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How Can We Encourage a Sense of Purpose and Meaning Early in Life?

When adults talk about purpose, sometimes it sounds like a remote and ethereal ideal that dwells only in people with elevated dreams and grand ambitions. Because the term is often used in ways that young people might find foreign or daunting, we rarely use the word “purpose” in our research interviews, even though this is exactly our focus of interest. Instead, we ask young people questions about what matters to them, what they would like to accomplish in life, what’s important to them, and other analogous questions that circle indirectly around the idea of purpose without using the lofty (and perhaps intimidating) term itself.

Yet despite the lofty nature of the word, purpose as it plays out in real life can be highly concrete and action-oriented. In its everyday forms, purpose can be easy to talk about with young people. Young people enjoy thinking about purposeful activities they can engage in, now and in the future. For this reason, it can be a pleasure to explore purposeful ideas with the young. Also for this same reason, encouraging a sense of purpose in young people is a feasible (and decidedly worthwhile) educational goal.

“It’s not about you”

One of the defining hallmarks of purpose was captured by Pastor Rick Warren in the first line of his hugely popular book The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not about you.” In whatever form purpose emerges, it has a beyond-the-self (some call it “transcendent”) dimension that endows it with a special place in human affairs. Now, once again, using a term such as “transcendent” may sound like a non-starter when it comes to communicating with the young. But when presented in terms of concrete actions that a young person can perform, a “beyond-the-self” way of orienting to the world not only can be understandable but actually appealing to a young person. It also can be an important contributor to the young person’s character development.

Consider a simple example, so familiar that it may sound a bit old-fashioned. As early as ages four or five, a child can be asked to take part in household responsibilities, such as watering the plants or feeding a pet. (In the old days, such activities were called “chores,” a term that did not add much to their charm). When children help out with such household tasks, they acquire a sense of service to their families. Eventually this sense of service generalizes to other sectors of the world beyond the self. Children take pride in what they accomplish through such activities: they can see the plant or the pet thrive under their care. Service to others and pride in one’s work can help build a sense of purpose, even when experienced in the rudimentary form of childhood responsibilities.

But purpose is more than service to others; and the example of chipping in on household chores (which, after all, can feel like drudgery at times) does not capture the exhilaration that can accompany a purposeful experience. In addition to its engagement in the world beyond the self, a purposeful activity is always meaningful to the self. It is mainly this sense of meaning that makes the activity interesting and motivating for the child. Although children can be made to do things that adults believe are in their interest, no one can force a child to do something with a sense of purpose. A child may perform an action out of necessity, but if the child does not find the action meaningful, it will not continue as a stable purpose.

Nurture a young person’s “sparks”

Parents and teachers can benefit greatly in their efforts to educate the young by taking note of this feature of purpose. As the youth development trailblazer Peter Benson wrote, adults can contribute more to a young person’s search for purpose by nurturing the young person’s own “sparks” than by trying to transplant their own interests into the young person. Adults can (and should) introduce a child to activities that may become purposeful; but only the child can decide which activities will have enough personal meaning to eventually develop into true purposes.

And this is exactly what we found in our own research with purposeful youth. Our young subjects expressed a wide array of purposeful interests and aspirations. Some were motivated by family purposes (raising a family, caring for an extended family); others directed themselves to vocational purposes (becoming a doctor, teacher, army officer, and so on); others were driven by faith (serving God); and others by the arts, sports, civic duty, or a host of other causes. Rarely, however, did purposeful youngsters attribute their choices to direct instructions from parents or other adults. Rather, they chose from the menu of options that they had encountered in growing up. One thing, therefore, that adults can do for young people is to present them with a full palette of possibilities that align with the “sparks” that the young people express. For adults, this means being good listeners when the young people discuss their interests, as well as being resourceful in providing ways for young people to develop their interests into mature purposes. Although not many young people attribute the objects of their purposes to their parents, virtually all the purposeful youngsters that we studied said that their parents eventually supported and encouraged the purposes that they chose. We took this as a sign that such support is needed. Sometimes it took parents a while to come around: one high-powered couple did not appreciate their son’s choice to become a sauce chef in a French restaurant; but eventually they recognized their son’s genuine passion and provided the boy with the resources he needed to acquire the skills required by his chosen calling.

