How a Bigger Purpose Can Motivate Us to Learn

Post by Open Colleges on June 24th, 2016

“The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness.” –Bill Damon, Stanford researcher

It’s not rocket science—having a bigger purpose keeps us invested in the small, often difficult steps we must take to accomplish our goals. That’s why it’s essential to equip students with an educational purpose as soon as we can, especially before learning becomes more challenging in secondary school and beyond. For decades this bigger purpose has meant getting into and graduating from university, but it’s a rapidly changing definition, and it’s time we reexamined what it should mean.



What’s the Big Deal Over a Bigger Purpose?


Karl Moore, writing for Forbes, sums up the current situation this way:

“In the 80s and early 90s, many of the white collar workers of the financial world, like myself, were very much motivated by share price. Many of us worked very hard to get the share price up. Our incomes were often central to how we defined our value and our lives. Fast forward two decades and you notice that Millennials are concerned with other things. Money is important and they do enjoy making it, however, they long to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

“I have coffee with a couple hundred students and alumni every year and discuss their careers,” Moore writes. “Over the past 14 years of my doing this, I’ve noticed the drastic change in these conversations. Many more of the undergrads and MBAs today are looking into working for NGOs, or at least for corporations which have serious Corporate Social Responsibility programs. This search for meaning and purpose is on the agendas of most Millennials in the Western World and increasingly in the developing economies.”

Moore may be talking about the professional environment when he says the following: “Organisations who wish to prosper will focus more time on meaning at work, have an organisational purpose and contribution which gives people a sense of satisfaction and a genuine feeling that they are making the world a better place.” But the message is just as relevant in an educational setting:

“[Teachers/students] who wish to prosper will focus more time on meaning at [school], have an [educational] purpose and contribution which gives [them] a sense of satisfaction and a genuine feeling that they are making the world a better place.”

Others agree.

“Creating a sense of purpose in education starts with basic “why” questions: why are we taking this class? Why are we in school? Why am I learning algebra? These are straightforward and educators often try to answer them,” writes educational speaker and mentor Patrick Cook-Deegn for Greater Good. “But most school settings fail to address the even larger questions: Why was I put on this earth? What do I want to do with my life? Why am I having trouble figuring out my identity? A real education of adolescents must start with these “why” questions and then begin to help young people develop their own identity, sense of purpose, and understanding of the world and their place in it.”

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard and namesake of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, argues that the current learning crisis is at least in part an identity crisis.

Reviewing Bok’s book, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, Paul T. Corrigan writes, “While many people focus primarily on one or two aims for a college education, such as critical thinking or job preparation, Bok asks us to envision the aims of higher learning broadly and deeply. Specifically, he recommends that colleges purpose to help students develop in eight areas: thinking, communicating, character, citizenship, living with diversity, living in a global society, broadening their interests, and preparing for a career. In the bulk of the book, Bok give a chapter-by-chapter ‘candid look’ at what each of these areas mean and at how well colleges and universities are doing in them.”

In her blog The Brilliant Report, Annie Murphy Paul writes that “an emerging body of research demonstrates that students who find meaning and relevance in their studies are more engaged and motivated to master the material. Students must recognise the value of academic work themselves, however—it can’t simply be pointed out by an instructor. In fact, a teacher’s heavy-handed emphasis on the relevance of students’ coursework can even backfire. Several studies have found, for example, that informing students that the study of mathematics will be important to their futures actually undermines interest in math among students who weren’t very interested in math to start with, or who have doubts about their competence in math.”

A more effective approach, she says, is to “encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of course material to their lives.” Chris S. Hulleman, a research associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, found that a writing exercise in which students were asked to apply the material they were learning in their math or psychology courses to their own lives increased their interest in those subjects. “The effect was strongest among students who had low expectations for their performance in math or psychology, or had performed poorly in these subjects in the past.”

And that’s just one example of a growing body of research supporting a bigger purpose in education.

Feldman and Dreher (2012) found that hopeful, goal-directed thinking helped college students identify their vocational calling. Ninety-six participants were assigned to the hope intervention or no intervention. Assessment occurred prior to intervention, following intervention, and at one-month follow-up. Participants in the hope intervention “showed increases in measures of hope, life purpose, and vocational calling from pre-to-post-test relative to control participants.”

“This intervention is especially relevant to college students, given the increasing psychological distress and lack of perceived control noted among this population,” the researchers write.

