I’ve noticed a general malaise that many teenagers have towards their lives, school specifically. In frequent small talk interactions, I hear common expressions across a spectrum of kids: “School is boring.” I honestly can’t remember talking with a kid about school where they don’t say something similar unless it’s frustration about a specific teacher or specifically concentrated stressful few days for tests or projects.
In fact, they remind me of similar conversations I have with adults in my generation when it comes to their work. It’s not uncommon for me to hear peers of mine talk about how boring their work life is. If they do share something exciting about their lives, it’s something that is relatively trivial, like a vacation, a bathroom remodel, or a new restaurant they like. Reflecting on what they share, it’s almost like the highest points of their lives are escape, pleasure, or leisure time.
People, though, are wired for meaning—not for escape. Everyone has a deep longing for their lives to matter.
I didn’t come up with that idea—it comes straight from the Grandfather of Meaning himself, Viktor Frankl, who wrote, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life.”
A meaningful life, Frankl says, comes in response to tension. “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” He clarifies throughout his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that the foundation for mental health is based on “a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.”
We worry these days about the mental health of teenagers, and rightly so. We look for interventions to share with them about ways to reduce the stress they feel. But, from Frankl’s perspective, perhaps we’re missing an essential element that every kid needs: a proper and necessary tension to make something meaningful from their lives.
Kids need to hear the message that the world needs them to contribute. Their education isn’t a means to a personal end, like financial stability or self-actualization. Their education is an opportunity to gain relevant skills and perspectives that can be utilized to contribute to solving real problems in the world.
In other words: It’s Not About You.
You are moving between Honors Chemistry and Pre-Calculus because you have to, on one level. You need to get a certain GPA and gain some breadth of knowledge to be qualified for college acceptance. But, more importantly, you’re digging into these subjects right now because, at some point, the experiences you’ve had and the knowledge you’ve gained is going to be useful for something bigger.
So buck up, kids. We’re not going to remove every obstacle in your way or make it easier to get to the weekend. We’re not going to validate how you feel like your teachers are being unfair in assigning you reading over the weekend. We’re actually going to challenge you to dig in, take on the challenge, and find a higher calling. The world is waiting for you. We need you to be ready to serve.
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).