Which experiences sound more like the one you had in school?
- You felt pressure to get straight A’s
- You felt like you were competing with your classmates
- The main objective was to get into a good college
- The school told you what was important to learn
- There were only one or two ways to be a good student
- Failure felt unacceptable
- Meaningful events and relationships happened outside of school
- It felt more like you were learning how to be good at school rather than how to be “good at life”
- School was something to “get through”
- You were encouraged to learn about things that sparked your interest, even if they weren’t apart of the normal curriculum
- Failure was embraced as a normal part of the learning process
- Cooperating with your classmates to learn together was common
- It seemed like the focus was more about learning how to think rather than what to think
- School was a place where meaningful things and relationships happened
- A diversity of skills, personalities, and potential life-paths were celebrated
- You felt safe to take risks
What is it? A System that Encourages Conformity
The typical structure of schooling across the world inhibits purpose by (unintentionally) teaching students how to perform well in the school system itself rather than in their lives. Through the competitive culture of performance and a focus on getting into a good college, schools incidentally fuel conformity in lifestyle and ways of thinking that are antithetical to purpose cultivation.
Essentially, we’re taught how to do well in school versus how to experiment, think critically, and determine what is important to ourselves personally– all skills essential to developing purpose.
The School of Life, an organization dedicated to developing self-awareness and resilience, created the following 3.5 minute video that sums up some of the pitfalls of a traditional education:
Some of the things they offer that school teaches us that aren’t in service to living well include:
“They suggest that the most important things are already known; that what is is all that could be. They can’t help but warn us about the dangers of originality.–They want us to put up our hands and wait to be chosen. They want us to keep asking other people for permission. – They teach us to deliver on, rather than change, expectations. – They teach us to redeploy ideas rather than originate them. – They teach us to expect that people in authority know – rather than letting us imagine that – in rather inspiring ways – no one is really on top of what’s going on.” (The School of Life)
And the science tends to back their claims up. Youth development researcher and purpose expert William Damon explains that the outcomes desired by schools (perfect grades, extra-curricular involvement, “good” behavior) are not indicative of purpose outcomes. In a study on youth with high levels of purpose, he shared that having what he called “an entrepreneurial spirit” was more indicative of having purpose than having good grades:
“For the highly purposeful…, entrepreneurship was a stronger common factor than usual measures of success such as school achievement. Although these youngsters generally did well enough in school, few of them were valedictorians or all-A students; but virtually all were superb entrepreneurs. As a predictor of later success in life, I would place my bet on strong entrepreneurial capacities.” – William Damon, A Path to Purpose
Damon defined the “entrepreneurial student” as possessing the following qualities:
- The ability to set clear goals and make realistic plans to accomplish them.
- An optimistic, can-do attitude.
- Persistence in the face of obstacles and difficulties.
- A tolerance—or more, even an appetite—for risk.
- Resilience in the face of failure.
- Determination to achieve measurable results.
- Resourcefulness and inventiveness in devising the means to achieve those results.”
While points 1 and 6 may be cultivated in the traditional school system, points 3, 4, 5, and 7 may be directly discouraged by it. Resourcefulness and inventiveness are likely inhibited by the preference for conformity while resilience in failure and tolerance for risk are inhibited by both the avoidance of failure and something called extrinsic motivators. That’s a mouthful- let’s break down conformity and risk below…
Organizational Psychologist and author Adam Grant writes about how getting straight A’s requires conformity to a system that rarely assesses important life-skills like “creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence.” He believes that the conformity enforced by the goals of traditional education does more to limit students (as it did for himself) than prepare them for important life skills or cultivate meaningful experiences:
“Straight-A students also miss out socially. More time studying in the library means less time to start lifelong friendships, join new clubs or volunteer. I know from experience. I didn’t meet my 4.0 goal; I graduated with a 3.78. (This is the first time I’ve shared my G.P.A. since applying to graduate school 16 years ago. Really, no one cares.) Looking back, I don’t wish my grades had been higher. If I could do it over again, I’d study less. The hours I wasted memorizing the inner workings of the eye would have been better spent trying out improv comedy and having more midnight conversations about the meaning of life.” (Grant 2018)
Similarly a meta study (meaning it aggregates many studies on the topic) conducted at Clemson University demonstrated that grades were correlated up to 30% with job performance after college. While 30% is a fairly moderate connection (anything over 40% is considered strong while under 20% is weak), the dominant story perpetuated by the education system may have had you thinking grades were the most reliable predictor of success later in life.
