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Purpose-centered career development: a strengths-based approach to finding meaning and purpose in careers.

Although having a sense of purpose and meaning in life has been found to play an important role in overall life and career satisfaction, this is not an area that is typically cultivated during career exploration activities. This article provides a model for aiding students in developing a sense of purpose in their career search through strengths-based practices. The authors present five key elements that reinforce the development of purpose, including identity, self-efficacy, metacognition, culture, and service. Each of these areas is used as a focal point to help identify ways for students to recognize and rely on their strengths in the development of meaningful careers. Each element is defined, relevant research is provided, and strategies for promoting each element are discussed. Additionally, the relationship between purpose-centered career development and the career standards of the ASCA National Model[R] is presented.


In some ways, "work" was an easier problem to solve in past centuries than in the present. For much of our history as a species, the tasks that once constituted the constant, daily activities of survival were our work. Assuring safety, food, water, and shelter for the members of our groups and societies took dedicated and tangible effort. As people specialized into niches, their work often became both further removed from survival and more closely linked to their identities. However, finding one's career identity amid this complexity is difficult. Nevertheless, an exciting perspective is emerging that holds substantial promise for helping students link their academic and personal strengths in identifying satisfying career options. This perspective focuses on the role of purpose.

Purpose refers to people's identification of highly valued, overarching goals, the attainment of which is anticipated to move people closer to achieving their true potential and bring them deep fulfillment (Steger, in press). Extensive research has demonstrated that people with a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life experience greater happiness and fewer psychological problems (Ryff & Singer, 1998; Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006). People who feel their lives are full of meaning report less workaholism and better work adjustment (Bonebright, Clay, & Ankenmann, 2000), and college students high in meaning in life express greater certainty regarding their future occupation (Tryon & Radzin, 1972).

More recently, scholars and practitioners have endeavored to find a place for purpose in work. Purpose is thought to be central to people's satisfaction in their work lives and career, particularly among those who view their careers as something more than simply a way to make money. People who approach their work as a source of meaning are expected to be more deeply engaged with their jobs, work more effectively in teams, commit more strongly to their employment, and derive greater satisfaction from their toil (Steger & Dik, in press). Aiding students in fostering a sense of purpose in their career development may lead to deeper levels of commitment and persistence. However, the role of purpose among adolescents has been neglected. This is particularly true with regard to their career development. We argue that purpose can be a central strength in sowing the seeds for the development of satisfying, sustaining careers, particularly among high school students.

Erikson's (1968) prominent model of development proposed that in adolescence, individuals are trying to establish their identities and self-concepts. Identity is thought to be a critical component of personal meaning systems, along with the development of significant goals and purposes (Dittman-Kohli & Westerhof, 2000). It is during this stage that people begin to dedicate themselves to abstract beliefs and purposes (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003). Damon et al. concluded from their review of the literature that meaning and purpose are central to adolescents' lives. Thus, there should be a rich, reciprocal relationship between the development of identity and the development of purpose throughout adolescence. Ideally this process is nurtured and adolescents emerge from this stage with a strong sense of identity and a sense of purpose toward their future.

Extending the role of purpose to career counseling and guidance is a logical step for school counselors who adopt a strengths-based approach; helping students find purpose requires examining students' strengths and resources in their cultural contexts. According to Galassi and Akos (2007), school counselors who employ a strengths-based philosophy in their work are proactive, promote student development, and aid students in enhancing their personal assets. A purpose-centered approach to career development overlaps with strengths-based counseling in that both perspectives help students to explore and understand their strengths; this includes promoting student identity, an understanding of self, and the role that culture and service play in K-12 career development. Damon and colleagues (2003) defined purpose as "a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self" (p. 121). By focusing on purpose in career development, counselors aid students in defining work that both is personally meaningful and serves a broader objective or the "world beyond self," which includes their local community or the global community. Our purpose-centered approach to career development focuses on five key elements that reinforce the development of purpose: identity, self-efficacy, metacognition, culture, and service.


The central task of adolescence is identity development, and the formation of one's occupational identity is a fundamental challenge of Erikson's (1963) Identity vs. Role Confusion stage of development. Furthermore, identity development and career decision-making have been closely linked, in that individuals who possess well-developed career interests and/or determination display a stronger sense of identity (e.g., Blustein, Devenis, & Kidney, 1989; Wehying, Bartlett, & Howard, 1984; Valliant & Valliant, 1981). Conversely, individuals who struggle with their identity development tend to struggle with career identity and decision-making (e.g., Cohen, Chartrand, & Jowdy, 1995). A purpose-centered approach to career development facilitates students' active engagement in identity formation by providing them with opportunities for exploration. This need for exploration was emphasized by Blustein and Noumair (1996), who explained that one's vocational identity is formed through experiences and the social, cultural, political, and historical forces within one's environment. It is recommended, therefore, that students engage in structured group discussions designed to evaluate career concepts and explore meaningful topics that take into account personal and social issues. Moreover, engagement in meaningful dialogue with peers and adults helps students gain insight about the types of careers that both support their identity and provide them with a sense of purpose within the context of their environment.

