Why Schools Need to Help Students Find Purpose — and How to Do It

Opinion | Identity Development

Why Schools Need to Help Students Find Purpose — and How to Do It

By Tim Klein     Apr 30, 2019

Why Schools Need to Help Students Find Purpose — and How to Do It

I started my first college advising session with Marcus with the same question I always asked:

“If you could do anything after high school knowing that you would be successful, financially secure, and your friends and family would support you, what would you do?”

His speed of response surprised me.

“Become a YouTube gamer,” Marcus replied.

Teenagers vocalizing outrageous and fantastical aspirations was not new to me. Countless students told me they wanted to become a professional basketball player (even if they weren’t on the basketball team), or a rapper or musician (even when they didn’t sing or rap). And increasingly, thanks to shows like “CSI: Miami” and “Bones,” they wanted to become forensic scientists (which, I confess, I know little about). But in truth, I’m with Marcus; I too would like to be paid millions of dollars to play video games all day.

When teens give seemingly fantastical answers, adults’ common response is to dismiss them, brushing off these goals as unmoored from reality. Instead, adults advise students to focus on pursuing practical and realistic careers. Take up coding, study nursing or go into engineering, they say. Become a lawyer, or an electrician. Not only are these meaningful, important and financially lucrative careers, but they also provide job security and are in high demand.

But there’s a big missed opportunity here. By failing to take student’s aspirations seriously, even if they are seemingly outlandish or far-fetched, we miss out on key information that may help us understand and serve our most disengaged students to help them cultivate purposeful lives.

With Marcus, my next step was a follow-up question—asked from a genuine place of curiosity:

Why did he want to become a YouTube gamer?

I’m glad I asked because his answer floored me.

Marcus told me that he’d been viciously bullied during elementary school, peaking in middle school. He told me of the depression and anxiety he suffered as a result. He shared how socially isolated and alone he had felt, and how he’d had no one to turn to. The pain he felt as a result of this social ostracization was the worst thing he’d ever experienced.

To cope with the pain he would lose himself in the world of online gaming on YouTube. Then, in seventh grade, he found his hero, a gamer with millions of followers named Markiplier who enjoyed immense financial success. Marcus watched Markiplier for a reason. Sprinkled throughout his gaming and sketch comedy videos, Markiplier would share stories about being bullied as a kid, stories very similar to the ones Marcus shared with me. Hearing his hero share experiences so similar to his own had a profound and life-changing effect on Marcus. It made him feel less alone, and realize that he wasn’t the only one who struggled in school. Markiplier gave Marcus something essential: he made him feel he belonged.

As a result of Markiplier’s influence, Marcus started making and posting his own videos. Marcus told me that he aspired to help others through his own comedic videos and sketch comedy the same way Markiplier had helped him: by making viewers feel less alone.

Hearing this context profoundly changed how I viewed Marcus’ motivations and aspirations. Yes, he wanted to become a famous YouTube gamer, but more importantly, he wanted to help others feel less alone, and saw vlogging as the optimal medium. Through the channel of online gaming, Marcus could pursue a sense of purpose.

This realization helped me support Marcus as we worked together to plan his next steps. We began researching colleges that had video production and editing majors. We talked about how he could have the same impact as a social worker, psychologist or middle school teacher through his work as a vlogger. By exploring college through the lens of how it could help him help others, Marcus understood the relevance and importance of college in a way he never had before. At first he didn’t want to go to college at all; but after our sessions together, he was excited.

This realization transformed Marcus. Where initially he had been apathetic and disinterested, now, he was engaged and self-directed in the college process and his academics. Before, he never saw the relevance of school. Now he saw college as an important step in pursuing his true goal of helping others. He began exhibiting all the skills education has been focused on: engagement, self-direction and future-orientation. The shift was profound; Marcus finished his senior year with the best grades of his life.

Schools and educators spend an incredible amount of time and resources trying to help students like Marcus transform. We promote a long laundry list of virtues including grit, growth mindset and socio-emotional literacy. However, Marcus’ story shows that these behaviors and mindsets can’t be taught. Rather, they are outgrowths of something bigger—identifying and pursuing a sense of purpose. Purpose dives deeper than mindsets—it taps into someone’s core motivation for choosing a path. It also taps into the belief structure and understanding of why someone wants to do something and how it aligns with their values and their unique talents, strengths and things they care about. Once students develop a sense of purpose, the mindsets follow; forcing mindsets without having a why can actually just further meaninglessness.

Marcus is now, in fact, in college studying video production and minoring in psychology. He’s still pursuing his dream of becoming a successful YouTube gamer, but he’s open to pursuing different careers in human services that would allow him to have a similar impact in preventing bullying and social isolation among youth.

Marcus is one of my educator success stories. But I often wonder how many Marcus’ are out there—students who have meaningful and important aspirations that, when voiced to adults, are misunderstood and met with cynicism or dismissal. How many students who declare their intentions to become a high level politician, professional athlete or music celebrity are operating from a meaningful and noble aspiration but ultimately shut down? How many students who generally want to do good in the world are going unseen and unheard because no one is asking them their underlying motivations for pursuing those professions?

To more effectively reach students like Marcus, educators would be wise to lead with curiosity when inquiring into students’ aspirations. Rather than judge how realistic and practical a goal may be, they should ask open-ended questions to understand students’ deeper motivations. Start by devoting time to understanding each student’s interest. Ask exploratory questions. What do they do for fun? What sports do they play? What music do they listen to? What are their hobbies? Once you know those basics, it’s incredibly informative to inquire more deeply into what it is about these activities that make them meaningful to students. Follow a student’s interests, and you’ll unlock the clues needed to understand their deepest, most intrinsic motivations and desires.

Of course this is easier said than done. Engaging in meaningful conversations and building relationships with students falls outside the scope of what many educators are expected to do during the course of a school day. More importantly, many educators feel they lack the tools and skills to have these types of conversations. Programs like the one I now work at, Project Wayfinder—a year-long curriculum combining the best of social emotional learning, mindfulness education, design thinking and 21st-century skills for schools—exist to aid educators in building the relationships that help young people cultivate a strong and intrinsic sense of purpose.

For students like Marcus, these conversations can’t happen too soon or often enough. It’s time for a paradigm shift from what students want to do to asking them why instead.

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