How cultivating your purpose begins with knowing yourself

  • Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

    Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
Posted11/25/2021 1:00 AM

The first time I ever wrote something with the intent of sharing it beyond the classroom was through 4-H. I grew up in a small town in northern Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. In both fifth and sixth grades, I earned a blue ribbon in the local 4-H speech competition and even got to compete regionally. I chose and researched my subject, wrote notes on index cards and practiced my delivery with the intent of engaging and educating an audience. It was one of my most impactful experiences as a young person. It taught me that I not only enjoy researching, but I also enjoy sharing what I've learned.

Interestingly enough, Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow, Ph.D., had a similar experience with 4-H as a kid. He was involved with agriculture, but he also learned public speaking. He says his experience meant, "I can learn something about the world that some people in the world don't yet know, and I can share that information with them."


In a recent interview with Shankar Vedantam, the host of the popular podcast Hidden Brain, Burrow talked about how his experiences in 4-H had a profound influence on him. Unlike my two-time interaction with 4-H, he was an ongoing participant. One of the things 4-H does well is provide kids an entry point into so many different interests.

Burrow says that "youth programs have the ability to invite young people to cultivate a sense of who they are and where they're going."

4-H is not the only youth program that does this, but it had a large enough impact on me as a child that I introduced my daughter to it. She explored everything from ceramics and origami to pneumatic technology and dog training. It's not all farming and animal husbandry. Having different options to explore lets children try new things and figure out what they enjoy and perhaps find what feels significant to them. That's the important part: helping kids figure out their direction and learn about themselves. Burrow says, "Purpose helps solidify one's identity."

How we react, overcome and persevere is intrinsically tied to our sense of purpose and it turns out that purpose is tied to how well we know ourselves. Burrow says it this way: "We might start to think of identity as sort of a foundational layer of self-understanding that when you are equipped with a sense of identity, you might stand a chance at figuring out and cultivating your sense of purpose."

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Purpose is a life aim, something that's always in front of you and never quite finished. It's different from a goal. Purpose is connected to our well-being and provides stability.

Goals are attainable. Finding meaning in life is reflective. Purpose, however, is the centering point from which we pivot in every life circumstance.

A person's sense of purpose can even predict longevity and positive health outcomes -- that's powerful. But the part that many of the self-help books get wrong is that purpose is not an epiphany or something that is discovered; it is cultivated throughout one's lifetime. "Purpose acquisition ... might be born out of a gradual sustained attempt to engage with some topic or opportunity, kind of like a hobby," says Burrow.

Burrow and I learned something about ourselves in 4-H. Burrow grew up to be a researcher and I became a writer. I am grateful for what I've learned about purpose from his work, and now I get to share it with you through mine.

© 2021, Creators

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