Last week, I had a session with a struggling twenty-something. He was angry and disheartened about life. He said the values his culture taught him had proven worthless in the real world. (Young people tell me this often). He said he is unable to find hope in the world. Although a great student, he found no pleasure or usefulness in achieving. His parents told him, “Just study. You’ll feel better after you score well on the exam.” So he studied, but after the exam, he still felt lost, alone, and as though life was inherently meaningless. Same with work. He was told, “Earn a little money working in a retail store. Money will make you feel independent. Then you’ll feel better.” But work didn’t provide what he was looking for either.
He’s been searching for a life of meaning, and he doesn’t know where to look. Evening practicing his faith isn’t helping him.
We started to talk about what gives life meaning, and what he wished had been taught to him as a child. We made a list of four things he wished had been part of his upbringing, things that might guide him now in young adulthood to find meaning and build a good life.
1. Material things and achievements are equally hollow.
We all know that material things can’t provide happiness. But what about achievements? Achievement continues to be encouraged and touted as a meaningful part of life. While achievement can provide some satisfaction if the end goal is truly something important, achievement just for the sake of winning is fools gold for most young people.
Rather than being told to study and earn high grades or to run for class office and win, he wished he had been taught to love learning and to lead as a way of doing his part for the group, not just trying to win.
2. Work only feels meaningful when it helps someone.
Working in a retail store can feel meaningful, but not because he was earning money. The real value of the work was found in providing a useful service to customers. Connecting with people. Being a resource.
Rather than “get a job and you’ll have money,” he wished he had known to look for a way to serve his fellow man.
3. Have relationships that are real, genuine, and true.
Trying to win all the time led to isolation. Peers were the enemy, not a source of connection or support. Now as a young adult, there’s no skillset for connecting and trusting others.
Rather than pushing past peers to get ahead, he wished he had been taught to find true friends, to seek out genuine, “real” relationships and connect with others in an honest and vulnerable way.
4. A quiet life is enough.
Fighting for A’s and admission to the best university was very distracting and hectic. There was always something “urgent” to worry about: a big project, a college admissions essay.
Rather than fighting and struggling to sift through all the noise, he wished he had just experienced more moments of quiet and appreciated the value of those.
I thought this was an insightful list. As we raise kids and prepare them for adult lives, we may be steering them toward feelings of isolation and meaninglessness when we value academic or financial gain.
What do you think?