This piece is written by Lloyd Nimetz, founder & CEO of Spike Lab. He is a serial entrepreneur and startup investor who has been a founder of five for-profits and nonprofits in the US, Taiwan, Argentina, and India. Lloyd went to Stanford University for his MBA, majored in Economics during his undergraduate studies at Williams College, and was a Fulbright Scholar.
Finding purpose in life is essentially like finding the key to unlocking happiness and fulfillment: winning the last and final level of the game of life according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which puts self-actualization at the top. Purpose is at the core of the most important and resilient institutions in the world today, such as religion, family, and nationalism. Ideas people are willing to die for. But our schools, governments, and jobs don’t systematically foster it, and there is a growing crisis of purpose, even among successful people. Research shows that this crisis is especially pronounced among non-religious populations and those not living near their family or their closest friends. Loneliness, depression, obesity, substance abuse, and suicide are at all time highs in many societies. In response to this crisis, there is a broad range of programs that purport to fill this vacuum: to help you find purpose. Some of these are insidious, cult-like programs; however, others are fabulous like Project Wayfinder and The Future Project, and Stanford’s Purpose Learning program, which predicts that in the future, college students won’t declare their major but instead their ‘mission’! Of course, I’d also count The Spike Lab in this latter category!
Educational systems across the world today are rigorously fine-tuned to train our youth to pursue degrees, titles, jobs, money and power (extrinsic motivators), but they are not sufficiently designed to help our youth pursue meaning (intrinsic motivators). At The Spike Lab, part of our core mission is to put purpose back at the center of education. The key is for people to build purpose development skills early, starting from childhood. Research shows that purpose is developed, not found. The more people dedicate themselves to an area of personal importance, the more likely it emerges as a source of purpose.
Polynesian Wayfinding is a good metaphor relating to purpose development that can help frame conversations. We can see examples of its use in the world, whether at Project Wayfinder, a cutting edge program providing purpose development workshops to teachers, or even in Disney’s “Moana”, a coming of age movie that is unsurprisingly about finding purpose (and, of course, saving the world). To navigate your way towards purpose in the ocean that is life, you need both your “northstar” and your “rudder”:
- northstar: the vision of a changed and improved future world that guides your mission’s direction. In other words, to have purpose, you must have clarity on where you’re heading. This means that you need to identify a change that you want to manifest in the world, i.e. my kids are secure and happy when they grow up, or irreversible climate change is prevented.
- rudder: the skills needed to both (a) identify realistic ways to take action towards your northstar, and (b) successfully take action, pivoting and adjusting along the way. At The Spike Lab, we call these innovation skills.
Without both a northstar and rudder, people either drift or are easily susceptible to being steered by external factors. It is common, for those “drifting” without purpose, to distract away feelings of being lost (often felt as emptiness) by seeking short term happiness such as money, status, power and other fleeting pleasures. When done intentionally, this is called hedonism. All rigorous research shows that people are better off when they orient their lives — including their studies, careers and families — around purpose instead of the other way around, letting the environment we stumble into steer us.
The Spike Lab believes that the best time for individuals to start developing purpose is in high school when their own identity is taking form. This is a period when students have more time to explore, and this process can help them in college admissions. The best process for developing purpose is through action, a purpose project that we call a Spike. This process is more an art than a science, but we liken it to a very simple 4-step framework that our students follow. But before explaining those steps, it’s first important to define what we mean by purpose, an often overused phrase that means different things to everyone.
Definition of Purpose. We subscribe to the Stanford Center for Adolescence’s definition of purpose: “Purpose is a forward-looking intention to accomplish goals that are meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” In other words, you have purpose when you are acting on an intention in the present to achieve future goals that are: (1) meaningful (only you can feel it internally), and (2) impactful (valuable to others, externally). It’s different from a goal in that it is a vector; it’s directional, pointing a path from the present to the future. It’s about the journey as much as the destination!
4 Step Process for Finding Purpose.
- Set the Intention. This is all about psychological commitment: to set a goal for yourself to find purpose and optimize your life around it. If you’re not serious about finding purpose, then you won’t. Only you can set your internal mindset. Nobody can reach into your brain and force it to get committed to a goal. However, research shows that people are more likely to successfully follow through on a goal when they combine the act of setting an intention with an associated activity. That’s actually part of the secret of our students’ success at The Spike Lab. The act of signing up for our Spike coaching program is paired with a decision to find greater meaning and purpose. Of course, other activities can serve the same function such as keeping a journal about what’s meaningful in your life or just pursuing something of purpose on your own, even if it’s as simple as volunteering for a local charity.
