Meaning Versus Significance


I recently presented to a group of advisors who were learning to be exit planners.  I was asked at the end of the session, “Where do owners find meaning?” My answer was that there is really no one answer to the question, since meaning differs for each person. I said that what was meaningful to one person could be totally different for another. The advisor who asked the question was not satisfied with my response, so he asked the question again. Again I told him that I could not give him a definitive answer, since we experience meaning when what we do is congruent with what we value, but that values are different with each individual. What I value might not be what he values. I was able to tell the advisor that we are a meaning-seeking species. Meaning creates patterns to help us understand the world around us. Our brains add meaning to whatever we see.



That night I thought about the advisor’s question regarding meaning in the context of this blog on significance.  I realized that there is a connection between meaning and significance, but there are also differences.  One of the differences between meaning and significance is that meaning is externally found such as in work or how important someone is to you, while significance is determined by how you feel about yourself.

Another difference is that significance is directly experienced, while meaning is inferred. Because of its substantive nature, significance does not change, but meaning changes over time. For example, what was meaningful to me when I was in my twenties, is probably not meaningful for me today.

An analogy of the differences and connections between significance and meaning is a weather vane.  The four horizontal rods represent meaning, since it can come from any “direction” in your life. The vertical bar of the weather vane symbolizes significance, since it is experienced at the highest and deepest parts of who you are and is a lightning rod for meaningful coincidences to happen in your life.


Being Alive:

Significance and being alive are connected. When what you do resonates with your innermost being, you experience significance. Joseph Campbell in his book, The Power of Myth, writes that: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”


Seek Significance / Find Meaning

Significance satisfies your quest for meaning and helps you know that your life matters. Work for many people provides meaning to their lives. Significances fills in the “Meaning Gap” that is experienced when people go through a major life transition.   You can have meaning without significance, but you cannot have significance without meaning. I know in my past, I experienced meaning, but because I had a negative self-image and assessment of myself, I did not feel significant. Unlike meaning, significance allows you to live at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of need and experience love, esteem, self-actualization and transcendence.


Three Goals of Meaning: Acquiring, Giving, Connecting

Recently I was asked by a person whose entire life has been devoted to helping people if I would say that her life was significant. My answer was that she had lived a meaningful life of service and a life of legacy, but not a significant life. She looked puzzled, so I explained that in the service paradigm, based on altruism, the goal and source of meaning is to give as much as possible. In the success paradigm, based on materialism, the goal and source of meaning is to acquire as much growth and money as possible. In the paradigm of significance, the goal and source of meaning is to connect with and live from who you really are as much as possible.


Significant Questions:

Are you willing to do what needs to be done to discover your True Self?

If you have been a caregiver, are you willing to focus your time and energy on yourself in order to live a life of significance?

If you have been a success seeker, are you willing to use your skills to give back in order to live a life of significance?


Action Step:

To receive a Significant Life Questionnaire which provides you with an objective analysis of where your life fits on the Degree of Significance Scale as well as 21 ways you can experience more significance in your life.