Let me start by saying that I am in no way implying careers services don’t have a purpose – they are an essential part of helping students to work out their next steps and how to get there.

This article is about exploring how much careers services talk to students about their purpose in life… which is a big but important responsibility.


The impression I’ve always got from my own education and working in the higher education sector is that the first point of call in a careers service is helping students to pick the job they want. (‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ springs to mind).

Lots of students don’t have a clear plan, so careers services provide that vital space where students can explore options. Careers services often have jobs fairs to showcase what’s on offer, talks from professionals about their careers, and discussions or quizzes about what the student is good at to help find a fit. Once a rough decision is pinned down students can then utilise the careers service further for skill building, CV writing, interview practice and sometimes even mentoring or placements to get a foot into their chosen industry.

These things are all great, but my worry is that we are asking students to pick a job / career and skipping the foundational conversation about purpose.


We want our students to pick a career at some point over their studies – with the reassurance that it’s ok to change their mind and have a squiggly career. But starting the conversation by picking a job has its drawbacks:

Unknown jobs

When you ask an 8 year old what they want to be there are always some big hitters; vet, firefighter, astronaut, pop star. I’ve never heard them say data analyst, food stylist, or tree surgeon which makes sense because they don’t know those jobs are even an option. So one problem with choosing a career is that students are limited by what they, and perhaps their careers service, are aware of. This gets even trickier when you consider how technological and societal changes create new jobs and phase out others at a faster pace than ever. Who would have thought that a social media influencer would be a full-time career?

Status, money and peer pressure

There can be a huge difference between the career a student actually wants and the one they think that they ought to want. How many times do we hear of people picking a job due to the good pay, family obligation or social judgements about what constitutes a ‘good enough’, career option?

Playing it safe

There a lot of societal messages about the job market being competitive, it being difficult to earn a good wage, industries at risk of being replaced by technology. This barrage of scarcity messaging can push students into feeling the need to play it safe. Let’s pick a job that I’m not so keen on, but that will be relatively stable / in demand / well paid.

It may well be that students picking a career end up happy, secure and satisfied. But I wonder if more often than not, this ‘job first’ approach leads to students starting down a career path that doesn’t properly fit them. They plod along for a while and gradually become unfulfilled or even resentful – which can lead to disengagement in the workplace as well as exasperating stress and wellbeing issues.

We need to make sure that careers conversations aren’t focused on picking a job, but instead reveal students’ purpose.


I get a few eye rolls when I talk to people about finding purpose in life. It sounds like wishy washy hippie or spiritual nonsense, right? But that very much depends on how you frame the conversation.

My favourite way of framing purpose is the Japanese concept of Ikigai – your reason for being and that which brings you meaning.

Whether you consider yourself spiritual or not, you want to live your life with some sort of meaning and fulfilment. This is a universal fact. And given that we spend so much of our time in work, it makes sense to try and ensure that work aligns with whatever brings meaning to us.

The Ikigai model is accompanied by a very useful Venn diagram that brings together 4 key questions for finding meaning:

If we can find a career, activity or lifestyle that answers all four questions then you’ve got a strong sense of purpose right there.


Simply asking students “What’s your purpose in life?” isn’t going to work in most cases. It’s too existential a question and there are still many adults who haven’t got it sussed. But, by breaking it down into components and helping students to explore what purpose looks and feels like, they can begin to make sense of it.

The four Ikigai questions are a great starting point – but the order in which they are tackled makes a huge difference to the type of thinking students can follow.

As we’ve already explored, careers conversations may lead with; ‘what can you be rewarded for.’ Let’s look at all of the jobs that might give you a wage and then see what you are good at (and hopefully what you will enjoy). Others may focus on what student’s are good at first and then look for a matching role.

If you were sat in an SLI training session about finding purpose the first questions you’d be faced with are:

These questions seem abrupt, but they reveal the things in the world that you care enough about to have a strong emotional response. If you take a look at the stories of successful business leaders and charity founders you will often find there was that ‘one thing’ that they just had to do something about. Something happened to them and they wanted to stop it happening to others. They saw an injustice they wanted to put right. They spotted an opportunity or invention that would serve people. Their success stories often start with them engaging in what would make the world a better place and then they turned their talents to it and made it into a career.

Let’s ask students the Ikigai questions in this order:

  1. What does the world need that you really care about making better?
  2. What are you good at – and how can you use your gifts and talents to improve that issue?
  3. What do you love doing? How do you like to work / spend your time?
  4. Now that you’ve answered these three questions to give yourself a checklist, what careers are in alignment with that?

Getting students to start with the issues they care about and how they can serve the world provides a completely different lens to the careers conversation – so it may look a little bit like this:

“I really care about the environment, meeting net zero targets and getting people to shift to greener lifestyles. I’m good at thinking scientifically so maybe I could go into engineering / inventing in a green industry which could be lab based. But I’m also good at working with people and like being outdoors. Maybe I’d prefer a lifestyle where I could help people on the ground to use green tech in their community farms.”

It’s worth mentioning that the question what does the ‘world’ need, can be taken very broadly. Some students will want to tackle global or national issues and others will want to focus in on their little corner of the world – educating students in their community or providing back-end software for a local shop. Helping anyone is addressing what the world needs.


Imagine if this were the norm – all students going through their educational life were supported in identifying the things they deeply care about and how to use their skills and talents to turn it into a paying career. That would lead to amazing things.

Motivation and engagement

We know that people put in extra effort when they have a compelling reason ‘why’ they are doing something. When our students can connect the courses they are studying to getting to live a meaningful life it gives them that extra bit of umph to succeed academically. Then beyond university they will make more engaged employees in the workforce.

Intentional learning

When students have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve (paired with that motivation to do it) then they are empowered to make intentional choices about their education. A clear sense of purpose can help students pick modules, extracurricular activities, careers service support and other opportunities that get them closer to their dream career.

Leaning into expertise

This way of picking a career invites students to focus on what they are already good at, hone it further and utilise it for their cause (rather than picking a job and trying to get good at it). By starting from a place of existing strength, this encourages students to become experts in their existing knowledge, skills and talents. If we can facilitate more people to become experts, we have a wonderful opportunity to solve bigger societal issues.

Happiness and wellbeing

There’s a wealth of research showing that having a sense of meaning in life is a contributor to wellbeing. We are more able to be resilient in the face of challenges when we have a strong reason to keep going. Feeling like you are contributing to ‘what the world needs’ often helps you to connect to a wider community or sense of belonging. And doing daily work that you love and are good at provides personal satisfaction that helps keep you mentally rewarded.

Now that sounds exciting, doesn’t it? And exactly what higher education is set up to do.


How is your current careers service opening conversations with students? Examine what the current focus is and how you can shift this to one that is more purpose focused.

And if you need some support with that, The Self Leadership Initiative provides training programmes and coaching to help your students explore their sense of meaning.