but at the same time highly susceptible to irrational undercurrents. […] Irrationality is only the flip side of one-sided rationality.” Rationality, by its nature, goes far beyond itself, instead. Holistic decision-making integrates perception, reason, feelings and intuition — under the incorruptible and ever inspiring direction of a strong WHY. Kahneman’s theory is founded on the reality that without Meaning, without a strong ‘WHY,’ we often fail to reach more in-depth conversations and eschew the standard social script. This, in turn, prevents us from accessing inputs that should inform our decisions. And without that ‘WHY,’ we shy away from activating the courage to confide and frankly interrogate our deeper emotions and motivations. Friedrich Nietzsche made this correlation abundantly clear more than 150 years ago: “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”
I am personally conditioned by the phenomenon of the “missing conversation” between generations. My parents are representative of the German, the European “Children of War” generation. Both of them were child-refugees in their own country, having lost everything, from their closest relatives to their dignity. I realized only later in life that it was a near-universal experience for most of the world. The traumas of war and the coldness of the era that followed it were experiences transferred from one generation to the next, manifesting old narratives and more ‘WHY’s.
This generation neither had the material nor the emotional luxuries we take for granted today. They were taught to make the rational ‘WHAT’ level the core of their existence, driven to become as professional and successful as possible. This drive for survival has led many of this generation to ignore, distrust, and sometimes even demonize the emotional and spiritual layers that formed the belief system of their existence.
By this, they have missed a holistic conversation about the ‘WHY’ of their lives, and therefore the opportunity to harmonize the rational with the emotional. It has been said: “We are all born into someone else’s story,” into another’s ‘WHY,’ mistaking it for our own.
Consequently, many conversations within such families only take place, if at all, in a purely transactional exchange of objective fact and subjective fiction. Wealth, along with its old stories, is inherited. But the belief systems that attach to them do not fit the new realities. The succeeding generations, trained to be complacent in return for comfort, become lost in translation. ‘WHY’-based conversations about Meaning are avoided at all costs. Feelings and profound questions are neglected and distrusted. Bad decisions are made. Conflicts inevitably lead to confrontation instead of cooperation and generate this sad reality: In 84% of all families, a family’s wealth is lost from the 3rd generation onward, and with it, its legacy.
Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, offered humanity a guide of wisdom and truth with his ground-breaking work, Man’s Search for Meaning. For members of his generation and their direct descendants, the core of Meaning was often too painful to confront and integrate into their personal lives. Yet Frankl not only confronted and integrated the searing experience of the Holocaust, he used it to help others by developing a psychotherapeutic methods to assist that integration.
With every new man-made mass traumatization by war, civil war, in refugee camps at our borders, with humans seeking refuge dying in the oceans, and many, mostly untold, others and anywhere on this planet, we continue to scar humanity, starting with ourselves, for generations to come. We must confront this pain and take on the monumental challenge of transitioning from ‘WHAT’ to probe Meaning through ‘WHY’ not only to address the wounds of war amongst older generations but also to end the cycle of trauma for the current and future generations. For us.
Trauma alone may not cause genetic change in our DNA, but recent research suggests that it can have a triggering effect on our genetic make-up. The young science of epigenomics suggests that “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes.” As we become more aware of generational legacies, we realize that issues around traumatization remain highly topical and urgent in light of the challenges we face today. The “Search for Meaning” may have just now become accessible to be included in the conversations of our lives, mostly lived in a bubble, a comfort zone of safety and wellbeing that is not a birthright but an obligation.
A mentor once taught me to “be afraid of the conversation you need to have but be absolutely terrified of the conversation you are missing”: The power of a non-existing conversation can leave scars deeper than a conversation that went bad. But even worse: we are all constantly in a situation where we are compelled to act appropriately in the face of everything that happens in our lives, internally and externally. We inquire and we respond. In abstract terms: We are perpetually in an inescapable conversation with life itself, anyway. But what could be more tragic than misunderstandings with one’s own life ignoring the foremost existential principle of our existence: conversation itself?
This phenomenon becomes painfully apparent in our relationships, from intimate ones to other social and professional interactions. If “missing conversations” are not recovered and resolved, we can’t understand what the other means. What passes for “normal”—conversations between parties who “miss” each other—often ends up with misunderstandings and disrespect for each other’s essential belief systems and causes offense, whether intended or not. Each speaker manifests and justifies their respective attitudes and behaviors, ignoring those that come from another person. In other words, we don’t even know what we’re missing. Everyone remains trapped in their silos, prisoners of their perceptions, mistaking them with objective facts. They are unable to become emancipated and sovereign over their own stories, and thus unable to become existentially responsive to their lives. In consequence, our individual “pursuit of happiness” will remain a hollow one, a trap. It will lead to a dead end.
If you take responsibility for your life—(response-ability, as the literal meaning of the word is highlighted by the Conscious-Business-though-leader Fred Kofman as well as the Indian mystic Sadhguru)—everything you see, hear, taste, touch, and experience becomes your responsibility. It is limitless. By adopting this ethos, it becomes clear that your life is not just your own: you share it with other creatures, indeed, with the whole of existence. In entering that conversation and thinking about your life in relation to things known and unknown—in living in pursuit of Meaning—we begin to find the answer ‘WHY’ and unlock higher value in our interactions. We may even discover that there is an ultimate and universal ‘WHY’ that underlies the diversity of our personal ‘WHYs’, unconditionally.
It is our commitment to the principle of conversation. The commitment to strive for harmony and alignment with existence, overcomes the limits of our ego. We realize true self-actualization through self-transcendence, the term Abraham Maslow, in his later writings, used to describe the “very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” Self-transcendence is an unconditional affirmation of and commitment to life itself. We become response-able, limitlessly: Hence, conversation is the method of actualizing appropriateness, alignment and harmony. This principle of affirming life addresses us unconditionally. Every single one of us. Whether we want or not. We definitely don’t want to miss this conversation.
As we pause in the face of escalating crises, what are they revealing about ourselves? What are they uncovering in our relations with each other, with the planet on which we spin, and with life itself? WHY? If we dare to pursue Meaning ourselves, seeking forgiveness and taking responsibility, we may find that a surprising answer, and an opportunity, awaits.
In Part Two, I discuss how my creative and business activities became overshadowed and undermined by a personal crisis which triggered a profound disruption in my life and re-evaluation of its meaning.
Initiator of The Argonauts, Stefan Beiten, is on a mission of connecting with people for the sake of taking responsibility in the world, today. Alongside his perspective as an entrepreneur, lawyer, film producer, and public speaker, he adds a social mission to his biography as a „from-Idea-to-Vision-to-Strategy-to-Execution Guy“. He had structured and placed over US$1bn investments, founded 20+ companies, raised 3 kids and produced 3 global media classics.
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