Back to School: Studying on Purpose

This week and next, children of all ages will be sharpening their pencils (or I guess nowadays this should be “powering up their ipads”) and heading back to school.  You can almost hear the groans of agony, as the joy of summer becomes a faded memory and students set aside their personal passions and social lives to spend another year succumbing to the parental and societal expectations of the academic world.

Prior to college, many students will see school as a burden, rather than an opportunity.  They will bemoan homework assignments that interfere with their other, more social activities, content that doesn’t resonate with their daily lives, or teachers who fail to understand their teenage angst.

Once they do go off to college, they are suddenly forced to choose a major (and thereby a career path,) arguably the largest decision most young men and women will have had to make up to this point (teen parents notwithstanding.)  In college, they will experience autonomy the likes of which they have never had, being free to select and attend classes (or not) as they see fit.  Many will be moving away from home and experimenting, for the first time, with their own personal balance between personal/social experiences and their long-term academic/professional goals.

For many motivated students, this will be the first time that they begin to study on purpose.   When it no longer becomes an obligation foisted upon them by their family or their society, but rather becomes a part of their plan for the kind of adult they wish to become.  The responsibility for success or failure falls squarely on their shoulders and it is time for them to either step up or step out.

But students don’t have to wait until college to begin taking charge of their academic careers.  In fact, if they did begin thinking about their personal academic goals (not parental, not societal) a little bit earlier in life, they might find school to be much more rewarding.  This is the advice of Daniel Wong, the author of a new book on “The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success.”  Wong was an academic whiz kid in school (straight A’s through high school and Duke University with a double major in engineering and economics.)  But he wasn’t happy . . . until he began finding his own sense of purpose and meaning, and not the one assigned to him by a culture “where grades—rather than learning and education—are seen as the true prize.”

The Happy Student by Norman Pogson

Now, Wong advises students to “run their own race” by getting clear about their own core values and their own “personal mission statement.”  His exercises for developing a personal mission statement are very similar to those of positive psychologist, Robert Biswas-Diener, author of, Positive Psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for Your Clients.  The key is to identify personal core values, and then analyze the strengths that you can use to bring those values to life.  If you can sum that up in one or two sentences then “voila!”—you have your personal mission statement!

I teach about the concept of personal mission statements in my course on Positive Leadership for spa and hospitality professionals.  But I like the idea of using it with young students as well.  When students begin to identify the values they hold most dear, and the strengths that they have to work with, they can focus on aspects of school that add to their ability to do what is most inspiring to them, and to make a greater contribution to the world–not by meeting societal expectations–but by giving the best of themselves to the things they care most about.

References and recommended reading:

Wong, D. (2012). The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success. Morgan James Publishing



by Jeremy McCarthy

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4 Responses to Back to School: Studying on Purpose

  1. Kathy Stolle August 28, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Great post, Jeremy, particularly because I have two college-age grandkids (Dominican U and UC Irvine) that I’m sending this to as soon as I sign off! They are both pretty focussed and self-directed, but a gentle nudge like this can be very valuable to remind them to also follow their hearts and passion when selecting the path they want to travel.

    You keep hitting home runs with POW!

  2. Thomas Moore August 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    You think we should be happy about this type of Education System?

  3. Lisa Sansom September 3, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    I agree this is a great idea, but I’m also wary. I have done some career coaching with university students in Masters programs, and unless they have some sort of real-life experience, it’s really hard for them to figure out their values and personal mission statement. What I found with many students, is that the mission they created in the artifice of school just simply did not hold up in the real world. When I coached students who had gone to work and then returned for their Masters, even two or three years of work experience vastly improved their “reality check” and their understanding of themselves and their values and what they wanted, and didn’t want, in a career.

    Also, I do think that some values can change. I know that I have certain values that emerged or developed only after I became completely financially independent, or had kids, or owned my house. We need to let our young people know that their perspectives, understandings, insights and beliefs may well change – and that’s ok. Some values may be so deeply held that they won’t change – but others might. And people should make allowances for that as they figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy September 3, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    All good points Lisa. I don’t think students should be trying to lock in their mission for life at an early age, but considering most young students view school as an obligation rather than an opportunity it may be good for them to spend some time thinking about what they want to get out of the experience. Your point is well taken that there is a limit in autonomy that can be given here when youngsters often lack the maturity/wisdom to know what is the right path to take.

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