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The Importance of Purpose

Guest Post by Arianne Levine

Suzy lived her life just getting done whatever she needed to get done–straight As in all the hardest classes, a schedule chock-full of every possible extracurricular, volunteer activity, sport, club, competition–having grown up in a small Westchester town that breeds kids to live their childhoods and young adulthoods for the sole purpose of attending an elite college. By the end of senior year, Suzy had gotten into the college of her dreams and got the grades she had worked her entire life to get, but she still felt like something was missing. She told friends that she did not understand the claim that senior year was the best ever; in spite of all the later successes, her experience with senior year was full of sleepless nights, college applications, tests, papers, and then multiple punches to the face in the forms of deferrals from colleges. She didn’t understand the hype or why everyone around her was carefree and constantly having a blast. Even though she finally had something (in fact, many things) to be happy about, her attitude was far from positive; she had achieved many of her goals (and the one big goal–college), yet she could not escape the nagging voice inside her head telling her that she still had not actually done anything. Suzy, like the vast majority of young adults, lacked a sense of purpose.

Research has shown that the experiences a person has in their late teens and twenties, along with the goals they set and enforce during those years, are among the most formative and influential of their life. Studies also show that most young adults and adults want to live a purposeful, fulfilling life, for the sake of both personal edification and giving back to others; the majority of adults, however, neither have a clear sense of their purpose in life nor feel their career paths further it. Living purposefully means combining what makes you happy, what you naturally excel at, and things you can get lost in for hours to fulfill a larger goal than personal pleasure. High school and college students may struggle to pinpoint what their purpose in or vision for the world is, but, as Dr. Christine Whelan writes in her book The Big Picture, “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” (Whelan 4). Whelan, a professor in the school of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says living purposefully is key: young adults who lack a clear sense of purpose or a purpose mindset merely exist, while those with a clear picture of what they want and should do thrive.

The Big Picture helped readers like Suzy realize that they have the power to adopt a purpose mindset now and to shift the way they think and view their roles in the world. Dr. Whelan’s juxtaposition of research, advice, and exercises push readers to more definitively articulate their desires, goals, fears, and purposes. The Big Picture is an important wake-up call: not everything you do has to fit logically together to advance one larger purpose; it is okay to do smaller, unrelated things each day with a purpose mindset instead. Adopting a purpose mindset is the key to understanding that, for example, while getting perfect grades and getting into college is important, you will continue to feel empty and unhappy if you maintained the mindset that grades, elite schools, and numerical success were the only worthwhile investments of time.


Whelan, Christine B. The Big Picture: A Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life. Templeton Press, 2016.