Bigger Purpose Ideas to Try

“People do not usually develop a specific purpose and then go become an expert in that thing,” writes Patrick Cook-Deegan for Berkeley’s Greater Good blog. “Rather, they are exposed to something new that helps them develop their own sense of purpose. In short, in most cases experiences lead to developing purpose, not the other way around.”

1. Start asking “why.”

Don’t take the world for granted. There may not be a reason why everything is the way it is, but asking questions will almost always lead to interesting revelations about life in both educational and professional spheres, especially if you’re willing to do some research. One big reason people feel purposeless in their daily lives is because they are looking at the world the same way, every day, and not bothering to examine why things are the way they are or how they could change given different circumstances. Try making a habit of asking yourself “why” several times a day, especially in a context you normally don’t question.

2. Seek out transformative experiences.

Thinking about finally saving for that trip to Italy? Do it. Make it happen. Life is short and our purposes can change depending on what we take the time to experience. You may find that you don’t want to learn Italian after all—you want to learn French or Spanish or Greek. Or maybe you meet some people abroad who convince you to start your own business and work from home. You’ll never know until you push yourself toward the next new experience.

You can seek out transformative experiences in an academic setting, too: One of the reasons small liberal arts schools are so popular in the United States is because of their reputation for sparking passionate, perspective-changing discussions on important topics. Small course sizes, coupled with brilliant instructors and peers who care deeply about learning, can lead to some

3. Prioritise reflection.

Make time to reflect, whether it takes the form of writing, talking, or thinking. We’re only as enlightened as we are self-aware. Ask yourself a few questions to get started: “Do I have a clear purpose?” “If so, what do I need to do, step-by-step, to fulfill it?” “If not, what can I do to expose myself to new experiences that might reveal my purpose to me?” Also, when you do start to make progress toward fulfilling a purpose: “Am I going about this the right way? How could I be doing things differently?”

4. Articulate your goals and interests.

You may think you know what your purpose is—until you try to put it into words. Take a minute to sit down and explain it to yourself or someone else and see how well you can articulate it. You don’t have to start with the big picture itself; try making a list of personal interests and goals first.

5. Cultivate self-awareness.

Mindfulness isn’t just a movement; it’s an important habit that will continue to serve us as long as we continue to cultivate it. Be mindful of the things that interest you, repel you, move you, make you angry or confused or sad. Doing so will help you identify what you care about and what kind of bigger purpose you should pursue. But also be mindful of the fact that just because you’re interested in something doesn’t mean you have to make a career out of it, or that you can make a successful career out of it. Sometimes interests serve us best as hobbies. But as such, they can also inform whatever we choose to focus on professionally.

6. Expose yourself to diversity.

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then purposelessness is surrounding yourself with the same things day to day and expecting to think differently. You have to change your environment to change your mind. And the more diversity you can welcome into your life—from peers to coworkers to entire ways of life and thinking—the more likely it is that you’ll find a purpose that stimulates and suits you.

7. Look for meaning in conflict, not just harmony.

No one likes to be uncomfortable, but it’s frequently the roughest encounters that teach us the most important lessons. You don’t need to go starting fights or anything—just try to appreciate conflict or inconvenience the next time you experience it, because it’s almost always educational. And who knows—you might decide you want to make finding a solution to the problem your bigger purpose.

8. Acknowledge your frustrations with the world.

There are countless causes to choose from, all important and urgent. But what irks you personally? Homelessness? Failing education systems? The water crisis? Global warming? Try watching a few documentaries to see what issues you really care about, and then do some independent research on careers or internships that support those causes. The best way to find out what you’re truly interested in is to spend some time doing it. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing multiple careers or interests, so don’t let experimentation stop you. None of it will be a waste if you end up learning that you do or don’t enjoy a particular vocation.

9. Spend some time performing a service.

Many of us have worked in the service industry, whether it’s waiting tables or providing IT support. But these are paid jobs, and while the ultimate goal is to choose a career, the best way to do so may not be to start with something that you expect a return from. Try the other kind of service— humanitarian—to help you decide, without financial bias, what you care most about.

10. Make a list of things you take for granted.

What luxuries and conveniences do you enjoy so much that you’ve become desensitised to them? These are probably the things you’d have a hard time living without. Think about the constant flow of clean water we have in first world countries and try to imagine a society that lacks it. If you think everyone deserves clean water or free healthcare or a free education, make it your mission to see that they do.

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