Want your teenager to discover their purpose in life? Ask them these four questions.

Marc Feder
September 24, 2020

95% of college graduates want a job with purpose.

As a kid, my purpose was playing basketball. I played every evening after school. During the summer, my brother and I would practice all day at the park near our house… despite triple-digit Texas heat and humidity.

I knew I’d never go pro. But I can’t help wondering sometimes, why didn’t anyone recognize my passion for the game and help me harness it into a career beyond being a player?

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Credit: Andrey Krasilnikov

My parents were supportive, but they didn’t know how to help me cultivate that passion. So I naively majored in broadcast journalism because I watched a lot of basketball and assumed that being a commentator was a good way to get paid to watch the sport I love. What I didn’t consider was whether I’d actually enjoy it or be good at it (I ended up transferring colleges and changing majors, so that answers that question).

Did you know that the NBA generates roughly $8 billion in annual revenue? That’s a huge business ecosystem that revolves around television rights, merchandising, sponsorships and ticket sales. The league employs more than 3,000 people, and that doesn’t include agents, business managers or marketing agencies that attach themselves to the NBA like a barnacle on a whale’s belly.

In hindsight, I think I would have been a great team scout, general manager or something in between. This perpetual wondering of “what could have been” has crouched in the back of my mind ever since graduating from college. Not as a regret. But more of a reminder. A mental Post-It note to pay it forward if I ever got the chance.

I spent years evaluating students’ candidacies for college and graduate school while working at an elite test prep and admissions consulting company. I helped our clients craft compelling stories, but by that point, it was too late to actually cultivate their sense of purpose. It was all about the application.

Now, working with students earlier in the process, I am excited to help them build a personal growth plan for life, not just a college application. Because it reminds me of when I was a teenager who loved to hoop, but needed guidance on how to flip that passion into a profession.

So, without further ado, if you want to help your teenager to realize their full potential and pursue a life with passion and purpose, ask them these four questions:

  1. What do you love?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What does the world need?
  4. What can you be rewarded for?
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These questions are the four elements of ikigai, a Japanese concept that loosely translates to “reason for being.”

Two quick notes before we continue. First, to apply these principles as a means of connecting one’s purpose to their professional career is a very westernized interpretation of ikigai. But hey, this is America. Second, know that ikigai is about the journey not the destination. This is not a set it and forget it kind of process. As we grow, so does our ikigai.

For now, the intention of this article is to help our teenagers apply the elements of ikigai so they can begin to uncover their reason for being. If they can parlay their ikigai into a career, fantastic! If not, at least they will unlock more joy in life and alleviate some stress in the process. Let’s break down the four questions:

1. What do you love?

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Credit: Jack Gisel

In other words, what is your teenager passionate about? Or what do they love to do in their spare time? The first thing you want to do is uncover their why.

Pay attention to what makes them come alive and note when they are happiest. Have open-ended conversations about why they love what they do. Hold back your biases or judgments. These conversations are about discovery, not guidance.

2. What are you good at?

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Credit: Sheri Hooley

Keep tabs on which classes and extracurricular activities your child excels in, especially ones in which they don’t have to try too hard. Recognize which skills come most naturally to them. Then encourage your teen to explore those skills on their own terms.

Cast a wide net here. This is not about grooming your child to be the next American Idol. It’s about uncovering clues that will lead to a better understanding of their competitive advantages, and possible industries or career paths where those advantages can be leveraged.

3. What does the world need?

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Credit: Simon Ray

In other words, what does your teenager care about that’s bigger than themselves? What change do they want to see in the world, and how can they make an impact?

Gen Z is arguably the most civic-minded generation we’ve ever seen. Even if your child isn’t as outspoken as Greta Thunberg, there’s still most likely a cause they care deeply about. Whether it’s global (e.g. climate change), national (e.g. gun violence) or local (e.g. homelessness), ask your teenager what they care most about and encourage them to get involved.

Especially for students who struggle with anxiety or depression, research shows that volunteering to help others also has a positive effect on our own happiness.

4. What can you be rewarded for?

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Credit: Micheile Henderson

Talk to your child about value creation and the fundamentals of supply and demand. Help them connect the dots between what they’re good at and how to possibly monetize that skill.

This is not about trying to guide your teen toward a steady career like being a lawyer or doctor. After all, some sources say that as many as 85% of jobs in 2030 don’t even exist yet.

Instead, help them explore the business ecosystems that exist in and around the things they enjoy. For example, if your kid loves playing video games, spend time with them researching various job titles and responsibilities at their favorite game company. This will help them see that there are many ways to make a living in the gaming industry besides being a professional gamer.

Sounds great! Now what?

Sign up for the 30-Day Ikigai Challenge and discover your teenager’s purpose in life. It’s a FREE (for now) enrichment program that combines the concept of ikigai with positive psychology to motivate students to discover their reason for being. They can do it on their own, or it could be a great exercise to do together as a family :)

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Remember, this is a process. Don’t force every question into one conversation. Take your time, be patient, observant and supportive. Lead with curiosity and try not to bring your own bias into the conversation. The intention is to help your child become the best version of themselves, not the best version of what you think they should be.

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