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Top 3 Blogs: The Day I Stopped Asking Students the Wrong Questions

I appreciate everyone who reads, comments, and sparks continued research through our blog articles. I wanted to take this week to post the top 3 articles that have helped leaders like you over the past year. Today’s article is “The Day I Stopped Asking Students the Wrong Questions.”

I want to make a confession. For years, I have spoken at high school and university commencements and made the classic remarks others have made to students:

  • “Find your passion and pursue it.”
  • “Go after your dreams, and don’t let anyone deny you.”
  • “Trust your heart and fulfill your purpose.”

These clichés were what I really believed at the time. I wanted to help students figure out what they were supposed to do with their life through self-diagnosis. If they would only look inside, they could discover their calling in life.

It’s a sort of self-determination I felt I should encourage in students; I wanted them to be ambitious, and I thought this was the right mindset to go after it.

Today—I no longer believe this.

Why This is Bad Advice

Too many students heard this message from parents, pastors or commencement speakers and somehow drew the conclusion: Wow! I can dream up anything I want to do, and if I try hard enough, I can do it. Hundreds of thousands began choosing majors in college that our society and economy just didn’t need. For a while, the number one goal of college graduates was to be rich and famous. In one survey, students claimed they most wanted to be the “personal assistant to a celebrity.”

As a result, students’ job searches were autonomous and self-absorbed. They began with: What do I want, and what must I do to get it? Even if the search was altruistic, it was still ignited by self. In the words of David Brooks, it was first about self-investigation and ultimately about self-fulfillment. William Ernest Henry’s famous poem, “Invictus,” summarizes the sentiment: I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.

I believe this has left, perhaps, millions of students with grievances against our culture and their advisors. Why? It didn’t work too well. They graduated only to find life wasn’t about them—employers weren’t interested in their self-fulfillment, and money was far too hard to come by in a sour economy.

A Lesson From the Past

During the dark days of World War II, Victor Frankl spent years in a Nazi ghetto and later a concentration camp. It was there he learned that life cannot be evaluated in simple terms of “self.” Each of us individuals are part of a larger community, and our success must be measured in terms of that larger community, not in laying personal life plans. We are all part of history, a narrative into which we’ve been placed to contribute to the specific circumstances and challenges of our day.

For instance, Frankl spent most of his time in the concentration camp laying tracks for the railroad. This was not the life he had planned for himself. It was neither his passion, nor his dream. This left him with two choices: he could either get lost in depression over it, or he could choose to find meaning in his suffering by figuring out how best to contribute to his current circumstances.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life,” he’d later write, “but rather what life expected from us.” Frankl had been given an amazing intellectual and social opportunity to study human behavior under the most horrific conditions. He had the chance to share what he was learning with his fellow prisoners and, if he survived, with a larger population. It became invigorating to him. “Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs,” he wrote. Frankl would tell suicidal prisoners that life had not stopped expecting things from them. Life “ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before the individual.”

A Different Set of Questions

So, as you work with students, may I suggest we make a shift in the questions we’re asking? I am making this shift and finding the conversation more invigorating:

Stop Asking… Start Asking…
1. What do you want to major in? 1. What problem do you want to solve?
2. What do you want out of life? 2. What is life asking of you?
3. How much money can you make? 3. What do you have to give?
4. How can you achieve something great? 4. How can you add value in a given context?
5. What do you possess inside? 5. What are the needs or opportunities around you?
6. What will make you happy? 6. What are you being summoned to do?

Our world is too broken and in need of repair for us to simply ask:

  • What do you want to major in during college?
  • What jobs pay well and can get you a nice house or car?
  • What will make you happy?

Happiness comes when I find a great “why” behind a career choice. As Frederick Nietzsche noted, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”


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  • Erin Brown

    The timing of this repost offers just the clarity I needed. I have a middle school child who is struggling with personal motivation. One might say that’s not unusual at this age, but it seems a deeper struggle with purpose. His inability to see beyond himself is discouraging. Again, maybe not unusual for this age, but it’s a deeper with him. He wants answers to the questions noted in this post that we should “Stop asking…” He thinks answering those will solve his purpose dilemma. I’m guilty of asking them at times–perpetuating this idea that it’s all about me/him and getting frustrated with the results. So today, my questions shift but is making this transition so easy? Is there something to do between the “stop asking” and the “start asking” questions that can make the hard wired “me” culture make that leap?

    • Great question, Erin. What I’ve found to be effective with many teens is to have an honest conversation around this article. You may even want to share this article with him, and then discuss it while also sharing your own story. Too often kids don’t know the path their parents took, which gives the context around the life lessons you’ve learned.

      Hope this helps.
      -Tim

  • Boyd Allen

    A truly prophetic peice of writing. I have been observing this dynamic in our school for several years and have commmented how we are encouraging our students to chase their dreams, hearts and desires then watch them leave school or make decisions or act in ways that has nothing to do with service, care, perserverance and commitment. Qualities of selflessness we are wanting to nurture and see realised in our students. Is it a hybrid form of “consumerism” we have unintentionally validated? Again thanks for your insights.

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