We also found that purposeful youth had chances to observe admired people in their lives who themselves were pursuing purposes they believed in. This is an area where parents can have an especially strong influence, by modeling for the child a dedication to a purposeful goal. Many parents do not communicate sufficiently with their children to take advantage of this opportunity. When all a child knows about a parent’s occupation is that the parent’s work is “entering things into a computer,” this not enough to provide the child with a compelling example of purpose. On the other hand, if the child learns in the course of a family conversation that, say, those computer entries resulted in a truckload of fish being delivered to Nashville last week, the child may share in the parent’s pride of work and may be inspired to follow suit – in, of course, the child’s own way, on the child’s own turf.

Teachers, too, can provide students with examples of purpose in the ways they comport themselves in the classroom. I often mention to teachers that one golden (but too often neglected) opportunity to do this is to tell students why they chose teaching as a profession, what they find to be fulfilling about teaching, and what they hope to accomplish with their students. The point of doing this is not to persuade their students to become teachers (students will make their own occupational choices), but rather to demonstrate what it looks like for admired adults to pursue an occupation with purpose.

Along the same lines, teachers can interject into the curriculum stories about the life choices of those who created the knowledge that students are learning about in school. When, for example, young people hear about the dedication, persistence, and creativity of the scientists who unravel secrets of the universe, not only does this brings scientific knowledge to life, but it also provides young people with models of purposeful work. A similar principle applies to every field of knowledge that is taught in the classroom; it applies with special force to the field of history, which offers teachers countless opportunities to inspire students with cases of purposeful men and women who built the best traditions in our civilized societies.

Children must acquire their own aspirations

Observing purposeful role models can be inspiring for children, but in order find their own purposes, children must acquire their own personal aspirations. We found that purposeful young people had aspirations that were stimulated by two recognitions: 1) there is something in the world that needs to be sustained or improved; and 2) I can contribute something to this effort. The first recognition provides the young person with a specific purpose; the second provides the young person with the confidence to pursue the purpose. The range of possible ways to sustain and improve the world, of course, is enormous, including everything from life-saving endeavors such as medicine and national defense to aesthetic efforts such as creating more beautiful art and music. In our studies of purposeful young people, we found the entire gamut, as reflected by the diverse varieties of purpose (family, work, faith, and many others) that I noted above.

Purposefulness is a capacity that promotes vigor, resilience, and determination. As with all important life capacities, purposefulness develops through a combination of social supports and individual initiative. This essay focuses on the early development of purpose – a worthwhile focus, because an early start is usually the surest way to attain any capacity. But it is important to note that it is never too late to acquire a purpose. Indeed, for most of our present population, full purposefulness is rare prior to adulthood: in our studies, we found only one in five young people to be fully purposeful by age 22, and even by their late 20’s many were still searching. This may be a consequence of the increasingly complex choices that young people now face in our rapidly changing world; but whatever the reason, it makes purpose one of the late-developing capacities in the human repertoire.

Nor should the search for purpose ever cease. As people age, they take on new missions, new aspirations, and new causes to dedicate themselves to: this is one of the hallmarks of healthy aging. In so doing, they draw continuously on the capacities for purposefulness that they develop earlier in life. In this way, the accomplishments of the early years can set the stage for an entire life of meaning and fulfillment.

Discussion questions:

1. Children have many fleeting interests that come and go daily. What turns some of them into true purposes that can provide a sense of direction in life?

2. Is the developmental task of finding purpose different in significant ways than it was in the past?

3. What are the best ways for an adult to help a young person who wishes to contribute to the world but cannot decide what to do to pursue this desire?

Discussion Summary

My essay, How can we encourage a sense of purpose and meaning early in life?” is based on a ten-year program of research that we have been conducting at the Stanford Center on Adolescence. In studying the development of purpose, we always focus on two essential components of purposefulness: its “beyond-the self” quality, and its quality of having authentic personal meaning for the self. Combining these two qualities in the pursuit of life goals is a consequential developmental achievement. This is why purpose is a relatively late landmark in human development. Even by the end of adolescence, most young people are still searching for purposes they can fully commit themselves to; and for most people, the search for new purposes can continue for a lifetime.

