Seven Ways to Help Teens Find Purpose

By Patrick Cook-Deegan 

Over the past decade, I have had the chance to ask thousands of teenagers what they think about school. I’ve found that the vast majority of them generally feel one of two ways: disengaged or incredibly pressured.

teen purpose

One thing nearly all teens agree on is that most of what high school teaches them is irrelevant to their lives outside of school or their future careers. One study found that the most common feelings among high school students are fatigue and boredom. Another study concluded that 65 percent of the jobs that today’s high school graduates will have in their lifetime do not even exist yet. But we are still teaching them in the same way that we trained industrial workers a century ago.

I empathize with these students: I graduated from a large, traditional public high school where I remember feeling painfully bored and tired, and constantly looking at the clock. My intellectual passions seemed strangely divorced from my time in the classroom. I was good at memorizing facts for 24 hours and filling out scantron tests, but the work felt meaningless to me.

When it came time to think about college, I felt very intense pressure to go to a “good school,” but I did not understand why that was so important. My only “purpose” in going to high school was to get into the “right college”; it was something you had to get through in order to really start exploring your life in higher education. For less privileged classmates, high school was just a place to hang out for a few years before going out and getting a job.

So how do we bring engagement, real-world learning, and a sense of meaning to teens? Based on my own experience and what I have observed through visiting over 100 high schools during the past decade and teaching at six very different high schools—including elite private schools, traditional public schools, low-income charter schools, and a continuation school—I believe that the answer lies in developing a student’s passion and purpose.


What is purpose?

William Damon, the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”

Damon’s research breaks students into four categories on their path to purpose: the dreamers, the dabblers, the disengaged, and the purposeful (each of the categories representing roughly a quarter of the adolescent population). Extremely purposeful students exhibit high degrees of persistence, resourcefulness, resilience, and capacity for healthy risk taking. 

Lecturers at Stanford’s d.school created the graphic below that identifies three interrelated factors essential to fostering purpose among students: 1) a student’s skills and strengths; 2) what the world needs; and 3) what the student loves to do.

purpose for teens

According to research by Kendall Cotton Bronk, a developmental psychologist at Claremont Graduate University, truly finding one’s purpose requires four key components: dedicated commitment, personal meaningfulness, goal directedness, and a vision larger than one’s self. These are not skills that typically get nurtured in American high schools today. Most of the high school experience is oriented around external achievement, checking off boxes, and short-term goal fulfillment. Bronk was instrumental in developing a new Purpose Challenge, which includes a toolkit for teens to identify and hone their purpose.

So how can we help students actively seek a sense of purpose? Below I lay out seven guiding principles that I would use in a purpose-learning curricula for teens.

  • Prioritize internal motivation over external achievement

teen purpose

Students who show a sense of purpose have a deeply developed intrinsic motivation to achieve a goal or take part in an activity. This means they are not motivated to achieve something simply because they can, because it is hard, or because they get rewarded or recognized for it. Rather, they do it because they have a deep internal interest in pursuing it—and derive pleasure from the process.

It is true that students need to be able to develop their skills and strengths. But they also need to be able to find out what they love to do and what the world actually needs—and, quite often, they won’t receive external rewards when exploring these questions.

  • Foster collaboration

What if high school focused on how well you worked with other people and how well you mentored and advised your peers? This would much more accurately mimic most workplaces, where teamwork and collaboration are some of the main skills desired by today’s employers.

Part of developing a sense of purpose is having a vision bigger than one’s self. If you are only worried about yourself, you’ll be trained to care only about yourself. By working in teams, our young people can start to develop the skills and mindsets that are essential both to thriving in today’s workforce and to leading a life that feels meaningful.

  • Build relationships with mentors and coaches

If you look at the research on those who have found their purpose, they often had at least three “Spark Coaches”—people who took an interest in their passions inside and outside of school. These mentors don’t have to be teachers in the traditional sense—they can be coaches, art teachers, part-time job managers, etc. The Search Institute has documented the power of adult, non-parental mentors and role models in the lives of students. We need to create structures and cultures that allow young people to develop these kinds of meaningful, mentoring relationships with adults.

  • Explore the worldteen purpose

According to Bronk, a sense of purpose often starts to develop during “purpose seeking” opportunities—opportunities to push beyond comfort zones and explore. These opportunities have at least one of three active ingredients: an important life event, serving others in a meaningful way, or changes in life circumstances.

This is why it can be hugely transformative for students to go on a trip to a new place, undertake a tough wilderness expedition, or work on something important to them in their community—not doing it because they “have to” or simply for college admissions, but because they actually care about it.

  • Learn from failure

Failure is how we learn. Paul Tough documents this well—how learning to fail builds up critical life skills. It is hard to think of a political leader or anyone who ever accomplished anything important who did not fail along the way—in fact, failure was often a catalyst for their eventual success. Learning how to persevere is often the most important part of this process. But we do not give students the opportunity to fail without serious consequences. So when they get out into the real world they cannot deal with failure.

  • Value students’ inner lives

Our traditional high school system completely neglects the inner lives of students. By failing to nurture their internal lives, we risk knocking students from a path to purpose.

There is something deeply spiritual about developing a sense of purpose. And it is no surprise that new research shows that teenagers with a greater sense of spirituality report higher levels of purpose and meaning.

To have a sense of purpose, it is essential that you know yourself: what you want from your life—not what others want for you, or what is expected of you—but what actually makes you come alive. If we deny our children the chance to really explore who they are, they lose out on their chance for purposefulness.

  • Start with the why

We need to bring a sense of what I call “whyness” back into education. Many high school students work hard, but they have no idea why. Or they do not work hard at all because they see no real-world benefit from it.

First and foremost, students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.

I am not saying that a purpose-based curricula should “take it easy” on students or not teach them how to work hard. Everyone I know who has a sense of purpose works very hard. But most importantly, they know why they are working hard. They have a vision for the world, understand how their work moves them closer to realizing that vision, and believe that their work is aligned with their deeply held values.

When you are working from a value-aligned, purposeful place, hard work does not seem so hard. In fact, it seems natural and often puts you in a state of “flow,” meaning that you feel fully immersed in an activity, giving it all of your attention and deriving enjoyment from the process.

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This article was adapted from Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, which helped develop the free Purpose Challenge—which includes the chance to win scholarships ranging form $5,000 to $25,000—to guide teens in finding their purpose.

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Patrick Cook-Deegan is the founder and director of Project Wayfinder. Patrick was a 2015-2016 education innovation fellow at Stanford’s d.school, graduate of Brown University, and former Fulbright Scholar.

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To read more about  self-directed, purpose-driven learning and higher education, check out these books from GHF Press:

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