How a Purpose Mindset Helps Navigate Life

Key Points

  • In their new book, How to Navigate Life, Dr. Belle Liang and Tim Klein, advocate for cultivating a purpose mindset.

  • Purpose is about playing the long game, pursuing something meaningful, about making a contribution.

how to navigate life

Our schools were organized around a performance framework with advancement based on grades and test scores. The reliance on extrinsic rewards is not very effective and reinforces compliance. It can feel competitive, self-interested, and irrelevant. Ranking leads to zero-sum rather than generative thinking.

In their new book, How to Navigate Life, Dr. Belle Liang and Tim Klein, advocate for cultivating a purpose mindset. Purpose is about playing the long game, pursuing something meaningful, about making a contribution.

“Purpose is not about you. That is, it’s not just for your personal happiness, security, and advancement. It’s pursuing a goal that also contributes to people and places beyond the self. A purposeful goal is one that, if accomplished, will contribute to the world,” said Liang and Klein who lead the Purpose Lab at Boston College.  

How do you actually cultivate purposefulness in young people? Liang and Klein offer lots of practical advice–some easy tips and some strategies that require us to rethink school.

Safety First

The first barrier to self-knowledge is fear–a lack of safety and fear of the future. Covid damaged everyone’s sense of safety so there is a lot of repair work going on this fall with teachers reconnecting with learners and creating a culture of belonging.

A school system full of extrinsic measures and a performance mindset doesn’t help create a safe growth environment. What if, instead of “get a good grade,” the goal was helping young people figure out who they are, what they’re good at, and what they care about?

The job market is a bit of a paradox for young people–they can find employment more easily than in the past but the escalator of the American dream seems to be out of order which increases fears about surviving the real world. The old formula of “go to college, get a good job” doesn’t work as routinely as it once did. The increased risk of debt without a degree adds to the uncertainty of postsecondary planning.  

Know Yourself

You can’t know what to do with your life until you understand who you are. Liang and Klein suggest formal and informal assessments of strengths, values, and risk tolerance to inform a sense of purpose (and, stay tuned, they have some new measures coming out soon).  

Self-knowledge includes understanding your values and risk tolerance–your interest in growth or stability, individual or collective contribution. Liang and Klein spotted four value archetypes that range from Guardian (valuing collective stability) to Trailblazer (valuing individual growth). Understanding your values helps you spot relevant job clusters and whether you want to be an employee or an entrepreneur.  

Play Growth Games

“Games are a powerful metaphor for life–they reflect principles for how the world works.” Liang and Klein explain there are fixed games and growth games. Fixed games are limited and specific in options and end goal, they are about defeating your opponent. “In contrast, people play growth games for the process; the goal is to enjoy playing and to keep on playing for as long as possible. Growth games are defined by possibility. There are no restrictions on what can be done and who can participate.” Growth games have no end game and fewer rules–as long as you’re playing and having fun, you’re doing it right.

Schools were organized as a fixed game based on extrinsic rewards: grades, class rank, and test scores. When students choose (or co-author) their goals and activities, they are more self-directed, engaged, and resilient. “Intrinsically motivated students do better–they work harder, learn more, and thrive in school. They’re also more positive and self-regulated, better problem solvers, and more likely to use deep learning skills” claim Liang and Klein.

It’s not all or nothing, there will always be some settings that feel like a fixed game. The key is to encourage a growth mindset. Liang and Klein offer four tips:

  • Help students see their strengths and affirm strengths that you see them delight in.
  • Nudge students outside their comfort zone with people outside their social circles.
  • Resist comparing students to other people–development isn’t a race, it’s a journey.
  • Be autonomy-supportive, actively take students’ perspectives, and provide support for self-expression, initiative and self-endorsing activities.

Master Your Superpowers

Liang and Klein make the case that there are a dozen “universal human skills” that are durable, transferable, and widely valued. They include critical thinking, collaboration, accountability, ingenuity, cross-cultural skills, technology skills, social skills, innovative and self-directed, productivity, media literacy, flexibility and adaptability, and responsibility.

Liang and Klein see these universal skills cluster in three “future proof” roles– creators, facilitators and drivers–as more work is being done in teams working on hard problems aided by smart machines.

  • Creators are visionaries who see beyond what is to what could be. They spot trends, take initiative and solve problems.
  • Facilitators are the glue that holds people together. They connect, build agreements, and make teams work.  
  • Drivers have a bias toward action. They are tech savvy, reliable, and get things done.

These three role archetypes are superpowers that can become an integral part of a purpose mindset and personal identity. Liang and Klein see all three are expressed through mastery behaviors: leaning in, doing hard things, staying the course, and flopping forward.  

How do you actually cultivate purposefulness in young people?

Tom Vander Ark

What the World Needs

To begin to identify contribution opportunities, Liang and Klein suggest introducing young people to the big five needs in the world: physical, personal, community, societal, and environmental.

Being of service is key to the purpose mindset. A sense of purpose can arise from either adversity or advantage, a need for reconciliation or a feeling of gratitude (or a combination of both). Liang and Klein promote an ethic of purposeful service: “Off comes the weight of making yourself successful and happy, and on comes the weight of serving others…When our work matters, we feel we matter. We are built for good.”

Learning Journeys

Rather than prescribed pathways with fixed destinations, Liang and Klein see learning as a seeker’s journey where learners embrace the adventure and value meaningful direction over end destination, where direction is personal and often more like a circle than a straight line. Decision-making is more important than the destination.

Learning journeys should be full of meaningful activities often sparked by experiences that elicit gratitude, joy, love, interest, hope, pride, awe, or amusement. (These positive emotions were outlined by Barbara L. Fredrickson in Positivity.) In addition to feeling good, the experience of positive emotions improves learning, increases creativity, and builds resilience.

How to navigate life? Liang and Klein, encourage a purpose mindset, playing growth games, and focusing on future-proof skills that fit your value archetype while taking on the big needs in the world.

This post is part of our New Pathways campaign sponsored by American Student Assistance® (ASA), Stand Together and the Walton Family Foundation.

This post was originally published on Forbes.


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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