A book called, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” by William Deresiewicz posits that the education system (particularly ivy league colleges) funnels youth to overachieve and ultimately end up in finance. With 50% of Harvard graduates traditionally winding up in finance or consulting despite not expressing interest in either as freshmen, he makes a compelling argument. (The Harvard Crimson)
Deresiewicz claims that so many people doing the same things (especially the ones churned out by the most prestigious institutions) indicates that our education system is not helping people to explore themselves or be “passionately weird.” He believes the system discourages curiosity, moral courage, and interesting rebellion in favor of conventional success.
“I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.” –Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Address 2005
“Everyone dies but not everyone lives.” –William Wallace
According to the United States National Center for Education Statistics, 58% of the 2 million bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2019 fell within 6 fields of study:
- 19% Business
- 12% Health Professions and related studies
- 8% Social Sciences and History
- 6% Engineering
- 6% Biology and Biomedical Sciences
- 6% Psychology
Those six were followed closely by:
- 5% Communication & Journalism
- 4% Visual & Performing Arts
- 4% Computer & Information Sciences
- 4% Education
Which leaves 25% of degrees to fall into a more diverse range of fields of study. However, the overall trend is clear. Despite the massive diversity of things we could do with our lives, the majority of us follow a similar path: the one that is widest and best defined.
Expressing and discovering ourselves outside of this deep canyon of “how to do life” can become incredibly challenging when the education system ushers us into it so ardently.
Risk Aversion and Extrinsic Motivators
Imagine you’re in college signing up for the next semester of classes and looking over your options. You’re pretty interested in chemistry but you’ve heard from your friends that the class you’d be taking is incredibly challenging. Most of your smartest friends got a C in it. You want to maintain your high GPA so you can graduate near the top of your class and score the prestigious internship you’re dreaming of. It’s probably a bad idea to take the harder class and potentially blow your GPA.
What do you do?
The hallowed goal of a high GPA can render intellectual risk taking unsafe. The potential failure involved in pursuing our interests becomes quite unappealing.
Failure is an essential ingredient in the learning process. When we make mistakes we have the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong and try again. When we continue to try we can exercise our creative capacities in problem solving. Finally, witnessing our own progress then helps us develop resilience. (Tawfik et. al, 2015) (Mathan & Koedinger 2005) (Kolb 2014) (Kapur 2012)
A system that discourages failure by making it a threat to our futures may then discourage purpose cultivation as well, as the purpose journey is ripe with experimentation, dead-ends, and restarts. Developing purpose begs us to be creative, take risks, and question the path paved for us.
Similarly the traditional grading system blocks purposefulness by encouraging an extrinsic model of motivation. Extrinsic motivation is being motivated to act by something outside of yourself: studying hard to get a good grade, working hard to get a promotion, or sitting for a treat. Extrinsic motivators come in the form of rewards and/or punishments.
Purpose is an intrinsic type of motivation, meaning you are compelled to act for the satisfaction of the activity itself: cooking dinner for your family because you enjoy nourishing them; reading the assigned literature because you actually find it captivating; or meditating because it feels good.
Grades function as a reward and may teach us that the rewards or punishments are the most persuasive reasons to do something. Another option would be teaching students how to connect their values and interests to the curriculum, or to provide opportunities for self-directed learning; both of which could encourage the skills involved in purpose cultivation.
What To Do About It
The traditional system can end up feeling like a conveyor belt: an experience we “just have to get through.” While more education can facilitate a higher income, better health, and potentially more life-satisfaction, there isn’t a guarantee that a traditional education leads to greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. (Gregorio & Lee 2002) (Zajacova & Lawrence 2018)
In order to cultivate purpose within the context of the traditional education system, we can become aware of the limitations of its design, normalize failure and experimentation, and develop self-awareness around our interests and values in order to understand what truly motivates us. We can also learn more about and engage in non-traditional education opportunities. This little section has helped a bit with elucidating the limitations of the system. The following exercises may support you in normalizing failure and clarifying your values/interests, and you can find a list of interesting alternative education programs to explore below. If you’re looking for more support, using any of the resources, practices, and exercises offered throughout the purpose section can help you avoid unconsciously riding the conveyor belt!