All of the comments that we received acknowledged the challenge of finding purposes (especially noble ones) at any point in life. Several comments suggested procedures and forces that can aid in this task. For example, there were interesting queries about the role of extrinsic incentives (such as merit badges, good grades, and other such rewards) in motivating activities that might lead to purposeful commitments. In my responses to such suggestions, I emphasized that these kinds of extrinsic incentives can indeed play a constructive role in fostering purpose. This is a point that is important to make in the context of educational theory and practice today, because many in the field of education have been confused about this, assuming that extrinsic and intrinsic incentives are necessarily in opposition to one another. In my responses, I referred to decades-old research (often replicated) showing that a moderate amount of extrinsic rewards can provoke a positive interest in learning, which then becomes intrinsically rewarding in itself. I also pointed out, on the other hand, that excessive rewards often have a counter effect, drowning out the interest in learning. As one of the commenters put it, “if the extrinsic reward becomes the end-in-itself, we have failed.”

Another commenter alluded to the power of prayer in aiding the search for purpose. This is something that I have observed in studies of moral exemplars that I have done with my spouse Anne Colby. We cite many such examples in our forthcoming book The Power of Ideals (Oxford University press, to be released May 2015). In this book, we document cases of widely-admired 20th Century world leaders who prayed to align their daily choices with the noble purposes that they felt called to pursue. In the book, we also point out that the practice of prayer is as relevant to the smallest acts of ordinary life as it is to the heroic acts of renowned world leaders.

Regarding heroic acts, there also were comments about the meaning of heroism in our times, and the implications of this to the contemporary search for purpose. I mostly agreed with the comment that “our cultural heroes today tend to be flawed – athletes, billionaires, politicians, or celebrities of questionable character,” although this is something of an overgeneralization (our culture also celebrates genuine heroes such as Nelson Mandela, but not as frequently as the glitzy rogues and scoundrels who dominate our movies and news stories). The commenter was right to be concerned about the effects of designating the wrong people as heroes. I agree that the heroes of a culture influence the choices that young people will make, and that in educating our young, we need to celebrate heroes that represent virtuous behavior and elevated values.

Finally, there were some astute comments underlining the complexity of the challenge of finding purposes that one can truly commit to over extended periods of time. These above all are immensely personal challenges: all persons must approach them in their own individual ways. As one commenter correctly points out, no doubt there are genetic influences on how all individuals approach their own unique searches. I responded, however, that such genetic influences always interact in a dynamic fashion with a person’s context, experience, and consciously-chosen goals and intentions. How this works, exactly, is a question that remains at the forefront of scientific investigation at the present time; and the commenter, realizing this, concluded that “we need to do a lot more research and find sets of formulae where we suggest that for this kind of complex of individualistic character this is the package of education and development efforts we recommend. Clearly there will be different packages of action  for the different kinds of groups of individuals.” I wholeheartedly agree with, and second, this conclusion.

But I do not wish to end my summary with a call (however justified) for further research, because as long ago as graduate school I was taught to avoid ending papers in this way. Instead, I will end by asserting that, whatever the deficits in the present state of our scientific knowledge, we now know enough to educate young people in ways that will promote their search for noble purposes. We know about the importance of listening for their sparks of interest; we know about the importance of mentoring; we know about the importance of presenting academic subjects in personally meaningful fashions; we know about the importance of engaging young people in the kinds of activities that build a sense of service and civic responsibility; and we know about the importance of cultivating good behavioral habits that manifest moral virtue as the young person develops. In all these ways and more, we know enough to improve our educational practices so that they encourage – rather than detract from – students’ searches for purposes they will pursue. It is our responsibility as educators to act on this knowledge.

New Big Questions

1) In the effort to promote purposefulness among students, how can educators take into account the individual characteristics of particular students?

2) How do genetic predispositions affect the paths to purpose that different young people might take?