Abby Falik: The Golden Ticket Money Can’t Buy: Purpose

Today is College Decision Day, and high school seniors around the country are navigating the complexity of selecting a school with an added twist: the recent (and ever-widening) college admissions scandal.

While it’s been a dark moment for our self-perceived meritocracy, the bright side of the recent allegations is a public reckoning with a system that’s long overdue for more careful and critical examination. We’ve all known that the elite college system is rigged in favor of students who come from wealthy backgrounds—and now we know exactly how far dollars can go when taken to the extreme.

But in our fixation on brand names and status, we’ve missed the point and ignored the data: where one goes to college matters far less than how one approaches it.

Yes, admission to an elite school will open doors. As an alumna of both Stanford and Harvard, I know from experience. But credentials alone don’t make successful leaders. Neither of my alma maters helped me find my “why.” That part was on me to discover. While my elite education undoubtedly gave me access, these institutions didn’t (and couldn’t) have given me the most powerful key of all: a sense of purpose.

A new study by Gallup and Bates College finds there’s a growing “purpose gap,” with less than half of college graduates feeling that their work is meaningful. This is a problem: research shows that a person is ten times more likely to feel happy and fulfilled if they are working for a reason, not just a paycheck.

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In reflecting on what contributed to my formation as a citizen, leader and social entrepreneur, it had little to do with formal instruction at a leading university. After two years at Stanford, I left school to spend a year living and working in Latin America. The experience stretched and shaped me, and planted the seeds for what would eventually become my life’s work: ensuring that formative global experiences become the norm, not the exception, in preparing young leaders.

Societies and religions have long recognized late adolescence as a prime developmental stage for formative experiences. It’s the period when a young person has the maturity to leave home but is still shaping their values and identity. Yet, our traditional approach to teaching and learning is stifling the most important learning of all: discovering what we are called to become.

High school has become a high stakes game to get into college. We’re still teaching to tests that robots can literally pass, while admissions boards reward perfect records and conformity more than authentic exploration. Our schools are focused on the wrong things — and so are our leaders.

Growing evidence shows that the things we used to disparage as “soft skills” — skills like resilience, empathy, adaptability — are now taking their rightful place as the “power skills” of the 21st century. If we have a shot at overcoming the most intractable challenges of our time — poverty, pandemics, climate change — we need leaders who are prepared to advance a grander vision of human progress and potential.

Many of the entrepreneurs we admire most dropped out of college. This narrative reeks of privilege but highlights something crucial: society values the “Harvard drop-out” as much (or more!) than the Harvard grad. Translation: we don’t particularly care about what happens when you’re there — we care that you checked the boxes to get in. And if you also had the chutzpah (and means) to drop out? We value that even more.

When I look for leadership potential, I’m no longer looking for traditional markers of academic achievement. Instead, I want to know what gets you up in the morning when there’s no alarm clock. Do you see opportunities where others see challenges? How do you approach a problem? Have you failed and rebounded? What’s your Adaptability Quotient?Can you be you curious? Empathetic? Vulnerable?

For more than a decade Global Citizen Year been focused on changing the narrative and norms around the traditional “gap” year — and the tide is beginning to turn. By getting kids off the treadmill, we can teach them not just to run faster and harder toward some illusive finish-line — but to get off the track and actually climb a mountain.

Today, we have an historic opportunity to re-imagine the transition from high school to college around what it has the potential to be: a transformation.

Before kids set foot on a college campus, they need time away from teachers and tests to figure out who they are becoming, what the world needs, and how they will reconcile the two. This isn’t an elite plea for kids to put on a backpack and travel around Europe. The most transformative years take young people far from their comfort zone where they have opportunities to work with people who are different from them, in service of a broader purpose. When done by design and not default, this year is anything but a “gap” — it is a rite of passage.

So, as high school seniors and their families consider their college decisions, regardless of where the cards fall, we must commit to spending more time considering the why and howthan the where.

When I think about my aspirations for my young sons (now 2 and 4) my sincere hope is that when they finish high school they’ve developed an identity beyond “student,” and sense of purpose loftier than “getting into college.” I’m convinced they won’t go directly from high school to college as many of us did. Soon, no one will. And the result will be better for them, and better for the world.

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