Self-Transcendent Purpose

Author: Jerry Cahn

Self-Transcendent Purpose


How can we help adults gain a stronger sense of purpose? 

Mark Oppenheimer, in an article entitled Power of Purpose-Driven Schools, provides an important answer. Today, many school focus on providing students with the basic technical and social skills necessary to pursue jobs and careers. However, following a purpose-driven life/career, requires more: the schools also need to provide a strong foundation of social and/or religious values that transcend preparing for a job and focus on becoming a “responsible, caring citizen” committed to becoming a steward of one’s tribe and/or society.

Self-transcendent goals include the desire to get an education in order to help other people. With self-centered goals, the focus of the education is on getting a good-paying job.  Dr. David S. Yaeger,,  in a study of 2000 adolescents and young adults called “Boring but Important” (published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2014)),  found that giving students “a prosocial, self-transcendent purpose” helped them “sustain self-regulation over the course of an increasingly boring task” and produced achievement gains in science and math! In other words, while students may not be drawn to a set of boring tasks such as learning grammar or trigonometry, they perform better when they believe that being good at the task will help them make a difference in the world than do students who tie performance simply to getting a job.

How do we help students self-transcendent purpose? Mr. Oppenheimer noted that high school curricula like “Facing History and Ourselves”, and other public and religious school curricula that focus on service, doing good and character building enable students to adopt an “I am getting smart for a reason beyond myself” mindset.  He notes that this is the perfect age for developing self-transcendent purpose for future adults because teenagers are learning that the world can be unfair, and the courses give them a chance to say “you can help fix it if you have a stronger brain.”

For many emerging adults, this motivates them to seek helping professions and/or companies in which they can use their passions, skills and energy to make it a better world. During this stage of life, their focus in on finding the right position to launch their first career and/or adapting to a corporate environments which is very different that attending college and prior schools. Therefore, it’s the experiences they have in these jobs and companies that will determine whether to actually stay there for a significant career-building amount of time or not. Once they find a situation conducive to their career-building future, they enter the Early Adult stage.

For parents, helping their school-age children adapt self-transcendent purposes, can fuel a truly fulfilling life for them in which careers and purpose-driven activities become part of their 60-80 year adult life. For employers and mentors, understanding this dynamic is key to helping emerging adults navigate this stage effectively and efficiently, since it may be the reason that they turn-over jobs at a higher rate than older adults.

What’s your experience on these issues?  Share it with us, so we can all help our children grow to enjoy passion and purpose throughout their lifetime and not just “after retirement”.