Finding Your Purpose | TZL 1 Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk

How do you find your purpose? Do we have an answer to this age-old question? Joining Dr. Santor Nishizaki is Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk. Kendall is the Principal Investigator for the Adolescent Moral Development Lab and is a developmental scientist interested in studying and promoting positive youth development and the moral growth of young people. In this episode, Kendall defines purpose and shares the holistic benefits of having and finding purpose in all aspects of one’s life. In addition, she also gives practical and actionable tips to help you get closer to determining what your calling in life is. Don’t miss out, as Kendall also speaks on the topic in relation to finding a career and being a leader. Stay tuned!

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Meaningful Living And Finding Your Purpose Pt. 1 With Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk

Did you know that almost 60% of leaders never received training on how to lead people when they transitioned into their first leadership role and 50% of managers in organizations are rated as ineffective, according to the Center for Creative Leadership? In addition, Gallop Research found that 70% of employee engagement, which is how we show up to work, can vary based on an employee’s direct supervisor and 1 in 2 employees will leave the organization and their career due to their boss.

Being a leader has a tremendous impact on an organization and the people that they lead. It can be compared to giving someone the keys to a car before they pass a driver’s test. This is Santor Nishizaki. Having experience as a business school professor, entry-level leader, and a C-Suite executive in major organizations such as Walt Disney Imagineering, at a NASA center, and running my own consulting firm, I noticed that people get thrown into leadership roles without any training or coaching on how to lead. This can be challenging and frustrating for the people who work for this new leader and the leaders themselves.

This show and the future book aim to be a resource for emerging first-time Gen Z and Millennial leaders whose organizations do not have the resources to invest in expensive executive coaches or training for entry-level managers. The structure of this show is to explore how we lead ourselves, others, and within organizations. In addition, we wanted these leadership stories to be relevant and applicable, and in the voice of someone who dealt with these challenges or is continuously dealing with them every day. Thank you so much for reading and welcome to the Zillennial Leader show.

I’m Dr. Santor and welcome to The Zillennial Leader show. Knowing your purpose is one of the most important attributes of being a leader and a human being in our world, finding out why we are here. I figured, “Who better than to bring in one of the leading experts on this topic,” Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk? Dr. Bronk is a Principal Investigator for the Adolescent Moral Development Lab and a Professor of Psychology in the Division of Behavioral & Social Sciences at the Claremont Graduate University. She’s a developmental scientist interested in studying and promoting positive youth development and the moral growth of young people.

She has investigated these topics through the lens of young people’s purposes in life. Her research has explored the relationship between purpose and healthy growth, the ways young people discover purpose, and the developmental trajectory of youth with strong commitments to various purposes in life. Her work has been funded by the Spencer Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the Fulbright Foundation. She has been featured in CNBC, Forbes, Fast Company, and many more. Let’s dive in to figure out how to find purpose as leaders. Dr. Bronk. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thank you for having me.

Your expertise and your research are about purpose. Being an elder or geriatric Millennial, as we are being called nowadays, we always want purpose. What’s our why? Can you tell us your story of how you got to study on purpose? I love to hear a little bit about your research.

I worked in business right out of college. I was working in management consulting. I realized while I was there, that I was more interested in the people and the way that the people made decisions in particular. I was working in the tech space. There were a lot of issues that came up where it wasn’t clear what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed. There were all these moral issues that came up. I realized I was interested in the way that people made decisions about what was right and wrong. I said, “This was back aways.” There weren’t a lot of clearly stated laws in place yet.

Anyway, I’m talking with the people at work. I realized, “This isn’t what other people are interested in here. Maybe I need to think about going back to grad school.” I did, and I went into study Moral Decision Making and Moral Development more generally. I was getting ready to get started with my graduate program. My husband had a serious health setback. He ultimately had a heart transplant.

It caused me to step back and think, “What do I want out of this program? What do I want to do with my life? What do I want to accomplish?” It was a turning point for me. As luck would have it, my advisor, William Damon, had this opportunity to work on a project setting purpose. I thought, “This is sure timely, at least given my circumstances.” That was a long time ago.

