Know your purpose – then act

Forget pipe dreams and unfocused ambition. Because success, as Professor Michaéla Schippers explains, comes to those who know what they really, really want.

Story by Helena Pozniak. Photo by Chris Gorzeman.

Want to know the secret of life? Ask Professor Michaéla Schippers. She has spent the past 20 years investigating what makes people happy and effective. The answer? Knowing your purpose – and acting on it.

“Striving towards a goal can make us happy and fulfilled,” says Schippers, citing various pieces of research that say people with a purpose in life live longer, sleep better – and even have better sex.

Setting goals

But some find this process easier than others. At the start of her career, Schippers says she had no problem focusing on study – and Taekwondo training – rather than being tempted by the bars of Amsterdam where she studied. Gaining her PhD and performing in her favourite sport were more important. “Setting goals has always come naturally to me. But for most people, it certainly doesn’t.”

Human nature being what it is, most of us are adept at procrastinating, finding it easier to focus on short-term rewards rather than the distant goals of career success. But Schippers has devised an extraordinarily effective way of helping people achieve their long-term goals. She was inspired after reading about a proven programme that helped individuals set and commit to goals.

Could this be the answer to the high drop-out rate of Dutch students in their first year at university, she wondered? RSM jumped at her suggestion of a research project that would involve students taking part in a brief, online intervention.

Astonishing results

With a series of considered prompts and questions, students were coaxed into setting specific goals, defining concrete measures to achieve them, and then – and this stage was critical – actively committing to them. Around 800 students took part in 2011, and the study was so successful the university now asks all first-year business undergraduates to undertake goal-setting in a mandatory three-stage process.

The results are striking: a 22 per cent rise in students’ academic results since the intervention, and equivalent rise in student retention. But among male and ethnic minority students, who traditionally underperform, the outcomes were even more astonishing. After the first year, the gender gap closed by 98 per cent and the ethnicity gap by 38 per cent. Retention of ethnic minority male students increased by 54 per cent. “I’d had a few sleepless nights waiting for the results to come in,” says Schippers. “But when they did, we were elated.”

Planning the ideal future

Goal-setting is simple but can be deeply revealing, says Schippers. Students are asked to respond to a series of questions around study and life. They’re then asked to imagine what their ideal future would look like, as well as what might be the worst possible outcome – what would happen if they didn’t change anything. One way to fix a purpose is to imagine how you’d like to be remembered – or whom you’d like to emulate. Reflection is key.

“This stage is very much like brainstorming – ‘What do you want in life? What did you want as a kid? What would you do with more leisure time?’ It’s very rare students don’t come up with anything.” Using this approach, they define at least six future goals. Ambition varies, says Schippers, and many students focus on their careers. “There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ goal,” she says. “Some people simply want to become rich – but they might have good reason – such as ‘I want to reform the education system in Brazil and I need to finance that’.”

This is an example of what Schippers calls a self-transcendent goal – one that focuses on a higher purpose, and her research shows that publicly stating your goal leads to even better results. “And these goals make you happier as well as making the world a better place.” All students have their portrait taken and come up with an overall personal goal – the I WILL statement.

Social segregation

And now, some enterprising secondary schools are working to adapt the programme for a teenage audience. Despite that fact that Dutch teenagers consistently rank among the happiest in the world, teachers have been shocked by findings from national school inspectors. Academic standards have been falling steadily for 20 years, an official Dutch report confirmed last year, and Dutch children are among the least motivated to learn.

And the gap between schools in rich and poor areas is widening – a big deal, says Rotterdam headmaster Bram van Welie (Executive MBA, 2014), in a country that prides itself on offering equal opportunities. Parents are more likely to steer their children towards schools offering the same opportunities they had, and social segregation is becoming more entrenched.

Van Welie heard about the programme when he was studying for his MBA at RSM. “It seemed almost too good to be true.” When he was promoted to headmaster, he picked up the phone. Inner-city Rotterdam schools could benefit hugely, he believes, but could the programme coax reluctant teens to raise their game at school? “There are many distractions for teenagers in a city such as ours. Many are tempted to make the wrong choices,” he says. “I hope this intervention makes them more aware of the importance of the last two years of secondary school.”

Younger pupils

After Van Welie received government funding to redesign the programme for a teenage audience, four Rotterdam secondary schools have signed up for trials to begin in September this year. “It’s a huge undertaking,” says Schippers. “Nobody knows how younger pupils will react.” But the process is relatively friendly, says Van Welie. “Nobody minds talking about the future – if we ask our kids, they genuinely seem to enjoy it.”

Like many students, Robert Vlug (BSc Business Administration, 2018), now a course co-ordinator at RSM, took part in the programme as an undergraduate, despite initially being sceptical. But he attributes his current career to the goals set by his 18-year-old self. “One was to figure out what I wanted in life.” Had he not taken part, he may not have taken the risk to go into teaching, he believes. “I know I love being an educator and helping people.”

Achieving greatness

Many undergraduates approach the exercise with scepticism, Vlug says – but at least they are honest. “Most adopt a wait-and-see approach.” The goal he has set himself now is to “teach the next generation how to achieve greatness”.

Parents have also welcomed the change in their student children, says Schippers. “They say they’re more motivated.” Students report better time-management skills too.

Schippers believes these life skills should form a major part of the curriculum – as we live longer, we’ll need to think harder about how we spend our extra years. She’s just reviewed her own goals, “and my new one is to reach one million people with this exercise. For those whose student days are long behind them, it’s never too late to find a purpose in life.” 

Case study

Britney Roodenburg, 18, is in her first year of studying business administration at RSM.

“If you were to ask me before this year what my goals were, I couldn’t have told you. But it was easy to set the first two goals – making sure I finish all of my assignments and pass my first year. My work is really important to me. Another was spending more time with my family and friends; sometimes I can focus too much on work and neglect them.

“Another of my goals has been to do more sport – I always said I’d do more but never did. Committing to it has really helped me focus on it more. Since September, I’ve been exercising up to three times a week. I did find it difficult to work out what my other priorities were, but it has got me thinking. It’s a private process – you do it online but the fact that you have to send it to your teacher makes you focus.”

More information

This article was first published in the summer 2019 edition of RSM Outlook – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

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