My Existential Quandary: Life as College Counselor

What does it mean to live “the good life”?  That question, more than any other, haunts me.  It’s the one that visits me unexpectedly, and perhaps inappropriately, like when watching SpongeBob Square Pants with my son.  What is it about SpongeBob that sends me off into an existential quandary? Am I alone in this? Of course, it is the perennial human question that has been seeking an answer generation after generation, yet is insatiable and perhaps unanswerable, like the Zen koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”.  Each generation makes discoveries and passes the torch along to the next, usually in the form of some half-baked answer like, “It’s all relative” or “It’s to make as much money as possible” or even further back to ancient Greece and the dueling philosophies of hedonism and eudaimonism, or getting and giving.  


It is my fundamental belief that the college search, or post graduation planning, should begin with a variation of this question: What does it mean to live the good life?  The challenge is that it must be answered by the individual, and because individuals are...well, individual, there isn’t a formula that can be applied broadly.  Instead, a flexible scaffolding must be constructed that supports an individual’s journey to unfold according to the unique causes and conditions that have brought them into existence.  I believe there are three structural themes that form the base materials of this hypothetical scaffolding. 


The first theme is Purpose.  People who are working in the world with a sense of purpose are much more resilient, motivated, less prone to depression, and a lot more pleasant to be around at a cocktail party.  Much of my own thinking about purpose comes from Dr. William Damon, a Stanford Professor, who is one of the thought leaders in adolescent purpose and author of, The Path to Purpose.  He defines purpose as, "a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”  One of his proteges, Patrick Cook-Deegan, went on to found an organization called Project Wayfinder which seeks to unearth purpose in young people by helping them to identify (1) a response to a need in the world they care about, (2) use of their strengths and skills, and (3) something they find joy and value in.


The second theme is Autonomy.  Developmental psychologist, Harvard Professor, and author of multiple books, including the bestselling, Immunity to Change, Dr. Robert Kegan has spent his entire adult life studying human development.  Key to our work, and relevant to your child’s journey in high school, is Kegan Developmental Stage 3 where an individual’s sense of self is socially determined, and Kegan Developmental Stage 4 where an individual’s sense of self is internally generated, something he calls self-authorship and a variation of autonomy.  Of course, these stages represent a continuum. It’s not like one day someone wakes up self-authoring, but instead is moving away from one stage and moving toward another. In fact, my guess is that you’ve probably experienced someone’s clumsy attempts at self-authorship (pssst...teenager). Autonomy also plays a key role in Daniel Pink’s seminal book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  He identifies three components that lead to a sustainable and healthy personal motivation: Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery. We can see where Damon, Kegan, and Pink’s work dovetail: those who self-author are more likely to be imbued with purpose, are self-driven, and whose work is often masterful because they love what they are doing.  My aim is to, at the very least, plant the seed of self-authorship where it hasn’t taken root or do my best at nurturing a healthy version of it where it has. 


The last theme is Community. It is a well known fact in the world of higher education that degree persistence is intimately tied to a sense of belonging.  Millions of dollars are spent every year by universities in an attempt to crack the “belonging” code. But it doesn’t just apply to one’s time at university. It is fundamental to a sense of meaning in one’s life, according to psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith.  In her book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, community, or what she calls belonging, is one of the central components to leading a meaningful life.  What does it mean to belong? The research shows that to belong is to be in a community of people where one is valued intrinsically for who they are and then reciprocates by valuing others in the same way.  This definition of community affects us in our work on two fronts - the community created by the cohort of students going through the college search process and the community students are considering becoming part of (i.e. the institutions they are applying to).  In my opinion, beginning to explore the type of community one thrives in is not only key to the college search process, but will also serve a person well beyond the expiration date of their college experience. If we add Esfahani Smith’s voice to the mix, we find that those who self-author are more likely to be imbued with purpose, are self-driven, whose work is often masterful because they love doing it, and are surrounded by people who appreciate them. 

Whether student, parent, administrator, or barista, we all add something to a student’s scaffolding; intentionally or unintentionally, big or small, constructively or dysfunctionally.  For my part, I am working to build a College and Career Counselling program at THS out of the three fundamental materials of Purpose, Autonomy, and Community.  With these in place, it becomes much easier to resist the urge to bludgeon the individuality out of a person with some generic formula that stunts, and rather enables, elevates and empowers.  As I heard one of my college counselor colleagues put it - it’s better to be rejected for who you are than accepted for who you are not. So what is my half-baked answer to the perennial human question?  I don’t know, I’m still working on it. 



The Path to Purpose - 

Project Wayfinder - 

Dr. Robert Kegan - 

Daniel Pink -

Emily Esfahani Smith - 


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