Purpose and direction, it is what all of us are hoping to find for our lives, yet it seems to be highly elusive for so many of us. From the conversations I’ve had with people, this lack of purpose and direction seems to be something that is common across the generations, although the younger generations are often more explicit about it. I know for myself, I had struggled to find a sense of purpose for most of my life and it has only been over the last year or so that I have been able to find it. It truly is quite a revolutionary experience when you come to understand the direction that you want to take your life, why you want to do so, and how you might go about achieving it. I am currently thirty-two years old. Why did it take me so long to find this direction in life? And despite the fact that I feel it has taken me so long, why do I also seem to be one of the fortunate few to have found it?
How did we get here?
I don’t think that it is a given that most people will struggle to find purpose in their lives, and I hope that it will not necessarily always be the case in the future. When discussing this topic we need to ask what happened in our formative years that leads most of us to have a lack of purpose to our lives.
As a former schoolteacher, I am increasingly convinced that there are strong links between schooling and lack of purpose. So what is it about schooling that hinders us from finding purpose?
A key realisation is that most of what is done in schooling simply lacks meaning or purpose. We are asked to think about concepts in an abstract way for multiple hours a day while never achieving anything of real value. If a child writes a story in class they are lucky if the teacher gets around to reading it. Even if they do, the teacher will usually read it with a critical eye, looking for spelling and grammar mistakes. The child has not produced anything of value to anyone. Writing is a form of communication, but if no-one wants to read what you have written nor finds it valuable, then what’s the point? Whenever I did ask children to write stories in class, many would clamour to be one of the few who had the opportunity to read out loud to the class what they had written. However, most of the time the other children were more interested in waiting for the chance to share their story, than to pay much attention to someone else reading their own story. In reality, reading your story to the class was a cursory attempt to give purpose to what we were doing when it actually achieved very little of that.
The problem becomes even more apparent in the subject of mathematics. Here the child produces even less that is meaningful to anyone else. It is simply practising exercises for the sake of being critically examined by the teacher. Even questions to do with money, which should have some practical benefit, often have little relevance to the lives of the students. I was well into my teens before I first remember walking into a bank and I was eighteen before I first opened a bank account. The whole banking process, while being somewhat exciting, made me somewhat nervous and, at times, confused.
I could go on discussing other subjects but I think the point quickly becomes apparent that the things we do in school are, for the most part, neither valuable to us in bettering our lives, nor to anyone else.
Another point to be made regarding schooling, and the lack of purpose most people have is that throughout our schooling we are asked to accept other people’s design and purpose for our lives, rather than living according to what we find purposeful for ourselves. This is the nature of schooling where what is “good for your life” has been dictated by a curriculum. A curriculum in effect says, “I have predetermined for you already what skills and knowledge you are going to need for your life, and no, you cannot argue about it.” Instead of making a reasoned argument or modelling to an individual as to why particular skills or knowledge may be valuable for that individual, a curriculum simply presumes that the individual is incapable of making their own judgement and therefore an external agency must enforce its values on that individual.
A key realisation is that most of what is done in schooling simply lacks meaning or purpose.
Being prepared for life?
Many schools have a motto that runs along the lines of; “Preparing students for life.” I find this somewhat arrogant as it implies that a child or teenager’s life doesn’t really start until after they leave school. It is a mindset that sees children and teenagers as essentially still in the womb of the mother, completely dependent and unable to add any value to the world. However, it seems a switch is thrown immediately after a person leaves school. Once we leave school we are told that we should now be prepared to get a career, add value to the world and feel fulfilled in doing so.
This seems absurd. As a young adult, we wonder; “How do you expect me to add value to the world when I have spent the last two decades of my life essentially not adding anything of real value to the world but simply wasting my time with abstract simulations? Very little of anything I have done has added to anybody’s life in a meaningful way, how do you expect me to suddenly do so now?”
Not only this, but the young adult might also wonder; “I have spent all of my life following other people’s expectations for my life. I struggle to pursue those things that are actually good for me because I am so used to following what other people believe is “good” for my life. I also struggle to think creatively.”
So is it really any wonder that most people lack meaning, direction and purpose in their lives when this has been our experience growing up? Are we actually surprised?
“How do you expect me to add value to the world when I have spent the last two decades of my life essentially not adding anything of real value to the world?”
Going back to safety
So what is the reaction of most young adults? Many seek the comfort of universities and colleges as a place where they can still maintain a comforting passivity to their lives. It is where they can continue to jump through the hoops set out for them to the adulation of others. It is safe and familiar and both here in my home country and abroad in places like Europe, there are many who stay in this familiar environment into their late-twenties and thirties.
Other young adults do find jobs but they are jobs where they can slip into the familiar do-what-you-are-told-to-do mindset which in turn leads to a “living for the weekend” attitude to life. There is little purpose to the jobs other than to collect a paycheck and again do enough to get the occasional congratulatory adulation from your superiors.
But to have a purpose and a direction means to embrace risk. When you have a purpose you realise that you must reject passivity and that if you hope to see a change in the world then it is up to you. As the saying goes, “Be the change you hope to see in the world.” To find a way of being the change that provides value to the people around you can be hard and is likely to include many failures (this is certainly something I have become keenly aware of lately). But you will only take these failures in your stride if you have a clear and passionate direction in which you want to take your life, otherwise, they are simply not worthwhile.
You will only take failures in your stride if you have a clear and passionate direction in which you want to take your life
So what can we do?
Now, for the most part, all that I have been discussing becomes a vicious cycle. People grow up in the school system and lack purpose and direction. They then become parents who in turn send their children to school and the cycle repeats.
Ultimately, this is all an issue of parenting as it is the parents who are sending their children to schools in the first place and it is the parents who have the most power to choose differently. What if parents supported and provided an environment in their families where children could perform increasingly meaningful and purposeful tasks and where they become more and more independent in doing so? Tasks that have not been dictated by a curriculum but tasks that have been chosen by children based on what they are inspired to do through others and by what is modelled by their parents and other close adults in their lives? Maybe children could grow into a meaningful and purposeful life rather than trying to ‘find’ or ‘search’ for it?
And maybe, just maybe, something in what I have said has sparked some bit of passion within you that even now might be clarifying for you the direction you want to take your life and the legacy you want to create within yourself, your relationships, your family, your community, and the world.