Your husband is doing fine now, right?

He’s doing great, yes. Thank you. Since then, I have been studying purpose.

Can you tell us a little bit more about what purpose is? As we have heard from Simon Sinek, Start With Why. A lot of people are like, “I need a purpose to work here.” We have seen that throughout the pandemic. Can you explain to us in basic terms, what is purpose?

Our goal is to study purpose in a rigorous, scientific way. It’s important that we have a definition that is clearly stated and one that can be operationalized in empirical work. The definition that my colleagues and I have used is composed of three pieces. The first idea is that a purpose in life is a goal of sorts. It’s a long-term aim. It’s that thing that you want to accomplish or at least make some progress toward. That’s the first part.

The second is that we have lots of long-term goals in our lives. It’s a long-term goal that’s meaningful. It’s something that we care deeply about. In fact, sometimes we care so deeply about it that we define ourselves by it. At a minimum, we are willing to invest our time, our energy, and our personal resources in making progress toward it. The third component of this definition is that it’s a long-term goal that’s meaningful to us. It’s inspired at least in part by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond ourselves. That’s an important component of purpose. It’s not just about us. It’s about us using our skills and talents to affect the broader world in some personally meaningful way.

It’s altruism. It’s doing good, making the world better than when we left it. Would you say that’s accurate?

It can be. A lot of purposes end up being altruistic but sometimes people find purposes in the arts. They might want to create a new form of art that moves the art form forward. Picasso did that with Cubism. I’m not so sure we would call that altruism but it’s contributing to the world beyond the self. It’s contributing to this domain of art. We did this study where we followed young people for a few years. We were looking at the ways that their purpose changed over the years that we followed him anyway.

We can have multiple purposes. These purposes wax and wane throughout our lives. Click To Tweet

We had a Jazz musician. He talked a lot about how he enjoyed Jazz music because, unlike some other art forms, it allowed him to leave his mark. In Jazz music, there’s a rift and people can contribute to this art form and change it in a way that may be more difficult than other forms of art. A lot of times purpose ends up being altruistic if you want to set out to provide food to people who don’t have enough food or something like that. Other times, it could be more of a contribution to a domain. The important part is that it’s a contribution to something that you care deeply about beyond yourself, not just contributing to your own wellbeing.

What would you say would it be more than one purpose? You hear, “I haven’t found my purpose yet.” As a College Professor, I hear a lot of students say, “What’s my Why?” Can we talked about that? Can you speak to that? Is there one purpose for that young person who may be reading like, “I don’t know what my purpose is?” What advice would you give to them?

First, let me talk about the one versus multiple purposes. We have more than one purpose. Our research underscores that. The interesting thing is that purpose is waxed and waned throughout the course of your life. I think about my own purpose in life. I find a lot of purpose in being a parent. If you had asked me when I was in my twenties, I didn’t have children then, that wouldn’t have been a purpose for me.

Someday my children will grow up and move on. I will still be a parent but it will be different. That may be a less central purpose for me when they aren’t at home. We can have multiple purposes. These purposes wax and wane throughout our lives. Hopeful, I should say for a young person who’s still trying to figure it out. There’s not one purpose out there for you. There are probably many and at different times, different purposes might be more or less important to you.

It’s focusing on what you are good at, and then focusing around a goal, would you say?

We have special skills and talents that we can apply. It’s also paying attention to what it is that you care about. What do you want to be different in the world around you? What skills do you have to help affect that change? Paying attention is often the case that we find our purpose at the intersection of our special skills, talents, and those things that we care most deeply about.

There was a young man who we interviewed who was interested in technology and loved his grandparents. He ended up starting a little nonprofit where he would provide tech support to the local retirement community. This was it took off during COVID. It was for many of the older people, their only connection with the outside world. He took his skill in technology and used it to connect with his own grandparents and to help other people connect with their grandparents. I thought that was special. Sometimes that’s not an intuitive connection but once you see it played out, it makes a lot of sense.

