Fabio Alessandro Michaelis
Fabio Alessandro Michaelis
Research has shown that a small percentage of employees worldwide is engaged in their work and that a lack of purpose and meaning in life can be detrimental for individuals. Young adults nowadays face a magnitude of different choices after graduation and tend to not feel well-prepared for their transition from study to work. As the modern world of work is increasingly complex and specialized, work shifts away from survival towards finding a connection with one’s identity. We argue that the right starting point to tackle this issue is to help students to envision their future career and identify the purpose and meaning behind their work before they enter the job market. Career preparation in university is often top-down, starting with the discovery of kinds of jobs are available and where one fits in. Based on a large evidence base, we suggest offering a Future Authoring workshop to students in which they take a bottom-up, purpose-driven approach to career planning. This chapter also present learnings from a pilot workshop and gives practical recommendations for universities on how to help students identify their purpose in life and pursue meaningful career paths. With this initiative, we intend to make our contribution to the global engagement crisis.
In education, there is largely a top-down approach to career planning, starting with the discovery of what is out there in terms of jobs and looking for matches with one’s abilities, skills, and interests. In some curricula, there are career orientation courses in which guest lecturers introduce students to different job areas and students explore them in practical sessions. This already presents a great opportunity for students to connect their studies with reality and allows them to navigate the job market more effectively. However, by no means are such courses part of every curriculum. Research has also revealed that students tend to be poorly prepared for their transition to work (Garcia-Aracil, et al., 2018) and that there is a need for more orientation (Crossley, 2014). The school-university-job pipeline often seems to be on rails with rare opportunities to stop and think about what one essentially wants from life. Certainly, the value of experiential learning programmes such as internships is high (Clark, & White, 2010; Gupta et al., 2010) and should thus, be part of university curricula. However, the modern world of work is more complex and specialized than ever before and not anymore focused on mere survival but more on finding a connection with one’s identity (Kosine, et al., 2008). Therefore, students must identify a reason for working by connecting their personal strengths to the pursuit of favourable career pathways.
Shockingly, a Gallup survey has found that only thirteen percent of employees worldwide feel engaged in their work (Mann, & Harter, 2016). Therefore, we aim to offer students an opportunity to start their career planning on the meta level: asking themselves what they want from their lives and what their purpose and meaning in life should be. By connecting work with their self-concept, graduates could be more likely to enter jobs in which they are engaged and feel that they spend their lives purposefully and intentionally. In this chapter, we present the background of our redesign, outline the programme, and discuss feedback from stakeholders and voluntary participants of our pilot workshop.
It is urgent and of critical importance to address the lack of purpose and meaning that employees experience. Several studies have shown how lack of purpose can have detrimental outcomes, such as depression (e.g., Harlow, et al., 1986). People with a higher sense of purpose and meaning are more likely (1) to be resilient against burnout and depression (Ryff, & Singer, 1998), (2) to feel more certain about their future career (Tyron, & Razdin, 1972), and (3) to feel more engaged with, committed to and satisfied with their work (Steger, & Dik, 2010). This highlights how an increased sense of purpose can be a great resource. We believe that the magnitude of different choices after graduation (Appleby, 2006) combined with a lack of self-reflection on a meta level may lead to disorientation, false decisions and thus, dissatisfaction with the chosen path. It seems that exploring questions such as “what is the purpose and the meaning of my career?” on a deeper level is missing in our education system. Helping young individuals with their journey towards self-actualization can also be beneficial for both universities and organizations. For instance, an individual’s level of job involvement is a key mechanism toward unlocking motivation and putting in extra effort at work (Brown, 1996). For universities, the benefit is simple: students find career-related parts of the curriculum helpful, and these can have a considerable impact on student satisfaction (Tomy, & Pardede, 2019). Notably, student satisfaction is largely dependent on satisfaction with the variety of courses, is positively associated with student retention and is thus, an important indicator for universities (Suhre et al., 2007; Nauta, 2007). So, the literature does not only show how important purpose and meaning is in people’s lives but also how well-designed career-preparation courses can be beneficial to all stakeholders, including students, organizations, and education providers. This lays the foundation of our proposed redesign.
As people see work as a vital – sometimes even the most vital – source of meaning (Baum & Stewart, 1990), we believe that establishing purpose and meaning before entering the job market is key to having a meaningful work life. To connect people’s self-concept with the job market, we adapt approaches from the Future Authoring suite developed by a group of researchers from McGill University and University of Toronto. The Future Authoring suite was predominantly developed as an online programme that combines the benefits of narrative writing (see King, 2001) and goal setting (see Latham, & Locke, 2007). It involves a series of stream-of-consciousness writing exercises that help individuals achieve an understanding of who they are as a person and envision a purposeful, healthy, and productive future (Finnie et al., 2017). Such guided, writing-intensive workshops are useful because recent studies have indicated that they can improve student outcomes, such as academic performance and retention, and substantially reduce gender and ethnic minority inequalities (Morisano et al., 2010; Schippers et al., 2015; Finnie et al., 2017). Additionally, increasing awareness and give people the opportunity to reflect on their purpose is beneficial for future functioning (Schippers et al., 2013). Ultimately, this helps individuals direct their energy to personally meaningful goals (Grant et al., 2002; Shin, & Steger, 2014).
