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Purpose is a ubiquitous word these days on college campuses. From solicited statements on applications, to alignment with one’s major, to leadership and career development, purpose is popping up in nearly every domain in higher education. There is an entire field dedicated to purpose in the social sciences and abundant research as to its benefits, and yet, what does purpose really mean to someone who is 18, or 20 or 25? 

Answering that question and applying it in the university setting has become the life’s work of Anthony (Tony) Burrow, a developmental psychologist and professor at Cornell University who runs the Purpose and Identity Processing Lab. He and his team of doctoral students are building a foundation of scientific evidence, measurement, and translation that informs the understanding of purpose so it can be incorporated into people’s lives, particularly adolescents and emerging adults. 

Anthony Burrow, PhD

“Research on this topic is growing and the evidence so far is clear that having a sense of purpose promotes health and wellbeing, longevity, stronger relationships, and even increases one’s earnings,” he said. “But too few of us on college campuses are familiar enough with this literature to use it effectively to engage students in courses and experiences.”

Part of the problem is the varying definitions of purpose and the way young people are assumed to know what it is and how to incorporate it into their lives. From Aristotle to Einstein to Stanford’s William Damon, brilliant thinkers have put their mark on the term. But the rest of us, particularly the college students who are frequently asked about it, may only know it as a good thing to have or strive for without any practical application. “There is a tendency for people to assume everyone shares a similar understanding of what is meant by ‘purpose’, but when you really dig into things, people don’t always mean the same thing,” said Burrow. 

Burrow teaches a class called “Translating the Science of Purpose” to help decipher different interpretations of purpose. It starts with examining the deep body of literature around purpose: “its scholarly definitions, its demonstrated role in life’s outcomes, and what it is related to or unrelated to.” The second part of the class examines how we communicate about purpose, a powerful term that’s fluidity can be used to anyone’s advantage as often happens with political narratives. A collective sense of purpose can be called upon to evoke hope and change or a return to making things great again. 

“Purpose isn’t so much a north star as it is perhaps a compass.”

Burrow says exploring identity is an important step to understanding purpose, (hence the lab’s name), though, as a developmentalist, he is less concerned about who you are in the current moment than who you will eventually become. “We’re trying to unpack how people understand themselves,” he said. “How is that when people start to engage with the world around them, they are able to internalize some features to say ‘that’s me—that’s who I am.’ Yet, in other cases, engagements do not become meaningful aspects of ourselves? The intricacies of identity processes are fascinating.” 

For young people, these questions are particularly important, and often vexing. Burrow gives an example from his own background. “My grandfather grew up on a farm, with relatively few options of vocation available beyond being a farmer himself; and indeed he became one. For him, his identity and role were perhaps foreclosed due to lack of options. By contrast, identity may be much more of an asset today. For example, most universities offer long menus of majors and minors for young people to choose from. How should we expect they successfully navigate these choices if they don’t know something about who they are? Today, identity may be more of a requirement for navigating the experiential landscape.” 

Burrow says identity and purpose are linked, but identity is often confused with purpose when, according to Burrow, it is actually codified by it. “Identities are important because they reveal insights into a person’s motivations, interests, values, and goals,” said Burrow. “But alone, those things can be static and fixed in a particular time. Whereas a sense of purpose can organize and orient aspects of your identity toward the future, and make clearer the broader intentions that drive your behavior and decisions in everyday life.’”

Part of how the lab team defines and communicates about purpose comes from studying what they believe it is not. It is associated with altruism which is often an avenue on the purpose infrastructure but it is not a prerequisite to having purpose. Researcher William Damon defines purpose as a generalized intention to accomplish something meaningful to the self with consequences to the world beyond that. While Burrow respects the definition of his friend and colleague, he sees the prosocial aspects of this definition as but one type of purpose, among many other types available to people. A purpose could be imbued with many contents and motivations for pursuing it. Some of them will be socially desirable and others may be less so—but we shouldn’t diminish the impact of purpose for the person holding it by calling it something different. 

“By purpose, I don’t necessarily mean one role, or singular interest, or one ultimate value. Instead, purpose can be thought of as being capable of taking stock of all of those things when we put them together. It is a center of gravity for the various aspects of who we are and where we are heading. What does that look like? It looks bigger than merely setting goals.” 

Goals often get used interchangeably with purpose, but Burrow cautions against reducing them to synonyms. Whereas goals can be accomplished, doing so does not lend itself easily to knowing what ought to happen next. It is a sense of purpose that can help align goal pursuit and clarify that once a goal is achieved, which goals ought to follow. 

For Burrow, purpose is a continuous prospective state of mind – or, an intention – that propels you forward but is not ever actually accomplished. This is consistent with the theorizing of other purpose researchers like Todd Kashdan and Patrick McKnight, who articulated that purpose isn’t so much a north star as it is perhaps a compass. That is, it is a personal resource that allows you to move steadily forward through life in the direction you intend to set course. 

“To apply purpose in a practical way, the question we should be asking students is not ‘what is your purpose?’ but ‘when do you feel most purposeful?’”

On its web site, the Purpose and Identity Processing Lab states,“We believe everyone has the potential to cultivate a sense of purpose,” with links to research papers that chronicle how it can be done in a variety of settings. Burrow believes weaving purpose more thoroughly and explicitly into the tapestry of student experiences is critical work for colleges and universities. 

“Those of us privileged to work on college campuses have a front row seat to the development tasks of adolescence and emerging adulthood– observing how students answer questions like ‘who am I? what is my place in the world?, what will I contribute to it?’” said Burrow. “Without more intentionally engaging students’ sense of purpose we are leaving something important on the field. If we bother to ask students to articulate a purpose statement in admissions, why wouldn’t we ensure that we follow-up with them about how well we are helping them pursue it throughout their studies? To me, this seems absolutely vital.”

But fuzzy interpretations of purpose have allowed institutions to drop the ball on this. Evoking the term throughout the college experience might be good messaging but without the work behind it, purpose is more of a platitude than the self-organizing benefit Burrow describes. To apply purpose in a practical way,he believes the question we should be asking students is not “what is your purpose?” but “when do you feel most purposeful?” The question for colleges should then be “under what conditions on this campus do people feel most purposeful?” That way, patterns of behaviors and routines that lead to purposefulness can be identified, replicated, and more strategically integrated with course contents and experiential opportunities. 

Burrow says that Gen Z students are ripe for this kind of intervention. He and his team run the Contribution Project where students at Cornell, and now neighboring SUNY schools, offer ideas on who or what they would contribute to if given $400 to pursue their idea. One student identified buying plane tickets for their roommate’s parents who couldn’t afford to come to graduation. Expecting a handful of students to sign up when he first introduced the idea, Burrow was pleasantly surprised that close to 200 students responded. He now invites administrators, faculty and staff to participate in an end of project showcase event to provide a window into the ways students see themselves contributing. “We could be building classes and programs around what students showed us they want to do in the world. Above and beyond their role as students, leveraging their emerging identities as contributors may provide inroads into deepening their learning and connections with key concepts.”