Is there any type of correlation between purpose and happiness?

There’s a ton of research that links purpose to lots of different forms of well-being, including happiness. The purpose is correlated with hope, optimism, happiness, subjective well-being, and a variety of indicators of psychological well-being. It’s also pretty interesting though that purpose is also associated with physical wellbeing, with physical health. People with purpose report less cardiovascular disease, and less chronic pain.

There’s some interesting research about that. Researchers have been interested in trying to understand, “Is it more than a correlation? Is it possible that purpose contributes to or helps cause these positive health outcomes?” There is some research to suggest that may well be the case. For example, people with purpose sleep better. They report fewer sleep disturbances at night. Sleep has been identified as one potential pathway through which purpose might contribute to physical health. People with purpose also report engaging in far more health sustaining behaviors. They are better about eating healthy, seeing the doctor regularly, and exercising.

That could be another pathway through which purpose contributes to better physical health. There’s even some interesting epigenetic research that suggests that purpose changes us on a genetic level and in health sustaining ways. The way we live our lives calls forth for genetic expressions. People who leave their lives with purpose tend to have particularly healthy genetic expressions. That’s another pathway through which purpose probably contributes to physical and also psychological well-being.

You have a lot of research around youth as a parent. When does this develop? What can we do as parents to help our kids find their purpose earlier in life?

Given all of the positive benefits associated with leading a life of purpose, that’s an obvious next question. From a developmental perspective, purpose tends to develop along with identity. As young people are figuring out, “Who am I and who do I want to become?” which are the identity questions, at least some are also reflecting on, “What do I want to accomplish in my life?” That’s the purpose question.

Often a lot of research suggests those questions are intertwined. As you make more headway, figuring out who you are and who you want to become, you are also likely to be making more headway, figuring out what it is you want to accomplish and what your purpose is. Identity development usually starts in adolescence, maybe as early as middle school. Identity and purpose are processes, so it takes some time for this to unfold.

Paying attention is often the case that we find our purpose at the intersection of our special skills, talents, and those things that we care most deeply about. Click To Tweet

We don’t expect that early adolescents have a clear sense of their purpose in life. Our research suggests maybe 1 in 10. By high school, young people are thinking about this, maybe 1 in 5. By their twenties, young people are seriously considering who they are and what they want to accomplish. We see rates of about 1 in 3 in their 20s with a pretty clear idea of what their purpose in life is.

It blows my mind. With my research on Gen Z, they are figuring things out a lot earlier. We had the opportunity to speak to some Gen Z-ers interning for a Fortune 100 company as a high school students. I joke about this. When I was in high school, I worked at blockbuster and these students are interning for a Fortune 100 company. It’s incredible. Have you seen any trends generationally in the last several years on people understanding may be because of access to technology or information earlier?

We haven’t. The research on purpose is so new. I don’t think it has been around long enough for us to have a lot of research over time to compare trends several years ago to now. It’s a pretty new area of study. That would be interesting to see. Are they figuring it out earlier? My sense would be that identity development, if anything, is improving in the other direction that it has been extended.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett writes a lot about emerging adults. He talks about how many years ago people graduated from high school and that was usually it. They would often get married, have a family, start a job, and were off and running. Issues of identity were sorted out earlier than they are often because we have this prolonged period where we are more likely to engage in some tertiary education. If it’s not college, it might be vocational training.

If people even choose to marry or get married much later. If they choose to have children or have children later. There’s this prolonged moratorium during which young people are figuring out who they are. It’s possible too, that they could be figuring out purposes even later but maybe they are doing more of an active exploration earlier than in the past.

That’s so fascinated and true. It’s like the Master’s degree is becoming the new Bachelor’s degree because of how competitive it is. Imagine all that education changing the way you look at things. A lot of times people will get a Master’s degree. I say, “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know.” That’s supposed to be specialization. I could only imagine how much more looking at purpose from a thought-provoking perspective.

