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The Purpose-Driven Learner

When moviegoers first met Dustin Hoffman, he was “The Graduate,” floating in a pool wondering why he had spent four years studying and what he should do now. Corporate learning professionals do well when they take Hoffman’s plight very personally because purpose is at the center of an effective learning agenda.

Most undergraduates argue that they are earning a degree so they can eventually get a job and make a living. We tuition payers are relieved that making a living is in the plan, but is it a sufficient answer? Research from Central Michigan University reveals that 85 percent of all undergraduates change their majors, and on average, they do so three times in the five years it takes them to graduate.

I would guess that most students would rather toss a Frisbee in the campus quadrangle than attend classes. Most of us were pretty fuzzy about our aims at that age, and I certainly enjoyed playing in the quadrangle. College is clearly a time of exploration, and the complexity of understanding one’s life purpose is daunting at any time.

But we are understandably anxious about the fact that private college costs are skyrocketing past $50,000 per year, and the average college student seems to have no idea what they want to study or why.

This common dilemma on college campuses has a parallel in the corporate classroom. When participants show up for a corporate training course, the first thing they often hear is the learning objectives. But learning objectives are not enough. The real question is one of purpose.

A list of skills to be acquired or understanding to be gained falls far short of providing a compelling reason for learning. A learner’s most profound question — consciously or subconsciously — is, “Why do these objectives matter?” and “Why should I listen to this at all?” Research shows that you have approximately four minutes to answer these questions compellingly. If you fail to do so, you have lost the student.

The idea of purpose as prime mover is not confined to learning — it is part of a much broader need. We in the learning world can benefit from the observations of Dr. Viktor Frankl, the famous Viennese psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl took profound exception to Freud’s position that man’s basic motivation was the pursuit of pleasure. He also dismissed Adler’s belief that the drive for power was the primary motivating force. Rather, he credibly argued that one’s foremost concern is to find meaning in life. Unlike Sartre or other existential philosophers, Frankl denied that man invents meaning.

He believed that people come into the world with a purpose. He specifically felt that purpose can be revealed by looking at three types of experiences:

1. The creation of fulfilling works or deeds.
2. Meaningful relationships with people or things.
3. Very difficult situations that challenge people to choose their attitudes, thoughts and responses.

These moments of full engagement yield rich information that can disclose a purposeful path. Frankl graphically described his observation of fellow concentration-camp prisoners. Prisoners who lacked or lost a sense of the purpose for their lives would lie down and die. They merely “willed themselves to death.”

Frankl also described frail and sickly prisoners who seemed certain to die but survived beyond all probability. These prisoners had some compelling reason to live. They had a purpose for surviving, and the power of their purpose sustained them in the midst of the most degrading and malicious acts of which men are capable.

We have all seen athletes of lesser talent beat those with greater skill, power and endowment. We have seen hard-working, but less-gifted students outperform those with greater intellectual capability. A large part of the explanation for these peculiar twists resides in one single word: purpose. These underdogs who inspire us have a compelling reason for striving that causes them to triumph against the odds.

These lessons are poignant for learning leaders. Help students understand their purpose, make the purpose of learning offerings clear and help learners find the intersection between the two. When we do, we unleash a mighty force for learning and living.

But don’t forget to enjoy the Frisbee and befriend that coed on the beach blanket, because life is about relationships, too!