The main component of our workshop consists of imagination exercises that help students envision a meaningful, purpose-driven, and productive future. It starts with brief two-minutes written narratives, exploring fundamental questions of one’s ideal future (see Appendix, click here). Then, participants are asked to describe their ideal social, leisure, and family life and add things they want to avoid in their lives. They afterwards write about where they want to be in six months, two years, and five years and what they want to learn until then. These brief imaginative writing assignments warm them up for their written vision of their future that integrates all previously formulated aspects. Students are encouraged to be ambitious and imagine their lives as something that is honourable, exciting, and productive. Throughout all exercises, students should include the ’why’ behind their desired states, to clarify the meaning and purpose. To create a safe environment, they are told to not worry about spelling or grammar but only on content (i.e., free writing) and that they write only for themselves without being evaluated. Thereby, they do not rely on someone else’s thoughts, nor fear their judgements, and instead, aim for constructing their individual, personalized and desired future based on their own deepest thoughts, feelings, and values.
After this first stage, participants reflect on their stream-of-consciousness and formulate an action plan for implementation and future self-monitoring. They are asked to rank their goals and steps according to what is most important and urgent to them. Additionally, they are asked to imagine potential obstacles and how they could overcome them. This is meant to enable them to monitor their progress and adapt to challenges autonomously and regularly.
In our effort to make our idea implementable, we have met with stakeholders from the University of Groningen. It was important to us to talk to both directors and student representatives to get input from both perspectives. They did not only encourage us that our redesign tackles a relevant gap in the system but also gave us highly useful feedback. A coordinator of a career preparation course, for instance, shared her view and discussed with us where our redesign could fit in. The student representative shared his experience and gave us tips on promotion and implementation. A director of education, on the other hand, took the long-term view and gave us food for thought on how we could pitch our idea to university directors. She also highlighted how important it is to test our idea on a small scale, to make adjustments to it and present the learnings from it during a pitch. Therefore, we decided to run a pilot workshop, the insights of which we briefly present here.
This pilot consisted of a 30-minute opening session, a 45-minute homework assignment and a 30-minute feedback session. In total, nine volunteers (4 females) participated. To see whether our workshop is useful for students with different levels of awareness about their career purpose, we ensured that there is a good mix between individuals who already know what they want from their lives and individuals who do not yet know. We gave them a stream-of-consciousness homework assignment (see appendix, click here). Since we did not want to overwhelm our volunteers, we only included this first stage into the pilot. In the feedback session, we asked students several reflective and evaluative questions. Overall, they liked the fragmented approach that looked at each area individually first. They also valued the free writing and how everything felt to be connected to their deepest values and beliefs and gained new insights in terms of how much responsibility and power lies internally. It was challenging, however, to keep the writings below two minutes which made us realize that the final redesign should provide students with more time. Another point was that they would have liked to apply habit-section to every single area to be able to directly implement beneficial, goal-related habits. This is a useful addition that we will implement in our final version. Further, they would have liked to discuss their roadmap with fellow students to get feedback on action steps and be inspired by others. Intelligently, they pointed out that this workshop should run over a longer period as change and implementation needs time. So, it should be integrated in an ongoing, regular workshop which provides the opportunity to track progress, to re-evaluate their purpose and goals, and to get support on implementation. To make the connection to jobs, they suggested including interests and the ideal workday into the narrative. Another idea that we will incorporate into our final version is to create a vision board (e.g. using the miro online whiteboard) that visualizes one’s values, purpose, and goals. This could function as a regular reminder of one’s vision and to making quick adjustments based on a potential change in their vision.
Based on this feedback, our proposed workshop can start as an extracurricular offering for students interested to take a bottom-up, inside-out approach to career planning, starting with purpose, values, and meaning. This does not only make the implementation feasible but is also in line with Roscoe and colleagues’ (2009) recommendation for universities to work together with career centres to integrate career preparation workshops. We recommend using the free-writing assignments as a starting point and organize regular reflection sessions that help students monitor their progress, revisit goals, and get support on how to overcome obstacles. If deemed beneficial by all stakeholders, the workshop could be integrated into curricular in the long run. To promote our initiative, we will pitch our redesign to a teaching director and to career services at the University of Groningen.
Our proposed redesign is justified by several scientific perspectives. First, from a Human Capital perspective in which it is assumed that organizations compete for utility-maximizing employees and thus, the lifetime value of a people with a set of desired characteristics (Weiss, 1995). As discussed in our problem analysis, maximizing people’s involvement in their job is beneficial for organizations as it is a key mechanism toward unlocking motivation by putting in extra effort (Brown, 1996). Second, it is justified by the engagement perspective and Self-Determination Theory (Furrer et al., 2014) as an increased sense of purpose and meaning can boost engagement and commitment in people’s activities (e.g., Steger et al., 2010). Naturally, our Future Authoring workshop gives people autonomy (i.e., being a causal agent in their own lives), competence (i.e., learning new skills through action steps based on goal setting) and relatedness (i.e., peer- and instructor-support throughout the workshop). Third, it is justified by Robinson and Aronica’s (2015) perspective of management studies. They argued that education should shift away from an industrial process to a more organic and individualized process in which the conditions of the systems offer learners the opportunity to thrive. As our workshop tackles self-actualization and is highly individualized, we believe that this redesign is in line with their suggestions and offers a valuable contribution to a more balanced education system. In sum, we highlight that we developed our redesign under consideration of a decent and diverse evidence base which should give education providers confidence in the usefulness of our proposed solution.
The presented redesign utilizes the efficacy of future authoring to help young individuals identify their purpose and meaning in their lives. Thereby, we believe that we can create a positive impact on students, education systems, and organizations. As the work life is an essential part in people’s and a major source of meaning, we recommend universities to offer students the opportunity to start their career planning with their personal values, purpose, and vision. We view our workshop as a valuable addition to the university curriculum as it provides an alternative, purpose-focused perspective on career planning. We hope that our workshop will make people feel engaged in and committed to their work and empower them to thrive in their daily activities.
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