Why does purpose matter? 

When people say they have purpose, it means something much deeper than mere intention. These people aren’t just goal-oriented; the nature of their goals is special. They have conviction that what they do matters to other people.

That’s not to say that purpose is selfless. On the contrary, purpose is about aligning personal interest with other-centered work.

One misconception about purpose is that it strikes all at once. Instead, purpose often develops and deepens over time. What begins as interest gets deeper and more nuanced with practice and over time.

Purpose is a powerful source of motivation and grit. When students are animated by a larger purpose, they have more academic motivation, vocational success, identity formation, and life satisfaction.

What does purpose look like?

Students who demonstrate purpose might

  • be able to articulate both an interest and the superordinate “why” behind their interest
  • reflect on how the work they already do benefits others
  • think about how, in small but meaningful ways, they can change their current work to enhance its connection to their core values
  • find inspiration in a purposeful role model

Teachers who demonstrate purpose might

  • reflect on how mastering their own content will concretely help students lead fuller lives 
  • develop a clear and persuasive answer to why students should learn the content and skills covered
  • regularly talk to other staff about why they started—and continue—to teach
  • save and display artifacts (student notes, emails, assignments) that reflect progress and values they have cultivated

Research articles about purpose

On happiness and human potential: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being
Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141–66.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001).

The role of purposeful work goals in promoting meaning in life and in schoolwork during adolescence
Journal of Adolescent Research, 24(4), 423–452.
Yeager, D. S., & Bundick, M. J. (2009).

Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation
Attitudes and Social Cognition, 107, 559–580.
Yeager, D. S., et al. (2014).