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on Leading the Next Generation


Helping Students Find Their Way in Life

One of the chief challenges for young adults today is choosing a career. Millions are struggling to determine which path to take; what “mission” to pursue. Two thirds of college students change their major more than once; a full 40% of them wish they’d chosen a different major once they finish. As they wander through their university experience, most don’t finish, and those that do—take six years not four years to complete their degree. According to, approximately 80% of those students moved back home when they finished college. 

What’s happening? Is it just that there are so many options to choose from? Or, perhaps it’s the opposite—these undergrads are not finding enough options in our current economy. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a missing piece to the puzzle.


Missing Pieces

You remember putting puzzles together as a kid don’t you? They’re impossible to finish if you don’t have all the pieces. Missing pieces result in incomplete pictures. I think I’ve discovered a missing piece when it comes to helping students discover what they’re supposed to do in life.

Consider the world we’ve created for them, the last twenty-five years. Most kids, regardless of whether they were from underprivileged neighborhoods or upper-middle class neighborhoods received a streaming message from culture. Even if it seemed unrealistic—they heard society say to them:

  • Listen to your heart.
  • Follow your dreams.
  • Find your passion.

From Disney movies they watched as children, to speeches they heard at their high school or college graduation, the message broadcast to today’s kid is to shoot for the stars and go after their dream: “If you can see it, you can seize it!”

Talk about a brand. Songs like “I Believe I Can Fly” and similar TV show themes on Nickelodeon or the Disney channel are ubiquitous. This message has been communicated loud and clear—and I’ve been one of those leaders who’ve shared it. Believe it and achieve it. You can be anything you want to be. Go for it. Just do it.

The problem is—it’s a horribly incomplete message. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Studies tell us that many students have shifted from ambitious to ambiguous about the future. You get stuck if your puzzle doesn’t have all the pieces. When surveyed, college students revealed their top two goals when finished with school:

  1. To be rich.
  2. To get famous.

Of course they’d choose this. That’s their passion. But riches and fame are hard to come by today. Millions are pursuing those two currencies: cash and followers.

So, along the way, we uncovered another puzzle piece. Thanks to the Gallup Organization and Marcus Buckingham, we began talking to students about and assessing their primary strengths. We helped them ask: what am I uniquely gifted to do? What ability do I possess that someone would pay me to do?

But even this isn’t enough. Millions of students found that they had gifts in acting, singing, song writing, poetry, psychology and other fields that are saturated. Sadly, loads of industries remain void of new talent—talent that’s desperately needed. In a recent nationwide survey, corporations reported that 50 percent of their job openings went unfilled last year due to the lack of prepared graduates. The young interviewees were ready to sing or do therapy—but not fill the jobs in computer science or engineering. In other words, the jobs were ready, the grads were not.

The Missing Piece

The bottom line is simply this. We must enable students to link their passion and their strength to a great need in the world. It’s incomplete to help students begin scratching an “itch” that doesn’t exist. It does little good to answer questions no one is asking. If we, however, can link their strength and their passion to a vision that genuinely fills a real void—we have a “win/win” situation. The world wins as a problem is solved…and they win as they experience the fulfillment that only comes when adding value to others. Their stock goes up. Value rises based on providing a scarce and needed resource. This is a missing piece.

Real purpose emerges when our strengths intersect with the world’s great need.

Passion alone can’t accomplish much if it’s not tied to purpose. And purpose only comes from the solving a significant problem.

In our work with schools across the U.S., we’ve seen several buy into this idea. Louisiana Tech has led the way by collaborating between the engineering, math and science departments. They help students connect their studies to real needs and address real issues. After enabling freshmen students to build a “bobot”, they launch them into their capstone project. They tell students: “Look around the world and find one problem that needs to be solved. Then, invent something to solve it.”

I love it.

So if need be, let’s help students shift their aspirations. Let’s help them find a problem, before we push them toward a vision or passion. Let’s match college majors with real job needs. Let’s move them from the pursuit of fantasy to the pursuit of fulfillment. If we really love them as we say we do—we owe them this.

It might just help them put their puzzle together.

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  1. Vatche on November 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Extremely well put.

  2. gail on November 6, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    ok. But what does this look like? You say, let’s match college majors with real job needs. Can you take us though what this looks like? For example, history major?

