Posted by Stacey Jackson

Apr 19, 2016 7:00:00 AM

First in a two-part series

What is your purpose in life, and how does your college education fit into that purpose? College admissions exams and the college application process may seem overwhelming right now. Your regular coursework and extracurricular activities may have you so busy that college is the furthest thing from your mind. Or perhaps your parents have their eye on sending you to their alma mater, an Ivy League school, or a certain state university, and you’re feeling double pressure from your social circle to decide what you want to do and where you should apply — as if being a teenager isn’t hard enough! Or maybe, like me when I was your age, you just don’t know what you want to do when you “grow up,” and the thought is nearly paralyzing you from making any decisions at all. 

This blog post will help you wade a little deeper into college and career planning with a few ideas for demystifying the process of finding your purpose. 

I desperately wanted to graduate early from high school, and I had the grades and the credits to do it. The only thing missing: a decisive purpose. I felt as if an enormous weight was on my shoulders as I tried to figure out if I should go to college early and declare my major later or if I should give high school another year and hope that my purpose would magically appear to me in a dream. I was envious of my classmates who could stand up with confidence and announce that they were going to be a pilot or nurse (and, yes, they did go on to pursue these careers). And then, of course, some people just don’t feel the need for a purpose and wouldn’t waste time thinking about it.

But I did think long and hard about my purpose, and I encourage you to do the same. A college education is an enormous investment for you and/or your parents. While your undergrad years are a time for self-discovery — and will be full of new experiences and friendships — they will also demand your time, brain-power, and excellence, and hopefully prepare you for the career of your dreams.

So let me ask you the same question but in a slightly different way: What do you want from life? What is your dream job? Do you like working with people? Are you more suited for an office job, or would you prefer working outdoors or in some other type of work environment? Do you like following directions, or do you enjoy formulating and implementing new ideas? How important to you is being able to express your creativity in your work? Are you drawn to art, science, literature, or math? Do you want a family? In what kind of place would you like to live? Do you want to travel the world? If you could talk about one subject and one subject only to a stranger, what would it be?

I took a class some time ago in which a teacher asked me the same sorts of questions that I’m posing to you. I was surprised at how easily the answers rolled off my tongue when I wasn’t overthinking things and battling pressure from myself and others. This is what I said: I believe that I was put on this planet to help people. I like bringing people together. I like facilitating new opportunities for people and organizations.

That strong sense of purpose continues to inform almost everything I do. When purpose meets passion, it’s a powerful combination.

But how do you translate “helping people” into a college major or an area of interest? That’s a pretty broad idea. So I took it a step further. I took a personality test called the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to help me figure out how I operate in the world and what types of careers would be best-suited for my personality. Many college advisors use this and similar tests to help students analyze their interests and pinpoint potential careers in which each personality type could thrive. (Talk to your high school counselor if you are interested in taking one or more of these tests.) I’m also a fan of pro-and-con lists. And I’ve found it helpful to ask other people what they see me doing in life. Go ahead: Ask your friends, family, and teachers what they think are your strengths. You might be surprised!

Another way to approach the “purpose” conundrum is to ask yourself what problem you want to solve, rather than what you want to “be.” Get outside of yourself and think about how you want to make the world a better place. For example, if you are concerned about global warming, there might be multiple contexts in which you could work on that problem.

Today, I work for a well-known arts organization, and I connect community organizations and people through educational events. My position is, in fact, a dream job, and I look forward to going to work every day. I didn’t know that was what I would be doing when I applied to college — I didn’t even know a job like that existed — but my purpose guided my journey.

As an undergraduate, I gravitated toward classes that revolved around the arts, literature, and community engagement. I changed my major once, and I changed colleges once, too. But each transition made sense because I was guided by passion and a strong work ethic, and I was determined to make my dream a reality.

I could do something else. I might do something else at some point. But everything I do informs and enhances what I consider to be the perfect combination of purpose, passion, and lifelong learning.

So, what is your purpose? Are you ready to find out?  

About the Author

Stacey Jackson has worked in the arts & culture and education sectors for more than ten years in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. She currently serves as the director of venture growth at the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, dedicated to local, regional, and national systems-level change to achieve educational equity for all students. Stacey graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in performance studies and holds a master’s degree in arts and cultural management from Pratt Institute. 

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