Self-efficacy, or the belief in one's abilities, is an important construct in career exploration and career decision-making. Several studies have looked at the role of self-efficacy on career choice and career development (Betz & Hackett, 1981; Taylor & Betz, 1983). Research has demonstrated that individuals' sense of self-efficacy influences their career choice, their performance, and their persistence (Betz, 2004). Furthermore, research has demonstrated positive outcomes related to self-efficacy and vocational behavior (Lucas, 1997). Betz has contended that "the effects of self-efficacy on persistence are essential for long-term pursuit of one's goals in the face of obstacles" (p. 342). Self-efficacy can be developed by providing students with opportunities to identify their academic and work-related strengths through engaging in career exploration, exploring their strengths and limitations in areas that are necessary for career success (e.g., organization, time management), identifying opportunities to match the areas in which they feel efficacious with the careers that can bring them purpose in their work, and engaging in career-based experiences.

Metacognition, or self-awareness of one's own thinking processes, is an essential skill in the development of vocational decision-making. Metacognition consists of knowledge of cognition and regulation of cognition. Knowledge of cognition consists of knowledge of one's abilities, knowledge of strategy implementation, and determination of when/ why strategy use is appropriate, whereas regulation consists of "taking action, implementing strategies, and acting on feedback from the knowledge one has" (Batha & Carroll, 2007, p. 65). These metacognitive concepts relate to career development because they require self-appraisal of one's abilities, the ability to appraise tasks, and the ability to strategize ways to work through a task (Jacobs & Paris, 1987).

The importance of metacognition to career development is emphasized by the research of Symes and Stewart (1999), who found a significant relationship between metacognition and vocational decidedness; those who displayed higher levels of metacognitive activity also demonstrated higher levels of vocational decidedness in comparison to those with lower levels of metacognition. In addition, research has demonstrated a relationship between metacognitive awareness and decision-making and the role that metacognitive instruction plays in improving decision-making (Batha & Carroll, 2007). A purpose-centered approach to career development recognizes the importance of metacognitions and the role they play in regulating students' career decision-making I strategies and pursuit of a purposeful career. We recommend that counselors and/or teachers implement strategies that encourage students to think about their cognitive processes by reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses and developing effective strategies for career decision-making and pursuing specific careers.

Culture plays a multifaceted role in career development that is unique to each individual. Culture in this context refers to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geographic location, socioeconomic status, disability, belief systems, values, and so forth. Students need to comprehend the role that their culture plays on their career choices and how their career choices, consequently, impact their culture--whether it be financial, geographic, lifestyle, status, or other. Young, Marshall, and Valach (2007) have called for establishing a link between career and culture. They explained that engagement in culture happens through actions, projects, and career and that these areas serve to construct one's culture. A purpose-centered approach to career development recognizes the bidirectional influence of culture and career and aids students in recognizing the role that their culture plays in their career choices, and respectively, how their future career will impact their culture. We believe that culture helps shape which careers seem likely to provide students with a sense of purpose. The objective is to provide students with opportunities to engage in the exploration of cultural constructs in a career framework. In small group settings, for example, students explore how their career choices will impact their cultural values and vice versa.

The final area that this approach promotes is that of service for the greater good and recognizing how one's career contributes to family and society. This concept is drawn directly from theories of purpose (e.g., Damon et al., 2003) and theories of calling (e.g., Dik & Duffy, in press), as well as the recognition that one's work plays a role beyond earning a paycheck by serving the needs of others (Neal, 2000). A purpose-centered approach to career development emphasizes the importance of helping students recognize the significance of giving back and explore the ways that their chosen career fulfills this role. Conversely, students should recognize ways in which their career of interest may hinder their ability to assist the greater good. This can be accomplished through career exploration, job shadowing, and student-conducted interviews. Furthermore, it is imperative that students engage in discussions with peers and adults in helping to reason out how their chosen career does or does not contribute to the greater good.


The ASCA National Model[R] (American School Counselor Association, 2005) promotes that students (a) acquire the skills to investigate career in relation to knowledge of self, (b) employ strategies to achieve career goals, and (c) understand the relationship between personal qualities, education, training, and work. A purpose-centered career development approach addresses each of these areas. The first standard is addressed by aiding students in the formation of their identity and helping them to understand the link between development of self and career, which requires self-exploration, understanding of one's skills and abilities, and a sense of self-efficacy of one's capabilities. The second standard is addressed in that the strategies utilized in this approach are inclusive, exploratory, and experiential. This incorporates reflecting on the role that academic achievement and postsecondary education or training plays in reaching one's career goals. The third standard is addressed through culture and purpose in which students examine the bidirectional influence of culture and career and are directed to investigate the extent to which their career of choice contributes to family, society, and the greater good.


The purpose-centered approach to career development promotes identity development, self-efficacy, and metacognitive awareness as a means for developing a deeper self-awareness and emphasizing intrapersonal strengths. This is achieved by identifying and promoting personal strengths within each of these realms and promoting context-based development by recognizing the influences of one's culture on career development. Additionally, service is emphasized as a means for helping students to make a connection between their personal career goals and the impact of their goals on others by considering the ways they are able to serve the local and global community through their work. Furthermore, exploration and dialogue are key components in discovering one's self and we cannot expect students to engage in such activities without structure and guidance. The relevance of this approach is based on the idea that career is more than fitting one's personality with environment and job tasks--we must explore who we are and what our purpose is, determine what we find meaningful, and understand our strengths and skills in order to truly develop a satisfying career.


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Natalie R. Kosine, Ph.D., Michael F. Steger, Ph.D., and Sandra Duncan, Ph.D., are assistant professors with the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, University of Louisville, KY. E-mail:
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Author:Kosine, Natalie R.; Steger, Michael F.; Duncan, Sandra
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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