Even when I got my Doctorate then I got into generational things, I was like, “That wasn’t my purpose.” I noticed things but it didn’t click until probably my Doctorate degree. In this Great Resignation, you must be busy. I’m sure you have a lot of studies that are in the works. Some people have said the Great Resignation is all about organizations that have not inspired purpose with their employees. What are your thoughts on the Great Resignation?

I should start by saying, I don’t know the answer but I have given it some thought. I feel the Great Resignation was a little opening up in space and time. The pandemic was a little bit of an opening up in space and time. It gave us all a moment to step back and to think about, “Could things be different, and could they be better?” Most of us had never stopped. At least I haven’t stopped working before and I didn’t totally stop working. I started working from home but it looked completely different.

The pandemic disrupted all of our routines and our accepted ways of doing things. That allowed a lot of us to reimagine the way things could be and reconsider what it is we are doing and what we want out of our lives. I think of the pandemic as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it led to a lot of dissatisfaction with people’s current lives or current work situations.

That’s why we have the Great Resignation. I also wonder if it wasn’t a turning point in one of those transitions that might inspire new purposes in people. Some of the Great Resignation is people realizing, “My life could be different and maybe it could be better. It could be more meaningful or more purposeful. I want to explore that possibility.” The research is still coming out on all of that.

It’s your opinion, not empirically backed by evidence yet. There are a lot of studies out there about what is causing this.

They are coming out. Some of them back that up that it did cause people to rake in the routines and an opportunity to reconsider, reimagine, and revise plans a bit.

If you look at family, both of us being parents, we are both in Southern California. Your side of Los Angeles could be tough to drive around. It’s going to take a lot for us to come back into the office and leave our kids for the extra two hours that we get back into our day to drive into an office. It’s going to take a lot of impact on what we do to want to come back.

People and millennials in particular are hungry for purpose. If employers want to get them back in the office, that’s going to be essential. The sign of a good leader is somebody who can help connect employees with the company or the organizational purpose and help the employees feel connected to it, motivated, and inspired by it. That’s not easy. That takes a lot of time and a lot of work but it is possible.

Purpose tends to develop along with identity. Click To Tweet

Being in a leadership role, one of the things I used to do was take the people who were doing the work and say, “It’s because of you, we are able to get this contract done on time. We are able to build this widget or whatever.” Do you recommend that leaders do that? Is that what you are saying in the work part? It’s hard. That whole meeting took a couple of hours to organize. It was what I was taking on with the team under the construction site when I was a project manager. Is it creating a culture of that?

There’s a case study that I read about. It’s not the current CEO. It was a past CEO of USAA, which is a military financial services company. He was interested in this idea of purpose. He stepped back and talked to a lot of the military people about what this USAA Organization meant to them. They would use it for mortgages to buy a new home and for their insurance. They would move a lot because of their life in the military. They needed this. They shared these stories with all of the people at USAA. People talked about how much that meant to them.

It’s to think about, “We are not just helping anybody. We are helping people who are out there potentially risking their lives for our country.” That’s pretty inspiring. There are opportunities for leaders to help connect the employees with the larger mission of the organization. It can be time-consuming and expensive. I don’t know if it’s only something you can do once and walk away from. You might have to build a culture. I’m not saying it’s easy but it can be done. It can be a pretty powerful way to engage employees and help them feel connected to the organization, the mission or the purpose.

That’s a great case study. I’m going to have to look it up. If it’s finance, someone is doing spreadsheets in Excel. It’s like, “Here’s another one.” If you say, “This spreadsheet is going to help our veteran get their first home,” that’s impactful.

It’s pretty powerful. I’m assessing risk. How meaningful is that? You realize, “Here’s who I’m doing it for. Here’s what difference it might make in their lives.” That is pretty cool.

