To find out how, look no further than a high school classroom.
A few years ago psychologist David Yeager and his colleagues wanted to find out if purpose could improve academic performance.
The researchers defined purpose as a reason that benefits others. Yeager called this type of purpose a self-transcendent purpose. And research finds a purpose focused on others is the most powerful type of purpose in predicting both performance and fulfillment in life, school, and work.
To find out whether students could learn to shift their mindset to be more purposeful the researchers designed a 30-minute online reading and writing exercise.
The exercise was simple yet powerful. It prompted students to first read an article containing quotes from peers. The peers’ quotes conveyed the message that high school helped them “do something that mattered in the world.”
Then, the 338 participants wrote short testimonials of their own to other future students. The testimonial instructions prompted them to describe how high school helped them make an impact in the world.
One student wrote, “…high school allows me to form well-supported opinions about the world. I will not be able to help anyone without first going to school…” Another shared “…I believe learning in school will give me the rudimentary skills to survive in the world. Science will give me a good base for my career in environmental engineering. I want to be able to solve our energy problems.”
After a few months of observation, students who participated in the short exercises ended up with a .2 point increase in average GPA. This is big jump on a traditional 4-point grading scale.
After three additional studies, the researchers concluded that an other-centered purpose was instrumental in building discipline and resilience.
More importantly the researchers demonstrated that a purposeful mindset can be learned. By slightly shifting students’ internal narrative about the learning tasks, from thinking about “what” to “why,” the approach to the task transformed.
The same is true in our own lives and work. Our days are a series of seemingly routine tasks, details, and thoughts. And we can nudge the self-centered narrative in our mind to find more fulfillment in them.
By shifting our internal narrative we can all learn how to be more purposeful.
Here’s how to start.
1. Focus on others and the greater good of even the most mundane aspects of life and work.
Swami Sivananda once said, “A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far reaching.”
By re-engineering your perspective and training your mind to focus on the far-reaching consequences of the little details in your life and work you can start to adopt a purposeful mindset.
Most important is to imagine the person’s life at the end of whatever you are doing. No job or task exists on planet Earth other than to solve some human problem.
So focus on the human beings you inevitable serve throughout a day.
One of the most powerful ways to do this is to make imagination a daily habit.
2. Make imagination a daily habit.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world.”
Imagination is the only way we can directly experience possibility. We don’t get text messages every time we change the world. In fact most of us will never know or see the impact of our lives and work.
This is why imagination is critical to learning a purposeful mindset.
By imagining the chain reaction of the acts in our lives, we unlock the possible enormity of our part in the world. When we recognize that we matter we are burdened with responsibility.
This responsibility is precisely what “pulls” us through the hard times.
A simple exercise to try is to pick something you did today. The more routine the better. Now take 5 minutes to imagine the possible effect of that action at least 5 steps removed from the action itself.
At first it may seem cheesy and unrealistic. But this is the narrative we need to destruct. Remind yourself that an effect will happen and it just might be the one you imagine.
3. Change the narrative by being a storyteller and a storycollector.
Often in my work I spend time around water coolers and coffee machines in organizations. I just listen. The narrative I hear, no matter how inspirational the leadership or mission of the organization is, almost always centers around three things: complaining about something people can’t control, talking about ourselves and how busy we are, or counting down the days until the weekend.
The same was true of the students David Yeager studied. The learning tasks had reputations of being tedious. Reputations are created through what we talk about with others and ourselves.
By having students read and tell stories that focused on a broader impact and reason for the learning, it was hard for the students to look at the task again the same way. In a sense, they created a new reputation for learning.
By seeking out and collecting the stories of the people you impact and by telling those stories you can change the narrative of your life and work.
Imagine if instead of counting down the days until the weekend or complaining about “management,” the water cooler became a place to tell stories of the work’s impact.