Try This: Normalize Failure
Try the following things to help yourself get more comfortable with failure and empower yourself to access its benefits for learning:
- Inform: Read some failure stories:  
- Relate: Ask someone (ideally three people!) you look up to to tell you about a time they failed and what they learned.
- Reflect: Take a moment to think about some times that you have failed. What did those experiences teach you? Can you think of anything important that happened as a result of that failure that may not have happened otherwise?
- Reflect: How has your fear of failure limited you in the past few years? What have you not tried because you didn’t want to fail? What have you not enjoyed because you didn’t want to fail?
- Act: Pick something [probably something that doesn’t feel too risky] that you can give yourself permission to experiment with and fail at. It could be something like a new recipe or asking a stranger for a favor. Taking a class in something you’ve never tried before is an excellent way to practice failure: sign up for something and go into it expecting to fail, while allowing that to be okay. Pay attention to the feelings that arise as you go through the experience and gently remind yourself that it is ok to fail at this. Click here for a mega list of cool things you could try!
Generally, there are three steps to working with failure:
- Take 100% Responsibility
- Learn the lessons
- And Take action
Alternative Education Programs To Explore
This is only a short list of a myriad of alternative approaches to the traditional education model. Browse through the following to learn more about approaches that break the mold and may be more supportive of purpose development.
- Waldorf – For students in Preschool through 12th grade (USA) caters to developmental stages while encouraging an attitude of life-long learning. The teachers are free to respond to the unique needs of individual students rather than stick to a strict curriculum.
- Montessori – Focuses on self-directed, hands-on learning, collaboration, and play. For infants to 15-year-olds.
- Unschooling – A form of homeschooling that is curriculum avoidant and encourages self-directed learning. It shuns testing and the conventional grading system.
- Synthesis – An online program that focuses on teaching kids how to problem solve effectively through normalizing failure, reflection, and trying again. Courses are taught through online games that reflect real-life scenarios.
- Carpe Diem – An immersive experiential learning travel program for college-aged students that values hands-on learning, community engagement, and intercultural exchange. (find more gap year programs here)
- Outward Bound – An outdoor education program in which “students learn to dig deep to find greater compassion for each other, and to push the limits of what they thought they could do.”
- Evergreen State College “Evergreen State College is a progressive college in Washington State. Founded in the 60’s as an experimental program, this college focuses on interdisciplinary academic programs in place of classes and does away with grades altogether!”
- College of the Atlantic – A small school focusing on Human Ecology in which students choose their own classes for their majors and help run the college along with the faculty.
- Modern Elder Academy – MEA is the world’s first wisdom school dedicated to midlife transitions. They’re changing the way society views aging through programs that guide people in middle age to create more meaning and purpose for themselves.
Logan LePlante is a 13 year old with a self-directed education. He explains his approach to learning as “hack-schooling,” or rather, taking innovative and creative approaches to solving problems. He is motivated to learn because he is able to pursue what he finds genuinely interesting. (There are more alternative ways to think about how to approach your interests- learn about multipotentialism here).
- Through the competitive culture of performance and a focus on getting into a good college, schools incidentally fuel conformity in lifestyle and ways of thinking that are antithetical to purpose cultivation.
- We’re taught how to do well in school versus how to experiment, think critically, and determine what is important to ourselves personally– all skills essential to developing purpose.
- Resourcefulness and inventiveness are likely inhibited by the preference for conformity while resilience in failure and tolerance for risk are inhibited by both the avoidance of failure and something called extrinsic motivators. The traditional grading system utilizes extrinsic motivation.
- Despite the massive diversity of things we could do with our lives, the majority of us follow a similar path: the one that is widest and best defined.
- Failure is an essential ingredient in the learning process, and a system that discourages failure by making it a threat to our futures may then discourage purpose cultivation as well. The purpose journey is ripe with experimentation, dead-ends, and restarts.
- In order to cultivate purpose within the context of the traditional education system, we can become aware of the limitations of its design, normalize failure and experimentation, and develop self-awareness around our interests and values in order to understand what truly motivates us.