It’s a great story. The next topic is from a leadership perspective. We talked about the CEO who was doing in that case study. How can one’s purpose translate into being a leader? Have you seen that at all? You have a background in business as well, in addition to purpose. Can you tell me about the importance of a leader having to understand their purpose, so then the people that they are leading be led appropriately or successfully?

The important thing there is thinking about the purpose of the organization. That’s not the only place that you can find purpose. You can find purpose in life outside of work as well. As a leader, if you believe in the purpose of the organization, if you are able to articulate that and use that to motivate and inspire employees, you are going to be a pretty powerful leader.

You are marrying your own personal purpose with the organization. That’s what you are saying, having those core values mix in.

If the purpose of the organization is at odds with your personal values, beliefs or purpose in life, there’s going to be a problem. If they are aligned, that can be a great opportunity to find meaning in your daily work.

What advice would you give to employees who are thinking about leaving or maybe have just left? There are a lot of them. It’s record high numbers.

It’s an opportunity. I do think that this opportunity to step back and reflect on what it is you want out of your life is a good thing. Maybe you step back and realize, “This job is not for me but I still don’t know exactly what is for me.” We do have some tools that I could share. We have done a lot of research looking at, “Is purpose to something that has to take root organically and grow in your life? Are there steps that we can take as people from the outside to help other people, especially young people discover their own purpose in life?”

It turns out that we can help young people cultivate a purpose for their lives. There are some of the things that we find helpful. I love this. This is an easy one. We have had young people reach out to five adults who know them. Think about maybe a past employer, an extended family member, a coach or people who know you well in a variety of different capacities, and ask them to answer three questions for you.

You can do this via email. Email can be easy. Make sure that you tell them, “Don’t spend hours on this. I don’t want you to agonize over it. I want you to respond to me in the next few minutes.” If you let them take their time, they will never get back to you because they will try to compose the perfect email. If you can get them to get back to you, quickly ask them to answer these three questions. “What do you think I’m particularly good at? What do you think I enjoy doing? How do you think I will leave my mark?

There are three pretty simple questions but we have had young people do this. When they get answers from five different people can be interesting to see what they learn. Sometimes it turns out that even though you may not know what your purpose in life is, sometimes the people around you have a pretty good idea. The feedback that you get from these people who you value can help you start to think about some new directions that you might want to pursue. Something else that our research suggests is effective, and this is not intuitive is to focus on cultivating gratitude in your life.

Even though you may not know what your purpose in life is, sometimes the people around you have a pretty good idea. Click To Tweet

You may think, “What does gratitude have to do with it?” It turns out that by putting ourselves in a grateful mindset, we are focused on the things that others have done for us, on the blessings in our lives, and all these good things that have happened to us. That tends to naturally incline us to start to think about how we want to give back. That can take the form of purpose. You might try to cultivate gratitude at the end of every day for a couple of weeks.

Write down three good things that happened to you and why you think they might have happened to you. It doesn’t have to take a long time. What you will find after a few days of this is you wake up looking for opportunities to things that you’re grateful for. When you are in that grateful mindset, you may start to see yourself starting to think about, “I have had all these great things happen to me in my life. Now I do start to think about it.” Get your mind moving in that direction about ways that I want to think about giving back.

You are in charge and the Principal Investigator for the Gratitude and Purpose Project. I was reading a book, The How of Happiness. The author talks about that as well. I also heard that if you are having a bad day, practicing gratitude will instantly shift that.

That’s the other good thing. These practices are useful for other things as well. Hopefully, they will help you figure out your purpose. Even if they don’t, they will be some good things to come out of it. One other thing too is purpose is developmental. You have to be a little bit patient with yourself and realize that maybe you don’t know what it is yet and that’s okay. You have your whole life to figure it out. It would be great to figure it out when you are younger. There are some tools and some strategies you can try but you also have to be patient with yourself.

Different people are there at different times. As you are waiting, try different things. Don’t sit back and sit on the sidelines but get out and take a job that sounds interesting, and then think about it. What are the parts of this job that you like? What are the parts of this job that you’re good at? What are the parts of the job that are the most meaningful to you? If this isn’t the job, you can look for another one that maximizes opportunities for you to shine, you enjoy, and that is more meaningful. The idea is that you do have to get out there and try it. We are not just going to know.

