THE TIME IS NOW
I always thought you just go to college and the rest figures itself out. That’s what we’re told. But it doesn’t work like that. Going to college isn’t a prescription, it’s not a guide for life. No one tells you how to make it all work. Then I thought it was about setting goals, so I did that. I made one-, three-, five-, and ten-year plans. I’m a dreamer. But in one year I accomplished my two life goals—to go to Europe and graduate from college—and I had no idea what to do next. The best advice is to trust your instincts, learn about yourself, and figure out what gives you meaning and purpose. But trusting your instincts and searching for meaning is hard, especially when you feel like it’s just you out there all alone. —MARIA P.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE when you grow up?”
“Where do you want to go to college?”
“What do you want to major in?”
“Do you have a job lined up after graduation?”
You’ve been asked some variation of these questions hundreds of times by well-meaning (but irritating) adults. Most of the how-to-be-happy advice you’ve been given revolves around accumulating degrees and impressive job titles. But my guess is that you know that something is missing from this conversation—that questions lurk behind these questions—and that a meaningful, happy life means connecting to something bigger.
For decades, the assumption was that those big questions weren’t meant for young people. In the old way of doing things, you’d do what you had to do to get a job and make ends meet to support a family, and only after you achieved financial security could you ask what was important to you and how your gifts and talents could make a difference. Books on seeking purpose were mostly targeted at midlife adults who wanted to do something more meaningful with the second half of their lives than they did with the first.
Fortunately, times have changed. Research proves what you already know: You are at a pivotal juncture right now. Your personality is shaped more during your twenties than any other time in adulthood, and the experiences you have and the choices you make during these years will have a disproportionate influence on the life that you will lead. Indeed, according to psychologist Meg Jay’s inspirational book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them, 80 percent of life’s most significant events take place by the age of thirty-five, so to leave thoughtful consideration of these questions until a midlife crisis seems backward. Your late teens and twenties are the years when you are creating yourself in relationship to the world, and it is rightfully a time for asking big questions and formulating worthy dreams.
Just as kids effortlessly learn whatever language they hear before age five—but struggle to do so as they get older—your young-adult years are a window of opportunity to create the life you want by making conscious choices about what’s meaningful to you . . . now.
Studies find that people who set and achieve goals in their twenties are more likely to report a sense of purpose, mastery, agency, and well-being in their thirties, but you don’t have to lock yourself into one particular path or singular purpose for the rest of your life. Instead, research suggests that getting into a purpose mindset—identifying how your specific talents and values intersect with the needs of others—is the first step toward living a purposeful life.
This is the first guidebook to help young adults—high school and college students and recent grads—get into that purpose mindset. We ask questions such as:
What are my talents—and how can I use those to help others and create meaning?
How have my life experiences shaped who I am and what I can give?
What do I value, and how can I be happy while being true to those values?
Asking and answering those questions have already transformed the lives of some of your peers: Megan read a draft of The Big Picture as she finished her freshman year of college and says that it gave her the perspective she needed to handle the life-changing events that unfolded next.
Megan was a serious volleyball player. In her first year of college she’d been injured twice, and as she started her sophomore year she was having differences with her coach. “After five days of tryouts,” she says, “it wasn’t working out—and he asked me not to come back. I was really, really upset, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Seeking a team as well as to reclaim her identity as an athlete, Megan joined the Ultimate Frisbee club team. But during the spring semester, she collided with the biggest guy on her team and suffered a serious concussion. It wasn’t her first concussion either, compounding her problems: She was unable to walk straight or sit in a room with light. She left school for several weeks as she met with neurologists to figure out what to do.
While she finished out the school year, Megan was left with permanent vertigo and severe anxiety. Contact sports were out. She started her junior year, she recalls, “without a sport and without an identity.”
Looking for answers, she pulled out The Big Picture a second time and reread her initial responses. Megan realized that she still had much to be thankful for, and that sports weren’t the only thing that gave her life purpose: “My family and friends never went away, and neither did my passion for being a teacher.” The accident, and then rereading her Big Picture work, refocused Megan for the last two years of college.
“It was a turning point,” Megan said. “Little things just don’t get me fired up anymore. Little college dramas don’t freak me out anymore. Now that I can see my larger purpose, I can take a step back. That’s my advice to people reading this book: Look at everything that’s happening around you, all the good things that are going for you, and live with a purpose mindset. If you hit a roadblock, it isn’t going to end your dreams. It’s all about seeing the big picture.”
SO, WAIT. WHAT IS PURPOSE?
Megan’s advice is right on target: Live with a purpose mindset. But what exactly does that mean?
Living purposefully means having a good sense of what you are trying to accomplish in your life—and an understanding of why it’s important. Goals like getting into college or getting a job are just that: goals. While they are important, they are also shorter-term.
When you are in a purpose mindset, you are connecting to something that is bigger than you—and pursuing goals that are valuable and important toward achieving that end. The quest for beauty or justice isn’t just about your individual desires; these bigger dreams transcend our day-to-day grind and give us the perspective we need to keep going. As writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said, you find your purpose and sense of self in the world where “the heart’s deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.”
Let’s be clear: Your purpose isn’t to get into college or get a certain type of job. It isn’t to marry the right kind of person or have a house in the best neighborhood. It’s also probably not about selling all your worldly possessions and becoming a missionary (although for a few that might be the path), and it’s certainly not about saying no to fun.
Living purposefully isn’t about glamorous work or important-sounding titles. Seemingly mundane jobs can be full of meaning when approached from a purpose mindset. So can high-profile positions that ea...