Monday Musings: On Identity and Purpose

Like many 4-H members who grew up participating in animal projects, my first idea for a career was to be a veterinarian. As I started my first year of college, however, two things got in my way: organic chemistry and a wee problem with getting lightheaded at the sight of blood. I had never given alternative career possibilities much thought, a classic example of identity foreclosure by the way, which we really don’t want to promote as youth development professionals! (Wanna learn more? Watch this!) As my freshman year in college came to a close I was at a loss of what to do when it became clearer that veterinary medicine was no longer an option. So with nothing better to fill my schedule that spring, I signed up for a course called “Introduction to the Behavioral Sciences.” I had no idea what the course was about, but it filled a general education requirement, so I wasn’t wasting my time at that level.

One of the most striking memories I have is walking into a large lecture hall on a sunny April day, down to the front (because I am that type of student- for better or worse), and waiting for the course to begin. We waited. And waited. And waited more, as students started shuffling papers and looking around nervously.  I too looked around and spotted an older-than-average student sitting in the middle of the lecture hall smiling broadly. He didn’t seem concerned, rather very amused. At the point where students began to get up to leave, this student stood up, walked to the front of the room and began to speak about social expectations and the impact they have on behavior! As he pointed out, we as students had the expectations of how a professor would begin a class, and sitting among the students smiling was not one of those expectations. I was hooked.


My initial introduction into the study of human behavior eventually turned to focus on human development as I became fascinated with the work of Erik Erikson, and his life span theory of pyscho-social development (Wanna learn more? Watch this!) I also began to delve into Erikson’s writings, with thoughts of the process of identity formation foremost on my mind. I was 19 years old after all, and smack in the middle of this important life stage. All these years later, Erik Erikson remains one of the most influential theorists in my scholarly life. When I started developing the 4-H Thriving Model, I returned to Erikson and re-read these aging texts all over again. As I noted in a paper I wrote on identity formation and PYD:

“Identity formation in adolescence is rarely spoken of directly in the PYD field, although it is certainly implied in much of the body of work. However, as Côté (2011) states: “The scholars in the Positive Youth Development movement can indeed be seen as carrying on the tradition of humanistic pioneers like Erikson who believed in the positive psychological potentials that can be nurtured—or stilted—by environmental influences” (p. 1225-26). Indeed, Côté (2011) makes a direct and valid point that the PYD framework aligns well with Erikson’s (1968) psychosocial development stages, despite the dismissal of Erikson’s work as “passé (at best), or wrong (at worst)” (p. 1225).”


But, you ask, if identity formation is so important for youth development, then why isn’t it stated prominently in the 4-H Thriving Model? Well, it is, actually! We find it in the thriving indicator of Hopeful Purpose, because research shows that identity and purpose are closely related, but also very separate things. I know… bear with me on the complicated parts! Some of the coolest work in purpose and 4-H youth is being done by Anthony Burrow at Cornell University. In 2012 Dr. Burrow co-authored a paper with Patrick Hill to look at purpose and identity. The paper makes many key points for us to consider in our practice:

  • Purpose is a personal strength that is possible at all ages, and it is linked to personal well-being.
  • As youth reach adolescence purpose plays an adaptive role in identity formation – the greater a young person’s purpose, the more likely identity is developed. Both purpose and identity development involve answering questions about who one is.
  • Purpose leads to an exploration of identity, which leads to a refinement of purpose; a process that begins in adolescence, but continues well into adulthood.

When I think of my own process of identity formation, I see an interweaving of purpose and identity development that has evolved over time. As a young college student I had an easy identity as an emerging scholar. My introduction to the behavioral sciences fascinated me, and I began to move toward a scholarly career. Initially this was because I loved school! I always have, and the thought of being able to go to school for the rest of my life was very motivating. But it wasn’t long before the questions of “why” came up. I liked the identity of being a scholar, but for what purpose? What greater reason did I have for following this career? There was actually a very distinct event that solidified my purpose as a youth development scholar, but that is content for another blog post. The purpose behind what I do as a scholar has evolved considerably since those early years, and continues to evolve today, all the way around to 4-H again through the development of the 4-H Thriving Model.

As you work with youth, can you identify the difference between identity and purpose?

  • Where do you find purpose present in the youth with whom you work?
  • Do you see evidence of the correlation between purpose and well-being?
  • Do you have examples of how identity and purpose are working together in a young person’s life?
  • Can you see how identity and purpose have influenced your own life course and the decisions you made?
  • What are your ideas for introducing the concepts of identity formation and purpose to the youth with whom you work? I’d love to know!

Thriving On,

Mary Arnold

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