It’s not this elusive. You wake up one day and your purpose automatically shows up.

Unfortunately, it’s not hiding under a rock anywhere. I like to think about it as cultivating purpose. You do have to go out and try some different things and reflect on some different things. These strategies though, reaching out to people who know you well, and they can help provide some insight, practicing gratitude. There are lots of different strategies that we have found can be helpful along the way.

Can they read about these on your website? What’s your website that people can go to if they wanted to learn more?

It’s There are a lot of resources there. There are several online toolkits you can try. You can try individual activities.

My last question is about the future of work. Do you see the future of work being in-person, hybrid or virtual? That’s a vague question because there’s so many positions and types of folks. What are your thoughts from your perspective?

I wish I knew. We talk about that all the time. Working in higher education, we are one of these industries that is ripe for transformation. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen. Maybe we will all be avatars studying in the metaverse and communicating that way. Anything is possible. In the short-term I have to admit, I do love the in-person. Maybe this is because I’m old. There’s something that I appreciate with being in-person.

However, I see moving forward, we know that we can do this online. In the short-term future, at least here at Claremont Graduate University, we are making a move back to in person. We are also recognizing that benefits of being able to move online when we need to accommodate student schedules or faculty schedules or both. I wish I knew further out.

I have been teaching online through the pandemic. I was teaching online for a few years before, so it wasn’t tough, for me, but for my colleagues it was tough. For the students, not everyone is made to be online learners or at least you do not have to be forced. I did notice when I went back in-person, I felt excited to teach. I’m not to say I wasn’t virtually but it was different getting a chance to see their faces and not a whole bunch of blank Zoom screens. From a purpose perspective, do you think being in-person can amplify the impact of what you are doing?

I find a lot of purpose in the job that I do. To feel like I’m contributing to my student’s success, I have to feel like I have a relationship with them. It’s easier to formulate that relationship in-person. It’s not impossible online. We taught online for years, it definitely can happen. Walking into the classroom or during the break, when you catch up with somebody in the coffee line, those informal conversations can be important in sparking awareness of things that you had in common with somebody that you wouldn’t have otherwise known.

The idea is that you have to go out there and try. Click To Tweet

You probably wouldn’t bother to talk about it in an online setting but come up spontaneously in-person. I do find that the ability to form a relationship is important, at least for my purpose, which is helping me to feel like I can contribute to my student’s success. It’s not imperative. I’ve found other ways to do it online but it happens more easily for me. Maybe that’s because that’s also what I’m more used to. It’s interesting to see how this goes in the future.

Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Bronk. There are a lot of great resources. I feel like you have demystified it a little bit, not looking under a rock for our purpose and what do you say about cultivating these things every day. Good luck with all the research. We are all looking forward to seeing what you find from this post-pandemic.

Thank you. Have me back in a few years and I will be able to report on all of that.

I can’t wait to see that. You have a great rest of your day.

Thank you. You, too. Good luck with your book.

Thank you so much. appreciate it. Take care.

The views expressed by the podcasters are their own and they are not rendering legal accounting or other professional services. Thank you much for reading and have a great day.


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About Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk

Finding Your Purpose | TZL 1 Dr. Kendall Cotton BronkKendall Cotton Bronk, Ph.D., is the Principal Investigator for the Adolescent Moral Development Lab and a Professor of Psychology in the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the Claremont Graduate University. She is a developmental scientist interested in studying and promoting positive youth development and the moral growth of young people. Most recently, she has investigated these topics through the lens of young people’s purposes in life.
Her research has explored the relationship between purpose and healthy growth, the ways young people discover purpose, and the developmental trajectory of youth with strong commitments to various purposes in life. Her work has been funded by the Spencer Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the Fulbright Foundation, and has been featured in CNBC, Forbes, Fast Company, and many more.