Helping Students Find Their Way in Life


Passion alone can’t accomplish much if it’s not tied to purpose. And purpose only comes from solving a significant problem.

One of the chief challenges for young adults today is choosing a career. Millions are struggling to determine which path to take; what “mission” to pursue. Two thirds of college students change their major more than once; a full 40% of them wish they’d chosen a different major once they finish. As they wander through their university experience, most don’t finish, and those that do—take six years not four years to complete their degree. According to Monster.com, approximately 80% of those students moved back home when they finished college. 

What’s happening? Is it just that there are so many options to choose from? Or, perhaps it’s the opposite—these undergrads are not finding enough options in our current economy. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a missing piece to the puzzle.

Missing Pieces

You remember putting puzzles together as a kid don’t you? They’re impossible to finish if you don’t have all the pieces. Missing pieces result in incomplete pictures. I think I’ve discovered a missing piece when it comes to helping students discover what they’re supposed to do in life.

Consider the world we’ve created for them, the last twenty-five years. Most kids, regardless of whether they were from underprivileged neighborhoods or upper-middle class neighborhoods received a streaming message from culture. Even if it seemed unrealistic—they heard society say to them:

  • Listen to your heart.
  • Follow your dreams.
  • Find your passion.

From Disney movies they watched as children, to speeches they heard at their high school or college graduation, the message broadcast to today’s kid is to shoot for the stars and go after their dream: “If you can see it, you can seize it!”

Talk about a brand. Songs like “I Believe I Can Fly” and similar TV show themes on Nickelodeon or the Disney channel are ubiquitous. This message has been communicated loud and clear—and I’ve been one of those leaders who’ve shared it. Believe it and achieve it. You can be anything you want to be. Go for it. Just do it.

The problem is—it’s a horribly incomplete message. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Studies tell us that many students have shifted from ambitious to ambiguous about the future. You get stuck if your puzzle doesn’t have all the pieces. When surveyed, college students revealed their top two goals when finished with school:

  1. To be rich.
  2. To get famous.

Of course they’d choose this. That’s their passion. But riches and fame are hard to come by today. Millions are pursuing those two currencies: cash and followers.

So, along the way, we uncovered another puzzle piece. Thanks to the Gallup Organization and Marcus Buckingham, we began talking to students about and assessing their primary strengths. We helped them ask: what am I uniquely gifted to do? What ability do I possess that someone would pay me to do?

But even this isn’t enough. Millions of students found that they had gifts in acting, singing, song writing, poetry, psychology and other fields that are saturated. Sadly, loads of industries remain void of new talent—talent that’s desperately needed. In a recent nationwide survey, corporations reported that 50 percent of their job openings went unfilled last year due to the lack of prepared graduates. The young interviewees were ready to sing or do therapy—but not fill the jobs in computer science or engineering. In other words, the jobs were ready, the grads were not.

The Missing Piece

The bottom line is simply this. We must enable students to link their passion and their strength to a great need in the world. It’s incomplete to help students begin scratching an “itch” that doesn’t exist. It does little good to answer questions no one is asking. If we, however, can link their strength and their passion to a vision that genuinely fills a real void—we have a “win/win” situation. The world wins as a problem is solved…and they win as they experience the fulfillment that only comes when adding value to others. Their stock goes up. Value rises based on providing a scarce and needed resource. This is a missing piece.

Real purpose emerges when our strengths intersect with the world’s great need.

Passion alone can’t accomplish much if it’s not tied to purpose. And purpose only comes from solving a significant problem.

In our work with schools across the U.S., we’ve seen several buy into this idea. Louisiana Tech has led the way by collaborating between the engineering, math and science departments. They help students connect their studies to real needs and address real issues. After enabling freshmen students to build a “bobot”, they launch them into their capstone project. They tell students: “Look around the world and find one problem that needs to be solved. Then, invent something to solve it.”

I love it.

So if need be, let’s help students shift their aspirations. Let’s help them find a problem, before we push them toward a vision or passion. Let’s match college majors with real job needs. Let’s move them from the pursuit of fantasy to the pursuit of fulfillment. If we really love them as we say we do—we owe them this.

It might just help them put their puzzle together.

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