Helping Kids to Find Purpose and Cultivate Personal Success

It is June. Exam and graduation time for many students around the world. In the Netherlands, my adopted home country, it is also the month when one of my favorite Dutch traditions occurs: graduating high school students hang flags on their houses together with their school bags to celebrate passing their exams and moving on in life. It takes a global village to raise a child, and I love that this rite of passage is celebrated in such a public way. The bag-on-a-flag marks an important milestone for young people. When I pass a home in my neighbourhood with a raised flag, I silently honor the graduate and acknowledge the many hurdles that it has taken to get to this point. How do we uphold our kids as they transition from one milestone to another? What are the skills they need to cultivate in a rapidly, changing world? How do we help them to find purpose and personal success? Here are a few thoughts.

1. Uphold unevenness
Not every child will do well academically, particularly as they transition. As hard as it may be, we must learn to judge kids not by grades alone. According to a piece on finding purpose by the Center for Teen and Parent Communication (CPTC), we are all uneven. Our kids will not uniformly excel in everything, but there are areas in which they make their mark. I found this out first-hand through my preteen who is a World War II buff. When he chose to focus on WW II and lessons learned for his end-of-the-year school project, his focus, creativity and passion came alive. He and his two classmates visited museums, a concentration camp, interviewed Holocaust survivors and linked up with a local art gallery that creates figurines of real life refugees to create social awareness about the effects of war and displacement. Through this project, I caught a glimpse of where my son’s future interests may lay. By learning what they do well in and excites them, teens can begin finding their purpose. This in turn can help them with their education/ career goals and propel them to a life passion that is unique for them.

2. Build a life of meaning

“Grit” author, Angela Duckworth writes that, “the most obvious goal of education is to become critical thinkers. However, a less obvious but equally important goal is to cultivate character. Character enables young people to live a life that is as good for others as it is for them”. In her book, “How to Raise Successful People”, Esther Wojcicki (mom of three very successful women including YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki), writes that we are happiest and most beneficial to society when we are helping others. She suggests that we teach kids to find meaning and purpose through volunteerism and service. This is a concept that I think is so crucial for young people today. Likewise holding an ordinary job, the more unglamorous the better, provides key lessons in how to treat others and be empathetic. Colleges are increasingly looking for kids who can manage responsibilities, are empathetic and are exposed to the real world.

3. Develop 21st century life skills

Pediatrician and author, Dr Laura Jana outlines important tips in her recent TEDx talk entitled “Skills every child will need to succeed in the 21st century”. She states that youth need to have “me” skills, i.e. learn impulse control and mindfulness, in addition to “we” skills, such as collaborative learning and working. She adds that kids today need “why” skills to ask about the world around them and “will” skills which are about self- or intrinsic motivation. I love that she adds kids need “wiggle” skills- which is intellectual restlessness and “wobbles” which is learning from failure, a concept I have discussed in previous posts. She concludes by saying that kids need “what if” skills. The ability to imagine the world as it should be and use imagination and creativity. According to Dr Jana, by helping our global kids to develop these core skills we can open the door to “a world of possibilities”.

4. Embrace the unknown
Finally, we need to encourage children and teens to venture out of their comfort zone and explore. This may include studying or spending time in a place that is distinct from their home community, volunteering across town, or trying a class or activity they don’t usually do. Per the CPTC article, we never know what experiences may stick. As kids step outside of their comfort zone, we can point out the skills and strengths they are building. Finally, along with change, moves and transition come uncertainty. Being able to embrace this, rather than fight it, can be an important building block for developing resilience and finding purpose.

In the words of the wonderful Dr Seuss, “You're off to Great Places. Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So... get on your way”. Good luck to all the recent graduates out there. We are raising our flag for you!