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Helping High-Ability Youth Discover Their Purpose in Life

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Developing Purpose in LifeToday’s guest blog is from Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk, Associate Professor, Claremont Graduate University, Quality of Life Research Center. We are sharing The Purpose Challenge with our audience as it fits so well with our program goals and provides tools and opportunity for scholarships for high school students.

Because of their exceptional intellectual talents, high-ability youth have a special responsibility to give back; the world needs their skills. These accelerated learners can become highly productive adults who help cure cancer, educate future generations, and discover new ways of harnessing sustainable energy.

Yet, in a study my colleagues and I conducted that compared these youth with their more typical peers, high-ability youth were more likely to identify far-horizon aims that were self-focused, rather than aimed at improving conditions in the broader world.

Perhaps this finding shouldn’t have surprised us, especially when we consider that high-ability youth are often immersed in contexts focused solely on fostering their intellectual capacities. As parents and educators, we tend to singularly prize the cultivation of academic skills and personal growth among high-ability youth, and we tend to neglect discussions about using those skills to contribute in meaningful ways. In other words, although we intentionally encourage high-ability youths’ personal development, we all too often neglect their purpose development.

A purpose in life is a forward-looking intention to accomplish a particular aim that is both personally meaningful and at the same time motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond the self. Over the past fifteen years, research on this construct has exploded, and we’ve learned quite a bit about the development of purpose. Although people can discover a purpose at any stage in the lifespan, many do so during adolescence, when issues of identity take center stage. As young people explore who they hope to become (identity), some simultaneously reflect on what they hope to accomplish (purpose). In fact, sometimes identity and purpose are consciously interconnected: In one study we conducted, a young woman committed to improving the environment referred to herself as a “tree hugger,” a teen who found purpose in following the tenets of her Christian faith called herself “a Christian,” and an adolescent dedicated to enhancing Internet security referred to himself as a “tech guru.”

Empirical studies my colleagues and I have conducted highlight some of the benefits of purpose. For instance, youth who lead lives of purpose tend do better psychologically; they report higher levels of hope, happiness, and life satisfaction. They also tend to do better physically; compared to their less purposeful peers, they report lower levels of stress, better sleep, and they even live longer lives!

Given the benefits of purpose, and the lower than anticipated levels of purpose among high-ability youth, it makes sense to encourage high achievers to reflect on the ways they can use their skills to contribute to the broader world. At my Adolescent Moral Development Lab, we have spent the past few years creating and testing approaches to cultivating purpose. Our research suggests there are at least five relatively easy steps parents and educators can take to help high-ability young people discover their purpose in life.

  1. Model purpose. Have you ever told your teen or twenty-something what gives your life purpose? Have you explained how raising children fills your life with meaning, or how teaching allows you to shape minds of the future? Rarely do we discuss the things that give our own lives purpose, but doing so is critical. Not only does it help introduce adolescents to the language of purpose, but it can also help them begin to reflect on the things that give their own lives purpose.
  2. Focus on youths’ strengths and values. Help young people identify their strengths and reflect on the values most central to them. Purpose emerges when young people apply their strengths to effect personally meaningful changes in the broader world. A young person who cares about political issues and is a good writer may find purpose in writing persuasive and inspiring political speeches.
  3. Foster gratitude. It may seem counter-intuitive to foster purpose by cultivating a grateful mindset, but our research finds that doing so can be an effective strategy. Helping young people reflect on the blessings and the people who have blessed them naturally inclines young people to consider how they want to give back. At dinner each night or at the end of each school day, ask everyone to share at least three things from their day for which they’re grateful.
  4. Focus on the far-horizon. All too often our conversations with adolescents focus on the here and now: Did you finish your homework? Which colleges are you applying to? Are you ready for your physics test? Instead, broach conversations that focus on the bigger picture. Ask youth to imagine they are 40 years old and things have gone as well as they could have hoped. What will they be doing? Who will be in their life? What will be important to them? Why? This long-term thinking helps youth focus on what it is they want out of life. And don’t forget the whys; purposes often appear in the whys!
  5. Encourage youth to reach out to friends and family members. Young people may not know what their purpose is, but the adults in their lives may have a pretty good idea. Encourage youth to send emails to at least five adults who know them well, asking: (1) What do you think I’m particularly good at? What are my greatest strengths? (2) What do you think I really enjoy doing? When do you think I’m most engaged? (3) How do you think I’ll leave my mark on the world? You can help by encouraging the recipients of these emails to respond. They don’t need to spend more than five minutes doing so; what you want is their gut reactions. The responses youth receive can be very eye opening. Adolescents tend to learn quite a bit about their purpose when they hear what others think it might be. (This exercise is featured in the Purpose Challenge online toolkit; see Additional Resources below.)

Additional Resources:

  1. For Parents and Educators:
  1. For Students:
  • Encourage your high school senior to participate in The Purpose Challenge, where they can complete a brief set of online tools designed to help them discover their purpose, write a purpose-inspired college essay, and submit that essay for a chance to win a college scholarship up to $25,000.

Developing Purpose in Life

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