UW-Madison professor offers ‘Big Picture’ advice for new graduates

June 7, 2016 By Käri Knutson

Graduation is a time for celebration. But it can also be filled with questions about the future.

Christine B. Whelan remembers those days well, and as a consumer science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Human Ecology, she sees firsthand the big questions her students face.

“Graduates nationwide are seeking direction and purpose,” Whelan says. “Young adults want to do things that are in line with their purpose and passions, but they haven’t figured out what those are yet.”

Photo: Christine Whelan

Christine Whelan

To help, Whelan wrote “The Big Picture: A Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life,” a follow-up to her 2011 book “Generation WTF: From ‘What the #%$&?’ to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You,” which was a remix of classic self-help with a new generation in mind.

“When I published ‘Generation WTF’ students told me the most influential chapter was on finding meaning and purpose — and yet there were no young-adult guides that addressed this subject,” Whelan says.

So one summer, Whelan sat in a coffee shop and read a bunch of purpose books for folks in midlife.

“I’m sure I looked pretty silly with a pile of self-help books, staring out into space as I pondered my purpose,” she jokes.

After doing all the exercises herself, she combined the ones she thought were best into a draft of “The Big Picture” and then tested that draft with more than 600 students at universities nationwide.

As part of the promotion for the book, Whelan conducted a national general population survey of more than 700 adults ages 18-59. Among the findings:

  • More than 86 percent of young adults say making decisions in line with their purpose makes them an adult, but only 43 percent say they have a clear picture of what they want in life.
  • Only 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds say the career path they have chosen is aligned with their life purpose.
  • Sixty-nine percent of young adults say they would be willing to take a cut in pay to work at a job that allowed them to focus on more meaningful work.

Questions of purpose can seem overwhelming, so Whelan’s book offers small-step exercises to help figure it all out. She suggests asking yourself three questions: What are your strengths? What are your values? How can you use your strengths to live your values in a way that’s meaningful to you and others?

Photo: Cover of The Big Picture

“I found my purpose by saying yes to experiences as they came to me,” Whelan says. “We must all learn to say yes to possibilities — and learn from them. It’s not about making a single career decision or crafting one static purpose statement. It’s about a purpose mindset, and how to embrace what matters most to you at every turn.”

“The Big Picture” has supporters in many different camps. Deepak Chopra, author of dozens of personal improvement books and director of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing endorses it as “the perfect guide.” University of Michigan School of Public Health professor and purpose author Vic Strecher lauds it as grounded in both science and philosophy. And School of Human Ecology Dean Soyeon Shim has named it the 2016-17 SoHE Go Big Read book, providing copies to all incoming majors.

For grads and young adults struggling with their own sense of purpose, it’s good to have perspective and remember you are not alone.

“Now is a good time to explore. Take some time to reflect in a systematic way — asking questions about your strengths and passions, identifying core values and then brainstorming on your vision for change in the world,” Whelan says. “This may sound daunting, but if you break it up into fun, bite-sized exercises, you will boost your self-efficacy and sense of personal accomplishment as you hone in on what matters most to you.”