If you are a teenager, live with one, or have even ever been one, you probably recognize a fascinating paradox that characterizes adolescence: phases of seemingly intractable apathy, listlessness, and angst contrasted starkly by periods of intense focus, passion, and remarkable creativity. Ask any educator, and they’ll tell you that it is a wonderful gift to witness this vibrant engagement, one only tempered by the capriciousness in finding a way to catalyze it.
It’s not that there’s a secret teenagers aren’t letting us in on. This engagement comes from the feeling of doing something meaningful, something that captures their imagination, something that matters. But of course, that’s not the problem. The challenge is in finding the material, the right fuel to light the fire. A conversation is emerging among educators that what we’re talking about is purpose, and there is a growing community that thinks we may not be serving teenagers as well as we could in this respect.
In The Path to Purpose, William Damon suggests, “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.” Many of today’s students suffer from a lack of direction or engagement, leading to feelings of emptiness, apathy, or even crippling anxiety. Damon goes on to assert, “Even in the most privileged schools, there are students who find little meaning in the work they are expected to do [and rarely link this work] to their aspirations for their lives.” As young adults consider the prospects for their future, parental or societal expectations are likely stronger driving forces than a more personal, intrinsic motivation. As Robert Fischer M.D. explains in Psychology Today, “The young adult must have an inner motivation in order for success to be possible, and they often need guidance to gain clarity and focus in this area.”
At HMI, we’ve been really lucky. The novelty of the HMI experience has afforded us the benefit to observe this engagement in our students in many ways, and likely more than when they’re in more familiar environments. Intuitively, we know that when we feel a sense of purpose, an ability to take action at the intersection of our unique passions, skills, and a need in the world outside of ourselves, we feel more valuable, capable, and engaged, and the unique context of learning at HMI creates that intersection for many students.
Recently, we’ve begun to explore this intersection more specifically, especially within the HMI Gap curriculum. In much the same way that we believe that anyone can learn to live comfortably in the backcountry or to lead more deliberately and effectively, we aim to help students reflect on, clarify, and develop a personal sense of purpose over the course of our semester.
Particularly for young adults who are transitioning into college, living away from home for the first time, and beginning a trajectory toward a career, this quest to articulate purpose is paramount and correspondingly, a central focus of our Gap programming. Our curriculum specifically asks students to consider essential questions throughout the semester such as “What are my passions in life; how can I shape my life by and through the things that inspire me most?” and “How do my values and choices empower me to live the life I envision for myself and to effect change in the world?”
Many discussions and activities throughout the semester urge students to reflect on their identity, values, passions, and beliefs. Mid-way through the semester, these reflections take shape as students draft their personal mission statement, a credo articulating their core values and how they hope to weave them into the fabric of their lives as independent adults. Building off this activity, students consider how to be a purposeful leader and integrate their mission statement into their leadership style. Finally, students can put this reflection and development into practical terms through working activities such as career mapping and writing personal ethics statements.
Transference, the idea that what students learn and do here must impact their lives beyond HMI, has been one of our core values since our founding. Our hope is that students leave HMI Gap inspired to connect the what with the why and empowered to pursue their hopes and dreams for the future.