I’ve Been Thinking … Finding Purpose Projects for Today’s Youth

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I’ve Been Thinking … Finding Purpose Projects for Today’s Youth

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March for Lives is now one of the largest youth-led movements in the past few decades in America. Across the country young people are standing up for their rights and social change. Many students who weeks ago were politically apathetic or unengaged have found a cause. They have found a meaningful place to take a stand.

Indeed, many students are experiencing what the Search Institute calls a “ spark moment,” followed by what we at Project Wayfinder call a “purpose project.” A purpose project lies at the intersection of three things: a need in the world that must be addressed, a skill that someone has or wants to develop, and something they love to do and feel strongly about.The conference ends on a positive note.

In my own life I first used this framework to ride my bike 2,800 miles across southeast Asia to raise money to build a school and support K-12 scholarships for young women in Cambodia. The breakdown of the project looks like this:

  • Need: Supporting primary and girls’ education in Laos + Cambodia
  • Love to Do: Pushing myself physically and adventuring
  • Skill: Public Speaking, Fundraising, and getting people interested in a project

In the case of March for our Lives, it looks like:

  • Need: to stop gun violence
  • Skill: movement building through social media
  • Love to Do: community organizing, organizing other young people, make political change

Research shows that once students have tasted a sense of purpose through their first purpose project, they are much more likely to seek it out and find it again. For millions of students around the country this may, indeed, be a large scale waking up.

Research by Claremont Graduate Associate Professor Kendall Cotton Bronk says that purpose-provoking experiences usually happen in three circumstances: an important life event, serving others in a meaningful way, and changes in life circumstance. Often these purpose-provoking moments come through tragedy, like those at Parkland. They are when something happens to us. You might know someone that woke up after living through a near-death experience or almost losing a close family member. Too often, we do not feel a spark or sense of purpose til we are near the edge.

The good news is there are proven ways to safely and wisely design purpose provoking experiences without tragedy. Rites of passage ceremonies played this role for millennia in many cultures. They were designed to take young people to the edge of their comfort zone, in a healthy way, surrounded by wise role models. But as traditional rites of passage and intergenerational relationships have broken down in our times, today’s students are too often left wanting for safe passages and paths to a purposeful existence. At my organization, Project Wayfinder, we have designed a yearlong curriculum for exactly this purpose: to help students wake up, develop more meaningful lives, and find what gives them a sense of purpose without the necessity of tragedy.

Some of the young people now working for gun control may not achieve their ultimate political aims, but they have likely forever altered their own lives by tapping into their first purpose project, and will carry that energy with them on their own purpose journeys through life.

Patrick Cook-Deegan is a graduate of Brown University and a Fulbright scholar. Currently, Patrick is a lecturer and education innovation fellow at Stanford’s d. school focusing his fellowship year on developing Project Wayfinder. He is a speaker, educator, and wilderness guide. He has spoken and led workshops at more than 100 schools and universities on service, self-awareness, and human rights. Over the past decade, he has helped launch or grow a number of innovative youth programs including Back to Earth, Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, and the Social Innovation Initiative at Brown University as well as working as a human rights advocate.For more information about Project Wayfinder, go to www.projectwayfinder.com/.

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