How to navigate life: A guide for you and your teen

Trying to make decisions in school – and in life – can feel full of pressure and uncertainty. Natalie Moutafis discovers that there is hope with a new book on finding your purpose.

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

‘What career do you want to study for?’

‘Where do you see yourself after school finishes?’

Questions like these are common, particularly as our teens look to choose their senior subjects in secondary school or consider university courses. Yet recent research concluded that not only do many school leavers not know what career they want, about a third were doing subjects with no sense of purpose.

But what is purpose? Authors Dr Belle Liang and Timothy Klein define it as the ‘why behind the what and how’. And it’s a topic they know intimately given their backgrounds – Belle, a professor of Counselling Psychology at Boston College, and Tim, an award-winning urban educator, clinical therapist, school counsellor who formerly served as the Chief Impact Officer at Project Wayfinder . They have shared knowledge and research in their book How to Navigate Life: The new science of finding your way in school, career and beyond.

This book is like having a life and careers counsellor by your side. Suited to teachers, parents and carers, secondary school students and university graduates, it is a book for everyone.

The book aims to help you – and your child – find your path to purpose.

Belle and Tim break this up into two areas. The first half of the book is about The Five Purpose Principles – the decision-making framework to navigate life – one of which is how to uncover your values.

What are core values?

Early on, Belle and Tim explore the value archetypes. They explain that ‘strengths are what make us our best selves, skills are what make us able to do the job, core values are what move us – they are another huge directional force that orients you toward purposeful decisions’.

So what does this mean? How do you know your core values and what motivates or drives you?

One parent was quoted saying their 15-year-old didn’t appear to have any motivation other than to play video games. The parent questions, ‘Is his core value gaming?’. The authors explain that no it’s not, that his core values pull him to gaming. ‘Gaming aligns with his desire for mastery, self-direction, and community.’ In short, values are what drives our behaviour.

Those who struggle to identify their core values can approach it by looking at the big decisions they’ve made in life. Belle and Tim say there are three key actions that help to shine a light on our core values:

  • Embrace risks worth taking
  • Lean into noble sacrifices
  • Fight the good fight

As an example of ‘leaning into noble sacrifices’, they discuss Patagonia, the clothing company for outdoor enthusiasts. The company is well known for its stance on sustainability and stability. The CEO, Rose Marcario, regularly explains how the company was founded on the love of the outdoors. ‘If you love something you want to preserve it and protect it’. She speaks of how they have a self-imposed ‘earth tax’ with the company donating tax breaks to environmental non-profits. This is the ‘noble sacrifice’ that the company has made as part of its own core values.

Since the book was published, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has transferred his family’s company to a trust and not-for-profit organisation with all profits now being used to help fight climate change – saying they’re not ‘going public’, they’re ‘going purpose’. It’s interesting to see how these core values of the company founder are playing out and driving his purpose forward.

But why do these core values matter? Simply, they make us feel better. When we feel better, our confidence, self-worth and overall quality of life improve. From a student perspective, they are ‘more academically motivated, get better grades, and are less likely to drop out’. The authors say that asking students (and adults) questions, rather than giving answers, helps with the purpose mindset.

And asking questions is frequently covered in the books’ work pages. Most chapters end with a series of questions to reflect on – aiming to help the reader uncover their purpose.

Watch the related webinar: Thrivers, not just survivors with Tim Klein

The path to purpose

In the second half of the book, Belle and Tim explain how to apply those five principles, in the five key areas: relationships, secondary school, college (or university), the workplace and the larger world.

They call this ‘re:purpose’. How can we help our children (and ourselves) get a new, better perspective on their lives? By taking those values from the book’s first half, and applying them to the area of life the reader is currently in.

Right, but how does all this purpose finding help our teens in secondary school?

The authors explain how education has a prominent metaphor of a path: ‘You’re on the right path, you’re headed in the right direction, and keep going!’. Students are in ‘accelerated’ courses or ‘pathway programs’. This pathway metaphor implies that the educational journey for our kids is straightforward and simple. If you follow the path, and choose the right path, you’ll find success at the end of that path.

But that’s not quite how the world works. We no longer go to school, then university (or get a trade) and stay in that job for 30-plus years until retirement. ‘Current college graduates can expect to have at least 15 career-related jobs throughout their careers, That’s a lot of change!’

Belle and Tim talk of students being ‘seekers’. Looking away from the ‘path’ that society thinks they should take and instead exploring the unknown – seeking their own way.

To be able to help our children and students, the book asks us to reflect on our own lives. That leap of faith you took is unlikely because you followed the path. The authors speak of the adventure in this. Looking for your ‘spark’ and how to make life feel ‘meaningful’.

The point of this is to understand that when our own children begin to question the ‘path’ we can help guide them and reassure them that this uncertainty is normal. Encouraging our children to take a chance, to do something brave, to follow that passion and see what adventure it leads to is what this is all about.

Belle and Tim write of helping students to ‘listen’. ‘So, when they notice something that piques their interest, encourage them to listen’. What do they mean? Give them the permission to follow their interests and passions, tune into what they’re drawn to and see where it leads.

The book regularly reflects on how teachers and educators can help their students. While this implies it’s a book for those in education, the advice applies to parents, carers and teens.

It would also serve as a great tool for parents and their teens to work on together, sharing lived experience and wisdom with the research-backed recommendations and experience of Belle and Tim – all with the purpose of helping you and your teen make some of life’s biggest decisions.

About the authors

Belle Liang, PhD is Professor and Chair of the Department of Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. She is Principal Investigator at Purpose Labs and her research focuses on mentoring and cultivating purpose in school, work, and life. She leverages technology and social media in this work.

Tim Klein, LCSW is an award-winning urban educator, clinical therapist, former teaching fellow at Harvard University and lecturer at Boston College. Throughout his career, he’s worked intensively with marginalized students to empower them to pursue meaningful and fulfilling lives. Prior to his work at Boston College, he helped launch Stanford University’s Project Wayfinder, where he trained educators from over 30 states and 12 countries.

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