Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Practice of Purpose

When parents say they just want their child to be happy or that they just want their child to love to learn, I think what they are saying, without really knowing it, is that they want their child to find their purpose. Of course, it sounds a bit ridiculous to talk about a two-year-old finding something as significant as their "purpose." That's something that takes decades to discover, and only then after much trail, error, and introspection. It seems to us that most adults haven't figured that out, if we ever do. No, that's too much pressure to put on a kid, to find their purpose, but we wish for them what we perceive as the products of a life with a purpose -- curiosity, passion, direction, a sense of being worthy, determination, resilience, contentment, and a place in community. 

But I wonder if we sometimes get purpose all wrong. It gets mixed up with such things as doing well in school or career or the day-to-day purpose behind things like caring for a family. We think we see it in people who are driven towards a goal, while shaking our heads over those who seem aimless. When we really step back, we might be generous and philosophical enough to see purpose as a journey and that while our very young children may not yet have a destination in mind, these first steps toward happiness and love of learning are the necessary and proverbial beginning of the journey of their lifetime. The longer I've lived, however, the more I've come to understand purpose, not as a progression through time, but rather a practice of the moment.

Purpose is important. Psychologist William Damon, and author of the book The Path to Purpose writes that "(s)tudy after study has found a persons' sense of life purpose (is) closely connected to virtually all dimensions of wellbeing." People with a purpose tend to be mentally, physically, and socially healthier, live longer, and are far less inclined to self-destructive behaviors. So, we are right to be concerned about it: purpose seems to be a kind of inoculation against many of the pitfalls of life, so of course we want to see signs of curiosity, passion and direction in our children, and we fret when they feel badly about themselves, give up too easily, or seem anything but content. But, I think, we too often mistake these traits as the source of a purposeful life, rather than, as they are, the result of living a life of purpose.

As we do with so many things in life, we get the cart before the horse. First we must be free, and trusted, to find our own purpose. When we stop distracting them with our adult agenda, we see two-year-olds living lives of purpose every day, exploring their physical, social, and emotional world. There is no one more purposeful than a preschooler engaged in self-selected play. This is the where the foundations of the practice of purpose are laid. We see it clearly for what it is: exploration, discovery, and invention. Ultimately, these are the traits we see behind a life of purpose. Goals and objectives are distractions, they take our eye off the ball, they place contentment or success or satisfaction always just out of reach, like sweet carrots dangled in front of a stubborn mule's nose.

Young children have shown me what purpose is all about. It's not a means to an end, but rather the end. To practice purpose is nothing less that to come alive. I think that is what parents mean when they talk about happiness or love of learning: they want their children to come alive. This, at least, is my definition of a life of purpose. As author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman advised, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

When I stand amongst free children, all questions of goals and objectives, of happiness and love of learning, fall away into irrelevancy. I am with the humans who are most fully alive. This is the practice of purpose and we see it every day where children are trusted with freedom.


Interested in creating a world in which children are free to pursue their purpose? Tired of butting heads with kids? Scolding them? Bossing them around? Do you feel like they just don't listen? Sign up for my new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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