Why Schools Need to Help Students Find Purpose — and How to Do It

EdSurge I started my first college advising session with Marcus with the same question I always asked:

“If you could do anything after high school knowing that you would be successful, financially secure, and your friends and family would support you, what would you do?”

His speed of response surprised me.

By failing to take student’s aspirations seriously, we miss out on key information that may help us understand and serve our most disengaged students to help them cultivate purposeful lives

“Become a YouTube gamer,” Marcus replied.

Teenagers vocalizing outrageous and fantastical aspirations was not new to me. Countless students told me they wanted to become a professional basketball player (even if they weren’t on the basketball team), or a rapper or musician (even when they didn’t sing or rap). And increasingly, thanks to shows like “CSI: Miami” and “Bones,” they wanted to become forensic scientists (which, I confess, I know little about). But in truth, I’m with Marcus; I too would like to be paid millions of dollars to play video games all day.

When teens give seemingly fantastical answers, adults’ common response is to dismiss them, brushing off these goals as unmoored from reality. Instead, adults advise students to focus on pursuing practical and realistic careers. Take up coding, study nursing or go into engineering, they say. Become a lawyer, or an electrician. Not only are these meaningful, important and financially lucrative careers, but they also provide job security and are in high demand.

But there’s a big missed opportunity here. By failing to take student’s aspirations seriously, even if they are seemingly outlandish or far-fetched, we miss out on key information that may help us understand and serve our most disengaged students to help them cultivate purposeful lives.

With Marcus, my next step was a follow-up question—asked from a genuine place of curiosity:

Why did he want to become a YouTube gamer?

I’m glad I asked because his answer floored me.

Marcus told me that he’d been viciously bullied during elementary school, peaking in middle school. He told me of the depression and anxiety he suffered as a result. He shared how socially isolated and alone he had felt, and how he’d had no one to turn to. The pain he felt as a result of this social ostracization was the worst thing he’d ever experienced.

To cope with the pain he would lose himself in the world of online gaming on YouTube. Then, in seventh grade, he found his hero, a gamer with millions of followers named Markiplier who enjoyed immense financial success. Marcus watched Markiplier for a reason. Sprinkled throughout his gaming and sketch comedy videos, Markiplier would share stories about being bullied as a kid, stories very similar to the ones Marcus shared with me. Hearing his hero share experiences so similar to his own had a profound and life-changing effect on Marcus. It made him feel less alone, and realize that he wasn’t the only one who struggled in school. Markiplier gave Marcus something essential: he made him feel he belonged.

As a result of Markiplier’s influence, Marcus started making and posting his own videos. Marcus told me that he aspired to help others through his own comedic videos and sketch comedy the same way Markiplier had helped him: by making viewers feel less alone.

Hearing this context profoundly changed how I viewed Marcus’ motivations and aspirations. Yes, he wanted to become a famous YouTube gamer, but more importantly, he wanted to help others feel less alone, and saw vlogging as the optimal medium. Through the channel of online gaming, Marcus could pursue a sense of purpose.

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