College Students, Aspirations, and the Meaningful Life

Last year, I began teaching part time at a state university, after spending many years working in advising and student services. In advising, I worked primarily with freshmen, and so it made sense that I would teach the freshman “introduction to college” course that so many universities currently offer. The course – usually fun and collaborative (though admittedly not the most exciting curriculum), offers a mix of academic and life skills strategies, information about and engagement with the university, and a more nebulous category, that of personal reflection and an understanding of one’s values and beliefs.

This final category provides the real meat of the course, as we intend to help young students, many leaving their family homes for the first time, set out to determine who they are and who they want to be. Through discussions, essays, and activities, they wrestle with their pasts and futures, their privilege and their struggles, their good luck and bad. They consider how they want to be different from their parents, and – perhaps the biggest issue of concern for college freshmen in this day and age – how they plan to balance pursuit of their dreams with more practical economic and social realities.

I thought of my students as I read Emily Esfahani Smith’s recent editorial for the New York Times “On Campus” section, “You’ll Never Be Famous – And That’s OK.” She writes about a particular trend she sees among students who, in the age of social media, seem to have a stronger desire than previous generations to be Somebody, with a capital “S” – if not famous, then at least important or of notable achievement. She writes,

Today’s college students desperately want to change the world, but too many think that living a meaningful life requires doing something extraordinary and attention-grabbing like becoming an Instagram celebrity, starting a wildly successful company or ending a humanitarian crisis.

And while Smith is quick to state that there is nothing wrong, exactly, with these lofty aspirations, years of research for her book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, has shown her that a meaningful life is often achieved by more mundane means. She continues,

Extraordinary lives look like the norm on the Internet. Yet the idea that a meaningful life must be or appear remarkable is not only elitist but also misguided. Over the past five years, I’ve interviewed dozens of people across the country about what gives their lives meaning, and I’ve read through thousands of pages of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience research to understand what truly brings people satisfaction.

The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.

It’s a beautiful sentiment, and one Smith backs up with recent psychology studies, as well as a compelling examination of George Eliot’s seminal novel Middlemarch. For those of us who work with students, particularly students who are just starting to determine their future goals, Smith’s article offers a helpful reminder. While we don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, we do want to remind students that they needn’t feel pressure to live up to anyone else’s definition of extraordinary. They simply need to find what gives their lives meaning and pursue it, in whatever way they can.

Check out Emily Esfahani Smith’s full article in the New York Times.