- Identify your Identity. Interrogate yourself to find your strong identities. Answer the elusive question: “who am I?” Go through exercises and conversations that help you build greater self-awareness. All of us are made up of a multitude of identities all bouncing around and constantly shifting in intensity over time and context. There are the obvious ones like “I’m… Hispanic, Buddhist, Scientist, a basketball star, and a dog lover”, but also the less obvious ones like, “I’m… an advocate for the deindustrialization of animals, a globalist, and a ‘hack connoisseur’, a term I totally made up to match my identity. What are your strong identities? List all of them. Try to come up with as many as possible. Don’t just think of the obvious attributes-oriented ones, but also those that relate to causes you care about, places you consider “home,” interests you’re excited about, etc. For each make sure each identity can complete the simple sentence, “I am _____”.
- Pursue meaning through action. Find something meaningful, a tangible project, and take action to pursue it. At one of my last companies, a coding bootcamp, our tagline was “build beautiful, meaningful things” because it resonated with the ‘why’ — why students want to learn to code. Learning to code can be one of the steps on your journey, but here are some other examples of our students’ Spikes. Monica became a beekeeper to save the bees and fight climate change. Jackie designed and ran a self-defense course to help students feel safer and more confident when going away to college. We’ve had students write and publish academic papers, code apps to stop paywalls on the internet, organize cause-driven songwriting competitions., and so much more. The examples (and possibilities) are limitless but must be deeply meaningful to you. By definition, strong identities are meaningful because they are deeply personal; they are you! The goal can be meaningful (i.e. deindustrializing animals for meat consumption) or the process & people can be meaningful (i.e. being a dad), or both (nurturing my kids into becoming happy and purposeful adults). Note that interests (i.e. cooking) usually aren’t meaningful on their own until they are mixed with a personal element (i.e. cooking for people you care about like your family, or baking food to raise money for immigrant kids separated from their parents on the border). This is a common mistake among high schoolers.
- Articulate and adjust your purpose. Try to capture your purpose in words; we call it a ‘purpose statement’. This process of framing it and expressing it through writing or voice is important. Purpose resonates powerfully when you hear/see it outside of you, which is reinforcing, solidifying your purpose as a cornerstone of your identity. But don’t force it either. If you haven’t found it or found the right way to articulate it yet, then come back to this process later. Remember purpose is developed, not found. Also our purposes shift and change over time. It’s important to keep coming back to this step so you can set a new course when necessary. Sometimes the northstar’s destination becomes more specific (a narrowing of the objective) and other times a new one arises of greater importance. It is totally normal to change course or add new purposes. Note that most people think about finding one purpose, but, in reality, we can have numerous purposes at the same time. In the English language, we use the word purpose in the singular form (“I want to find purpose.”) as opposed to plural (“I want to find my purposes.”) Purpose statements are sentences that paint a picture of a better, future state of some niche of the world (i.e. a more welcoming and economically inclusive culture in the Greek island of Crete to Syrian refugees). The trick is to find the right level of specificity and, as a rule of thumb, more specificity is better than less. For example a bad purpose statement is, “To fight pollution” because it’s not specific enough. A better one would be to reduce microplastics pollution in the Great Lakes. Greater specificity comes via two dimensions: ‘how’ and ‘who’. Question: How do you want to fight pollution? Answer: to reduce microplastics. Question: Who is the chosen beneficiary? Answer: people living near the Great Lakes or just the fish and environment in the Lakes.
Lastly, be aware of psychological obstacles to this process: the biggest being self-doubt. Most students (and parents) we meet initially don’t believe they can ‘find’ purpose. For example, we hear questions like, “can my child really find purpose?” The answer is definitely a resounding “yes”, but it requires a psychological mindset shift towards believing it’s possible. That belief needs to be reinforced over time, especially in the beginning, until someone experiences it for themselves for the first time. Then there’s no going back!
Want to learn more about how we can help students develop purpose through Spike Coaching? Schedule a free consultation today.