green banner with the words, virtual events at the Global Dialogue Center, interviews and insights

Quest for Meaning: An Interview with Alex Pattakos

Photo of Alex Pattakos Alex Pattakos is widely known and respected as a pioneer in transformational thinking. As the founder and managing director of the Center for Meaning, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, he is passionate about helping people realize their highest potential and find deeper, authentic meaning in their work and everyday lives.

Prisoners of Our Thoughts is his latest in a long line of publications, including contributions to the books Managing in Organizations That Learn and Rediscovering the Soul of Business, and co-authoring the books Intuition at Work: Pathways to Unlimited Possibilities and From Nation to States. Learn more about Alex and his work at his website:

Why is this an especially relevant time to publish a book about applying Viktor Frankl's principles at work?

Prisoners of Our Thoughts book coverOur society is not any better off than when Viktor Frankl was developing his theories of Logotherapy in the 1930s. In some respects, we're living our lives like we're on cruise control. There is a crisis of meaning---in politics, in how we live our lives. People are starting to ask the questions Frankl addressed. Baby Boomers in particular are asking, "Is that all there is?"

Look at the younger generation---what do people value? We live in a world now that encourages fear. Technological changes have exasperated a cry for meaning. Most people, especially in America, don't look at themselves or their work. Yet, it's OK to ask questions about your life. We have a long way to go.

With many people feeling disconnected from their work, how can the principles you've outlined help people reconnect?

In order to make fundamental and profound changes at any level you need to build a vanguard of people to spread these messages. These principles inspire people, bring life to people. There's nothing greater than watching people light up, and these principles help do that. I walk into a lot of organizations I work with and I see a lot of "dead people." There are key questions we need to help them address: How do we shift our attitudes? How do we visualize what the future could be? How do we find our inner voice? We need to focus on learning and living these principles, and sharing them with others.

As the pace of change increases and pressures increase, the crisis of meaning is becoming more urgent. We need role models to be out there on the vanguard. But rather than revolution, I'd like to see people working together and collaborating to overcome issues.

How does the current corporate environment---what we might call a "PowerPoint culture" where everything said by executives is based on carefully scripted bullet points--- inhibit true conversations that people might find more meaningful?

There's a whole field emerging that's effectively anti-PowerPoint---we need to watch for and support those efforts. Look at what we're doing---most of it in no way comes close to authentic dialogue. That just isn't happening. The word "dialogue" comes from the Greek words, "dia" and "logos." The idea of "logos" or "study" is to achieve meaning, to make a spiritual connection. How many meetings are spiritual connections? What kind of communication are we doing that's a real dialogue? People are hungry for that. Connection is the essence of dialogue.

Seven Core Principles

In Prisoners of Our Thoughts, Alex Pattakos draws on more than 30 books in Viktor Frankl's body of work to illustrate his philosophy through seven easy-to-understand principles:

1. Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude.
In all situations, no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude.

2. Realize your will to meaning.
Commit authentically to meaningful values and goals that only you can actualize and fulfill.

3. Detect the meaning of life's moments.
Only you can answer for your own life by detecting the meaning at any given moment and assuming responsibility for weaving your unique tapestry of existence.

4. Don't work against yourself.
Avoid becoming so obsessed with or fixated on an intent or outcome that you actually work against the desired result.

5. Look at yourself from a distance.
Only human beings possess the capacity to look at themselves out of some perspective or distance, including the uniquely human trait known as your "sense of humor".

6. Shift your focus of attention.
Deflect your attention from the problem situation to something else and build your coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and change.

7. Extend beyond yourself.
Manifest the human spirit at work by relating and being directed to something more than yourself.

A lot of people---including executives---seem to feel that the workplace isn't where you look for meaning. Companies preach values but people have a hard time connecting with meaning. What are your thoughts?

Meaning is everywhere. I remember working with HP employees on the factory floor in Boise, Idaho. The managers who brought me in wanted me to groom a self-directed work team, but my purpose was to work with everyone to understand the meaning of what they were doing. They weren't just creating a printer or a circuit board there on the factory floor, they were helping a customer accomplish something. We spent a lot of time uncovering the meaning behind what they were doing. Once we found that, they were much more willing to deal with tough business issues. I could see it in their energy. There was a real pride in what they were doing based on finding the meaning.

What's the meaning for you in advancing Viktor Frankl's legacy?

One of the things I learned is that Viktor Frankl was not a big therapy buff. He really challenged the legacy of therapy. He believed we have so much responsibility for ourselves that we didn't have to spend half of our life on a therapist's couch. He believed in humanizing medicine and psychiatry and not just reducing people to the id, ego, or their drives. He said having questions about the meaning of your life are natural and should be expected.

I don't think he got from the mainstream the support he deserved. A lot of the therapists I've been talking to almost have this feeling that this was a philosophy. Nothing more. They are afraid of losing patients instead of liberating and empowering them.

For the most part there's a lot of health that could be furthered by Viktor Frankl's work. A lot that people could get from looking deeply at the issues he raises, which are the issues they probably feel.

The ones who have been closest to Viktor Frankl's work recognize that he wasn't a big publicizer of his work. Maybe it's time to change that a bit and let people know about it.

How do people who want to embrace these principles make a difference?

The key is how do we facilitate a heightened level of awareness. This requires a vanguard of people. Through Prisoners of Out Thoughts, I'm trying to get more and more people aware of what's important.

I'm trying to reach people in ways they can relate. In Santa Fe, I can talk about meditation. In Idaho, maybe it's "heightened awareness." The book is grounded in a long history of psychiatry and psychology and is rooted in well-documented empirical outcomes. In short, these principles work. I think that adds some credibility and maybe makes it easier for some people to get it.

