Many of the jobs our graduates will have in the not-so-distant future may not have been invented yet, making skills planning enormously complex. Students need a yardstick to measure these new opportunities. This yardstick needs to be portable, so that they can use it to evaluate options in multiple careers. It needs to be flexible, to measure the fit of today’s jobs and tomorrow’s. It needs to be simple. We can help our students with assessment today in our offices, but will they have the tools they need for self-assessment years from now?
“Purpose” as a Career Development Tool
Introducing students to the concept of “purpose” gives them an effective, flexible, and portable tool that can serve them throughout their careers. Using purpose encourages students to think about form and function. When students understand what they are “built to do,” they can make decisions about what career fields let them spend the most time doing it. The idea of purpose does not suggest that there is one right match for each student, but rather that there is a set of transferable functions that an individual naturally performs at a very high level. Following this functional wiring when weighing career options leads to heightened effectiveness and satisfaction.
I describe purpose to my students using the analogy of tools. What does a hammer do? It pounds nails. Does it have to build houses to fulfill its purpose? No. It can just as easily build a birdhouse or a park bench or a ramp, as long it spends most of its time pounding nails. I could use a hammer for other things – like demolition, chiseling, even painting if I tried hard enough – but it will not be nearly as effective. I’d get frustrated, and if the hammer had a personality, it would not be thrilled either.
“Purpose” in the Career Progression
It is the same with people. Helping others grow professionally gives me a higher level of satisfaction than any other part of my work. I could perform this function in a number of different jobs in several industries. That gives me a lot of flexibility, but it also allows me to evaluate opportunities that might otherwise be hard to compare. Should I stay where I am or should I take that offer with a different organization or in a different field? The question becomes, “How much time will I spend doing what I am built to do? How well does it fit my purpose?”
Experienced professionals encounter the purpose dynamic as they progress within an organization. For example, John used to spend 80 percent of his time on the sales floor. He was so successful that he was promoted to a position where he now spends 80 percent of his time managing staff relationships and tracking data. He likes the higher salary, but spending only 20 percent of his time using his core function – where he is most effective and experiences the most satisfaction – is not enough to keep him with the company.
Helping Students Understand “Purpose”
The concept of purpose is accessible to students. They can practice it by considering well known public figures and what purpose they are famous for fulfilling. Bill Gates did not invent the computer, but he made technology accessible to normal people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was many things – a minister, a writer, a speaker, and an activist. These were jobs, but his purpose (in my view) was to lead others into the freedom of a future he helped them envision. Challenge students to name their own examples of famous people and to write out what they think each person would consider his or her purpose.
Helping students find their purpose can be a very interactive, engaging process. In a class I teach, students take a simple quiz that asks them to identify the highlight moments of their lives and compare them with more recent achievements. We talk about the roles they play in their families, the minor things they got in trouble for as children, when their friends seek them out for help, and what one thing they would most like to be known for if they were famous. I encourage them to seek feedback from family and friends who can help them see the patterns of what they do so naturally that they often do not even notice their own ability. Sometimes I will ask for volunteers to read their quiz responses and have the other students in the class give feedback about what they’ve heard. “He really likes to lead by example. I think he’d be a good role model for children.” “She loves to write, but she also talked a lot about wanting things to be fair and just. Maybe she could combine them to help a cause she really supports.”
Making “Purpose” Practical
The goal is for them to create a Purpose Statement. They come up with short phrases beginning with the word “to.” Perhaps it is “to help people communicate better to decrease conflict” or “to design things that bring more beauty into people’s everyday lives.” They can continue to refine their phrase and make it more concrete as they gain life experience, but they now have a yardstick to measure the opportunities that come their way. At each choice they can ask, “In this job, what percent of my time am I likely to spend fulfilling my purpose?”
A sense of personal purpose becomes a powerful tool in the job search. It can be used to quickly sort through many potential opportunities. It can also give the job seeker the confidence to say “no” to a position that is not really a fit. It is simple, flexible and portable enough to be effective even in today’s volatile, complex job market. And when career counselors cannot be there in the future to advise them, it can help our students find success and satisfaction.
Aaron Basko is Director of Admissions and a Career Services Instructor at Salisbury University (MD), where he teaches students to actively manage their professional development. Aaron has written for Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, Student Affairs Leader, Campus Life, the Journal of College Admissions, and the Old Schoolhouse. Previously in Admission Services at Franklin & Marshall College (PA) and at Rivier College (NH), he has also presented seminars such as “ROI: Marketing Your Campus’ Educational Outcomes,”“Managing Staff Change,” and “Building Information Sessions that Set Your Campus Apart.” Aaron holds a B.A. in International Studies from West Virginia Wesleyan College, an M.A. in Latin American History from the University of Illinois, and completed additional study at the Instituto Dr. Alexis Carrell in Rio Tercero, Argentina. Aaron can be reached at email@example.com.