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Prisoners of Our Thoughts

By Alex Pattakos

Berrett-Koehler, 187 pages, $31.95

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist and concentration camp survivor whose Man's Search For Meaning has been declared one of the 10 most influential books of the 20th century.

At a young age, Frankl became convinced it is the human spirit that makes us unique, and we must each answer the question that life asks about the meaning of our lives.

His experiences in the Nazi prison camps, where he lost his wife, parents, brother and nearly his own life, only deepened that belief in meaning, showing him how the human spirit could find it under the most unimaginable circumstances.

"I can see beyond the misery of the situation to the potential for discovering a meaning behind it, and thus to turn an apparently meaningless suffering into a genuine human achievement. I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning," he wrote.

Now, Alex Pattakos, founder of the Center for Personal Meaning in Santa Fe, N.M., who has taught at the University of Toronto, has brought Frankl's work to the attention of the business world in Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles at Work.

Mr. Pattakos warns that too many of us believe life just happens to us, and that we are relatively powerless to change it. That locks us into a prison of our own thoughts -- what Frankl called our "own inner concentration camp" -- when we could be creating our own reality through the search for meaning.

To unlock our metaphorical prison camp, Mr. Pattakos sets out seven principles drawn from Frankl's work:

We are free to choose our attitude to everything that happens to us. As Nelson Mandela demonstrated with his generosity after being set free from prison, we can -- and are responsible for -- choosing how we react to circumstances we face.

To help gain perspective, Mr. Pattakos recommends listing 10 positive things that could result from the setbacks you face at work, whether the breakdown of a production line, the elimination of your department or losing your job. That helps you see that you can choose how you want to view a situation.

We can realize our will to find meaning by making a conscious commitment to meaningful values and goals. Giving meaning to work means more than seeking money, influence, status or prestige. We must honour our deepest needs by committing to other values and goals.

For instance, he writes, Tom Chappell, founder of Tom's of Maine, has done this by creating a company with a demonstrated social good -- producing toothpastes and toiletries that minimize their environmental damage, putting 10 per cent of pretax profits to community needs in his state and allowing employees to spend 5 per cent of their time on volunteer work.

We can find meaning in all of life's moments. With our sound-bite lifestyle speeding up reality, we must slow down enough to find the meaning in our activities and relationships with others. Mr. Pattakos recommends writing the one-page obituary you would want to see summing up your life, and then figuring out how to live daily by its precepts.

We can learn to see how we work against ourselves. When we are hyper-intent, we work against our own best interests, as when we micro-manage or focus so intently on a problem that we can't see the solution.

We can look at ourselves from a distance and gain insight and perspective, and we can laugh at ourselves. It's vital to seek a sense of self-detachment from our work -- to lighten up, not sweat the small stuff, and gain new understanding.

We can shift our focus of attention when coping with difficult situations. Frankl learned in the concentration camp to deflect his attention away from painful situations to other, more appealing circumstances; we can try the same technique at work, regaining the natural resilience of childhood by not wallowing in misfortune but, rather, moving on to the next exciting opportunity.

We can reach out beyond ourselves and make a difference in the world. Whenever we go beyond satisfying our own personal needs -- and, instead, serve others -- we enter the realm of what Frankl called "ultimate meaning." We don't have to be a Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, Mr. Pattakos notes, but must pay attention to moments in our daily lives when we can help others, or display forgiveness, generosity, thoughtfulness and understanding to colleagues and friends.

Mr. Pattakos says these seven principles "are available to us any time, all the time. They lead us to meaning, to freedom, and to deep connection to our own lives as well as the lives of others in our local and global communities."

His book is clearly written and well-structured, laced with ample quotations from Frankl. It tackles its philosophical and spiritual ideas in a practical way, with many examples from the working world.

In Addition: It's hard not to be attracted to Help! I'm Surrounded by Idiots (WorxPublishing, 131 pages, $22.75), given how often most of us have expressed that sentiment. Organizational development specialist Tom E. Jones looks with a sharp and sardonic eye at the idiot-like behaviours of management and staff -- which often flow from not taking the time to understand each other -- and offers solutions.

101 Marketing Strategies for Accounting, Law, Consulting and Professional Services Firms (John Wiley, 265 pages, $42.99), by consultant Troy Waugh, is a snappily written book that takes readers through the various elements of marketing and consultative selling. The book lacks integration -- it feels like a series of interconnected articles -- and has trouble meeting the different needs of the quite different-sized firms that might be using the advice, but it would still offer any reader some insights and practical tips.

Aspirin (Bloomsbury, 335 pages, $42.95) by British journalist Diarmuid Jeffreys starts with the use of willow bark as a medicine in Ancient Egyptian times and moves through its accidental rediscovery in the mid-1700s by a reverend in Chipping Norton, England, and the fascinating twists-and-turns in the history of a wonder drug known as aspirin. The writer has an eye for a good anecdotes, steering readers adeptly through scientific data, historical eras, personality clashes and competition between rival manufacturers of pain relievers.

In The Hidden Power of Social Networks (Harvard Business School Press, 213 pages, $44.95), Rob Cross and Andrew Parker show how mapping the informal information networks within organizations -- who people turn to for information and advice -- will indicate lost opportunities due to collaboration failures.

It's an eye-opening, absorbing look at an aspect of organizations we know about - and which Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point highlighted, by stressing the importance of social connectors -- but which too few of us pay much attention to.