    • steve on November 6, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      It seems that the logical way to do that is to look at the real needs in a community. If most college dropouts are returning home, than maybe it would be worthwhile to know what the occupational needs are in the community where their parents live. Then it becomes easier to attach meaning to continued education. That would prevent the “I want to be a Marine Biologist but don’t want to leave my landlocked community in the middle of Nebraska” syndrome.

      The point seems to be to prevent students from selecting a History major without connecting that dream to the reality of how to apply it. Done well, every student studying to get a degree in History would also have a realistic plan regarding how to apply it.

      • Tim Elmore on November 7, 2013 at 10:09 am

        Well put, Steve. Thank you for responding! I would also add, Gail, that when you are choosing a major or in a major, ask professors, adults in your life, and your mentors questions such as:
        What jobs will this degree prepare me for?
        What is the overall marketplace look like for these jobs?
        With this major, what projects or steps can I take to receive “real-world” experience in college that will help me prepare for these jobs?
        What real world problems can I help solve with this major?

        These questions can provide more clarity on if you should choose the major or what you can do in the major to succeed after graduation.

      • gail on November 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm

        I really like the idea of seeing what the needs are in one’s community and then going from there. That’s a great place to start. thank you Steve and Tim.

  3. Blane on November 8, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Could you suggest some practical ways that we can get students “to shift there aspirations”?

    • Tim Elmore on November 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm

      Have students look at the world around them and find a problem they can help fix and then let them help. This could begin by helping a neighbor or neighborhood, a local nonprofit, a church, or their school. As they begin to find problems they prefer, help them understand why they enjoy and prefer solving certain ones.

      Another way is to shadow local leaders in the community, whether that person is in business, arts, public service, education, etc. Then discuss with them what they liked and did not like about the experiences.

      This allows them to experience many different “aspirations” they could pursue and understand which ones they prefer.

  4. Rachel on November 11, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Good points! The greatest thing is preparing students for “life,” and to avoid that “awkward transition phase” after college. Students should be able to move on with life without having a firm grasp on the next step–big or small.

  5. Elizabeth on November 11, 2013 at 9:49 am

    “When surveyed, college students revealed their top two goals when finished with school: To be rich. To get famous.” The rich and famous in this world are entertainers-that’s it. At least that’s what culture tells us. I personally think that life’s about a lot more than being rich and famous, but if I was pursuing that goal I would probably look into the entertainment world for a job idea. Jobs like engineering or computer tech. don’t sound so glamorous, but maybe that’s just because of our culture’s representation of those jobs. I think the media and especially mentors in the lives of children could do much to promote the jobs that are booming in America.

    • Tim Elmore on November 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      Great insight, Elizabeth. Thank you for sharing! I agree. We can certainly do a better job communicating to students that other careers are just as promising and rewarding as entertainment careers.

  6. Lexi Riley on November 11, 2013 at 10:39 am

    This is well put. Kids these days are being miss lead in the area that they are told that if they put their mind to it, they can succeed—on the first try; without failing. They aren’t prepared to accept failure. In elementary school, kids don’t receive rewards for 1st, 2nd, or 3rd anymore, but everyone gets a reward across the board—even if they didn’t try as hard as other kids or produce as great as quality as others. Everyone receives the same prize, the same reward, and when they grow up, they expect the same mentality when in college and when searching for jobs. They don’t realize that working hard doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically get what they want either. They don’t realize that failure can come again and again. They’re not prepared to face those facts because throughout their childhood they were told that they could do it. But they were not prepared to face failure.

    • Tim Elmore on November 15, 2013 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks Lexi for sharing your insight! You are seeing exactly what I am seeing in today’s students.

  7. Amy on November 11, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    I think overall people need to realize that many students need a reality check. They are being told to just follow their dreams and listen to their heart. The problem with that is that the truth really is that we cannot do anything we want. We must recognize that each individual has limitations, but that also means we have areas in which we excel. Teachers, adults, and parents should help steer their children to see what their strengths are and pursue that. They need to find out what they value and what is important to them so that they can find meaning in a career rather than it becoming just monotonous work to them.

    • Tim Elmore on November 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm

      I completely agree Amy. Thank you for commenting!

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Helping Students Find Their Way in Life