The problem with meaning is that it starts with ‘me’

I recently got somewhat swept-up in World Cup fever. I found myself being more and more captivated by the exciting, tense matches. The drama, the twists, the turns; the underdogs creating discomfort or even heartbreak for the big dogs. Despite my enjoyment, something that was slightly jarring was the narrative that seemed to amplify and concentrate as we moved inexorably towards a final between Argentina and France. It was the narrative of the star players. Messi vs Mbappe, the legend versus the new prodigy.

It is probably sensible to do a disclaimer and say that I recognise that tv producers have a requirement to lock-in viewers, and audiences buy-in to the narrative of individual duals and hero figures. So, I can accept that framing a World Cup Final as a showdown between two giants of the men’s game will help cultivate that interest. However, I feel dutybound to offer some counterbalancing narrative to remind us of the role, importance and significance of the team dynamic. I also want to underscore this by drawing attention to what clearly matters most to the two stars in question.

Two images stay with me from watching the World Cup Final in Qatar, ironically neither is from the match itself. The first was broadcast before the match, it was footage of Lionel Messi giving a talk to the Argentina team in the dressing room prior to their Copa América final in 2021. The second is of Kylian Mbappe at the presentation ceremony standing to have his official photos taken after being awarded the ‘Golden Boot’ for top scorer at the tournament, the top individual accolade on offer. These images stay with me because they represent the reality behind the narrative that we are sold as a viewing public about what something like a World Cup Final means to the protagonists. What the footage of the Argentina team talk represents is the sense of togetherness and shared meaning that permeates the huddle of players as Messi talks about the sacrifices they’ve all made, the long road it’s been to get there, and most of all that they are playing for the whole of Argentina: it is the true embodiment of a team. Conversely, what the images of Mbappe represent is the utter meaninglessness for him in collecting an individual award when his team had fallen short of their shared goal. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’d been asked to pose for a photo with a soiled nappy, rather than the prize most young footballers probably dream of winning, so devastated did he look as he stood trying to summon his lips to smile for the cameras.

So what does it mean to win a World Cup? The answer lies somewhere between those two images, in my opinion. Despite the slick video montages of Messi and Mbappe that dominated the television coverage, you better believe that Lionel Messi does not think that he alone won the World Cup. He will not think that the win somehow belongs more to him than to his teammates, or to the coaching staff, or to the medical and support staff. Without all of them, ‘his’ win means nothing. Conversely, I dare you to try and console Kylian Mbappe by suggesting that the ‘Golden Boot’ offers some compensation for the disappointment of not winning the final.

One of the reasons a sport like football is so beautiful is that it is a pure expression of teamwork: dynamic mutual interdependence coordinated in the service of a clearly understood and shared common goal. Sport makes the ‘goals’ simple and literal, and things like roles and responsibilities are a bit more clearly defined than they may be in other walks of life, but all of these things are represented and required in order for success. The danger of consuming sport too literally (and too faithfully to the version framed by the media) is that we miss some of the best lessons it has to offer. And a sport like football can offer all of the material, symbolic and emotional facets to what being in a team means.

Researchers differentiate between meaning in work and meaning at work. Meaning in work is about ‘what am I doing?’, whereas meaning at work is about ‘where do I belong?’. Meaning in work is about the instrumental things we do: reaching objectives, showing leadership, being impactful. Meaning at work is about our relationships with others: how connected we feel to our colleagues, are we able to be ourselves and be accepted by others? Meaning, therefore, is multidimensional and is a product of what we share with the people around us as well as what meaning we derive for ourselves. We are often incentivised, managed, even personally motivated by what we achieve as individuals and from this we interpret meaning. Some may argue that such mechanisms are necessary, but they often overshadow the importance of what we share in our work with others. The juxtaposition of the story tv producers wanted us to focus on in the World Cup and the story the images they showed us actually told suggests that the goals we share, achieve and celebrate with others hold a different kind of meaning than those we hold only for ourselves.

So much of the way cultural, organisational and institutional systems are structured, particularly in the West, valorises, idolises and even fetishises the individual, yet so much of what is necessary for progress (and is fulfilling in its pursuit) is getting there together, as a team. In business, leaning-in to celebrating and rewarding team endeavour and relinquishing the safety blanket of individual incentives holds great rewards for those brave enough to try it. In the media, dialling-down slightly the individual worship and dialling-up the team narrative would be a healthy step. Ultimately, meaning and meaningful work cut across the individual and the team, it’s just a shame it always has to start with a ‘me’ (then again, Messi also starts with ‘me’, and Mbappe starts and ends with ‘me’!)