On the Beginning of Hopeful Purpose

Anyone who knows me at all knows of my life-long passion of riding. Most people smile somewhat indulgently when I speak of how important riding is to my everyday health and well being. Others “get it” immediately and ask me how I have managed to keep alive a deep interest in a sport that takes so much dedication when I am so equally dedicated to my work and other aspects of my life. And the truthful answer to that question? I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that riding is an foundational part of everything else that I do. It is the one place where time stops.


Where my brain turns off and my muscle memory takes over and nothing invades the focus and concentration required to ride well. When I learned about the concept of “flow,” I knew immediately that I experienced it regularly when I ride. And because of this opportunity for flow I have a greater capacity and ease in my work as I seek to make a meaningful contribution to the field of youth development and the 4-H program in particular.

One of the things that first attracted me to the idea developing a new model for 4-H was that 4-H, unlike any other youth program that I can think of, begins with what a young person is interested in. Robots? Cooking? Raising sheep? Bunnies? Dogs? Science? Creative arts? You can find it in 4-H. For me it was horses. I often say that I was not all that interested in 4-H as a young person, I was interested in horses, and 4-H was a place where I could make friends and ride horses. That is what hooked me. All the other benefits were realized only much later.

In the youth development literature we call this “sparks.” This term was brought to the forefront of youth development literature by the late Dr. Peter Benson at Search Institute (if you haven’t seen his TedX talk on youth sparks, take 20 minutes and do so, it will nourish your soul!)

Sparks are the things in kid’s lives that give them motivation from within, a drive to accomplish something, a… purpose. And the funny thing is, such intense focus on one’s sparks can be incredibly hard work, often with some sacrifice, and yet always with a drive and determination toward something that must be accomplished.

As I prepare for a few blog posts about hopeful purpose (one of the thriving indicators) I am (re)reading A Path to Purpose: How Young People Find their Calling in Life by William Damon, Stanford psychologist and pioneer leader in the field of youth development. Dr. Damon argues that findings one’s purpose is “essential for the achievement of happiness and satisfaction in life.” What strikes me over an over again is how much purpose is rooted in something that originates in a young person’s spark, a spark that helps young people focus their energy toward something both life giving and meaningful.

So as we get begin yet another week of work in 4-H, let’s think about sparks and the way they set the stage for purpose. Have you seen this in the young people you work with? How do you work to fan the sparks you see into strong, unwavering flames of purpose?

Thriving On,

Mary Arnold

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