What do you have to say to people who want strict divisions between work and life, and even a balance between the two?

One of the key messages of Prisoners of Our Thoughts is that there is no such thing as balance. Life energy is dynamic and not balanced. Our jobs are not going to be balanced. I want to help people be more willing to deal with the ups and downs---the challenges---and be more effective at managing their challenges. Life isn't ever going to be "On Golden Pond"---and maybe even after death it's not going to like that either.

Work and life shouldn't have strict divisions. When you look at retirees, I think you're going to see an increasing number who are seeking new meaning after they leave what they did for many years. They're asking, "How do you take the notion of work and weave it into your life?" More and more people will feel they still have things they want to do in their life.

We're also seeing among young people a yearning to do things that matter and that are meaningful. Perhaps we can connect retirees and younger people, and in doing so, help young people to see elders in a more positive light.

The big group in the middle is running so fast that they're going to be the toughest to reach. Unless we can change organizational culture it's going to be difficult to get to them.

How did you get to this point in your studies and your career?

Well, it's been typical of a very zigzag path we all go through. The Pattakos family is originally from Crete. However, my mother was German; her Father was a Prussian Jew. My grandfather on my mother's side, who was a Prussian Jew, was murdered by the Nazis. I have relatives living in the Philippines and other countries around the world. My family has a strong political history; I've always been politically and socially active.

My life path has been integrating threads. In the mental health arena, I worked in lots of capacities---as a therapist and administrator, and in the politics of health and public policy. I was lucky enough to be an advisor to President Carter's Administration. Then I became an academic and taught public policy and management.

All of this experience came together for me during the time I was working with HP. I had been fortunate enough to become president of a nonprofit, international organization that worked on business ethics. It brought me in contact with businesses of all kinds.

In the early 90s, I revisited logotherapy through Viktor Frankl's work. As president of the nonprofit organization, I started communicating with him through his son-in-law. In the summer of 1996 I was working in Switzerland and decided to go to Vienna. I met Frankl and proposed the idea for Prisoners of Our Thoughts; he told me, "This is the book that needs to be written." His message was branded in my soul.

Advancing his legacy is part of what I'm doing. In many ways, I don't think he did justice to his own work. He wasn't a PR machine or self-serving individual. During one of his visits to the USA, his American host tried to get him on a TV program and he was turned down; they wound up inviting "Dr. Ruth" instead.

I had the longest negotiation period with my publisher trying to get direction of the book agreed to. The book had to pass muster with Viktor Frankl's family. In my original proposal the book would have been really long. Steven Piersanti [President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers], my publisher, said, "Go for the low-hanging fruit." But the challenge was to do justice to the material.

Over the years, especially since 1996, the challenge as I talked to people was that many of those who read Man's Search for Meaning couldn't recall or apply the details of the work itself. It's my path right now to make those principles relevant in our daily work and personal lives.

You know, I just ran across a study by the BBC reporting that nearly half of Britain had not heard of Auschwitz! If we forget that, we may wind up recreating something that awful.

How have the principles and process changed you?

I believe in the notion of true optimism. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said you can never step into the same river twice. I think you can never walk through the same river once, because as you're in it, it's changing.

Prisoners of Our Thoughts is a manifestation of all the things I've gotten out of Viktor Frankl's work. The hardest part for me was not writing this book, it's living the principles. I have to remind myself of this every day. And live those principles every day. If I don't, I'm not being true to myself and to Viktor Frankl.

When you look at what's ahead, what do you hope to do?

I'd like to create a place here in Santa Fe (New Mexico) for people to come. I'd like to be able to reach a broader group of people that I believe would benefit from these principles. I'd like to do derivative work that would fine-tune the message for different audiences.

I'm doing some work now applying the principles to youth. I'm a columnist in a new magazine that starts in January, published by a group called Athletes Against Drugs, and will be using my column to direct the principles to issues kids are dealing with.

I'm working with AARP to reach people---many, many people---who are coming to realize that playing golf, in and of itself, isn't meaningful in retirement. There are growing numbers of retirees who are really interested in looking for ways to do more. As more Baby Boomers approach retirement, it's becoming more difficult for them to imagine traditional retirement.

Those are just two major areas where I'd like to focus on applying Viktor Frankl's wisdom. I don't want to restrict the focus of Prisoners of Our Thoughts on "work"---office work, 9-to-5 sort of work---alone. To be sure, these principles apply to any kind of work, both paid and unpaid. This said, I'm really interested in how they can apply in everyday life.

As we wrap this up, would you take a moment to share a personal message with our readers?

The message of Prisoners of Our Thoughts is that the search for meaning is not about only finding a higher purpose or a true calling. It's about finding meaning in every moment, every day. Meaning exists in the moment. It's our personal responsibility to discover that meaning.

We all know people who work at dead-end jobs or who are in bad relationships. Yet, they can find meaning in their lives. Some people may not see that. A lot of dysfunctional behaviors---apathy, addiction, abuse, depression, and aggression---are tied to the lack of meaning. We need to be able to see that. If we continue to be prisoners of our thoughts, we will end up getting frozen by our circumstances.

My own experience is that people who take the time to find meaning are happier---they're more joyful, more passionate, and more fulfilled. They are more resilient to the stresses of life. And, in effect, they become the "light" for others.

Practicing Viktor Frankl's principles can give us meaning.

Dr. Frankl survived concentration camps by searching for---and finding---meaning in the situations he faced. He couldn't end a relationship or go home at 5:00. Yet, he learned that there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of meaning.


Buy Prisoners of our Thoughts

[an error occurred while processing this directive]