PRYDE's purposeful work, now

Anthony Burrow, PRYDE co-director

Anthony Burrow, PRYDE co-director

I confess: I am a procrastinator. Stated casually, I prefer to front load my time with enjoyment and relaxation, trusting that work and chores will still be there when I go looking for them.

As it turns out, procrastination is not a particularly helpful activity for a developmental scientist. The questions I have about the world need answers. But the people I most often look to for those answers – adolescents - grow up and mature into very different versions of themselves. Studying the substantial changes they undergo helps me appreciate that in a blink of an eye, the small, curious, and often identity-less beings who enter this stage will leave it as larger, identity-assured beings, now curious about very different things. So, to put my work off for too long could drastically change the answers I find, or worse, prevent my ever finding them at all.

So here is the dilemma: how can a desire for personal enjoyment and relaxation be reconciled with the need to delve into work straightaway?  My personal path to a solution was riddled with dead ends. Some involved severely restricting how long I allowed myself to spend on personal interests, and dedicating the remaining time to work. Others had me imposing artificially dreary, internet-deprived environments in which to work. These types of subtle modifications failed to fully mute the pestering urge to procrastinate. I needed something more substantial: a new way to approach the problem.

Eventually, I decided to look where the light was brightest and try to better understand what about my personal time made it so enjoyable. If that could be determined with any precision, I reasoned, then it could be applied to work projects. My initial guess as to why personal time was enjoyable was because it was relaxing. But under close inspection, my personal time turns out to be anything but restful. The bulk of it is allocated to hiking, running, traveling, playing basketball, or camping. Though not inherently relaxing, these things share something very important: they are not concerned with some future outcome. They are all, in themselves, an immediate reward. I hike to explore nature, not to reach a summit. I camp to rejuvenate with fresh air, not to disavow the luxuries of modern technology, and so on. The things I enjoy most are not always relaxing nor do they have clear end points, instead their gratification lies in doing them now, and so, I always want to do them.

This realization empowered a new approach to the work I do with young people. As a researcher, I am mainly interested in youths’ sense of purpose in life. That is, I want to know what they think their future holds, and what they intend to accomplish by the time it arrives. And I believe now is the time to ask them about it. In fact, the need for young people to consider their futures has hardly been greater, making my work on purpose feel unignorably urgent. Therefore, for me, the reason to study youths’ sense of purpose is not because I champion some downstream outcome over another. But rather, purpose is important because of its potential to enrich the quality of youths’ lives right now.

This approach runs deeply throughout PRYDE: we study many positive and healthy aspects of youth development, because we are dedicated to having an immediate and meaningful impact in the lives of young people. As a founding co-director, I envision a space where personal enjoyment and rigorous research are indistinguishable, and I see the promise of this in colleague after colleague, and project after project here at PRYDE. The whole of our program is built upon the singular goal of helping youth develop well, and we work towards that by investing in the experiences they are having today. Here, we do not procrastinate in our pursuit of a better understanding of youth and the ways to help them successfully navigate their world. The work of PRYDE cannot wait, and so we do purposeful work, now.