The Day I Stopped Asking Students the Wrong Questions

Tim Elmore

I want to make a confession. For years, I have spoken at high school and university commencements and made the classic remarks others have made to students:

  • “Find your passion and pursue it.”
  • “Go after your dreams, and don’t let anyone deny you.”
  • “Trust your heart and fulfill your purpose.”

These clichés were what I really believed at the time. I wanted to help students figure out what they were supposed to do with their life through self-diagnosis. If they would only look inside, they could discover their calling in life.

It’s a sort of self-determination I felt I should encourage in students; I wanted them to be ambitious, and I thought this was the right mindset to go after it.

Today—I no longer believe this.

Why This is Bad Advice

Too many students heard this message from parents, pastors or commencement speakers and somehow drew the conclusion: Wow! I can dream up anything I want to do, and if I try hard enough, I can do it. Hundreds of thousands began choosing majors in college that our society and economy just didn’t need. For a while, the number one goal of college graduates was to be rich and famous. In one survey(link is external), students claimed they most wanted to be the “personal assistant to a celebrity.”

As a result, students’ job searches were autonomous and self-absorbed. They began with: What do I want, and what must I do to get it? Even if the search was altruistic, it was still ignited by self. In the words of David Brooks, it was first about self-investigation and ultimately about self-fulfillment. William Ernest Henry’s famous poem, “Invictus,” summarizes the sentiment: I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.

I believe this has left, perhaps, millions of students with grievances against our culture and their advisors. Why? It didn’t work too well. They graduated only to find life wasn’t about them—employers weren’t interested in their self-fulfillment, and money was far too hard to come by in a sour economy.

A Lesson From the Past

During the dark days of World War II, Victor Frankl spent years in a Nazi ghetto and later a concentration camp. It was there he learned that life cannot be evaluated in simple terms of “self.” Each of us individuals are part of a larger community, and our success must be measured in terms of that larger community, not in laying personal life plans. We are all part of history, a narrative into which we’ve been placed to contribute to the specific circumstances and challenges of our day.

For instance, Frankl spent most of his time in the concentration camp laying tracks for the railroad. This was not the life he had planned for himself. It was neither his passion, nor his dream. This left him with two choices: he could either get lost in depression over it, or he could choose to find meaning in his suffering by figuring out how best to contribute to his current circumstances.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life,” he’d later write, “but rather what life expected from us.” Frankl had been given an amazing intellectual and social opportunity to study human behavior under the most horrific conditions. He had the chance to share what he was learning with his fellow prisoners and, if he survived, with a larger population. It became invigorating to him. “Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs,” he wrote. Frankl would tell suicidal prisoners that life had not stopped expecting things from them. Life “ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before the individual.”

A Different Set of Questions

So, as you work with students, may I suggest we make a shift in the questions we’re asking? I am making this shift and finding the conversation more invigorating:

Stop Asking… 

  1. What do you want to major in? 
  2. What do you want out of life? 
  3. How much money can you make? 
  4. How can you achieve something great? 
  5. What do you possess inside? 
  6. What will make you happy? 

Start Asking…

  1. What problem do you want to solve?
  2. What is life asking of you?
  3. What do you have to give?
  4. How can you add value in a given context?
  5. What are the needs or opportunities around you?
  6. What are you being summoned to do?

Our world is too broken and in need of repair for us to simply ask:

  • What do you want to major in during college?
  • What jobs pay well and can get you a nice house or car?
  • What will make you happy?

Happiness comes when I find a great “why” behind a career choice. As Frederick Nietzsche noted, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Dr. Tim Elmore is a leading authority on how to understand the next generation and prepare tomorrow’s leaders today. He is a best-selling author, international speaker, and president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that helps develop emerging leaders under the philosophy that each child is born with leadership qualities.

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