How Innovation Can Lead To Life Purpose

By Henry Doss, Chief Strategy Officer of T2 Venture Creation, from Forbes

Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
Tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
‘Cause I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

–The Who:  “Who Are You?”

If there is anything certain about the experience of new college students, newly arrived at new schools, pursuing a new stage of life it is this:  They will be confronting one vexing question, every day.  This question will influence what they choose to study, and what they pursue outside the classroom.  Their parents will ask this question constantly; advisors, friends and teachers will ask this question, even when they’re not asking it.  It will be the one constant in their educational experience, the dominant concern.  It will trump everything else.  That question is:

“What are you going to do?”

It is exquisitely ironic that for all we do to provide education, that we do so little in a structured way to support inquiry into this question.  Practically speaking, no matter how well-prepared students are to perform academically, seldom are they prepared to address the central question of purpose.

Philip Hardin, CEO of YouScience, believes he and his team have developed an innovative approach to helping students develop a focused but highly flexible sense of purpose and direction early on in their education.   They have combined a science of aptitudes and ability with a user-centric online platform to deliver on their mission to help students find a “path that’s right for them.” We talked at length recently about how science and technology can contribute in a significant way to what is essentially a highly personal and subjective issue.

Henry Doss:  I must say, finding a methodology to help address that “what will I do with my life” question seems daunting.  What led you and your team to tackle this?

Philip Hardin:   You’re right, it is daunting.  That “what do I do with my life” question plays out in households across the U.S. and abroad.  With the rising cost of college and 50% under-unemployment for young adults, the implications of not having a thoughtful answer are greater than ever.  Colleges and universities are properly focused on delivering an education.  However, “purpose” often does not get the attention it deserves.  Students must answer two crucial questions to direct their education: 1. In what career(s) am I most likely to find both fulfillment and success? And 2. How should I design my college experience to get there from here?

Doss:   Of course, just about every institution offers career counseling, experiential learning and so on.  What does YouScience offer that is not there in the universe of currently offered support?

Hardin:  Career centers can be a wonderful resource to students; however, there is usually a substantial gap between career centers and the academic advising process.  YouScience is uniquely positioned to be accretive to those existing support systems.  Our focus is very specifically on the student. What we do is take what can be a random and perhaps unmotivated process and turn that into an energized, deliberate experience of discovery and preparation.   We are successful when students become better buyers of education and more self aware of their potential and possibility.

Finding purpose and direction is not the same thing as taking standardized tests.

Finding purpose and direction is not the same thing as taking standardized tests.

Doss:  A skeptic might say that the discovery of human potential is very much a human process.  Your product is an online tool.  How does that compare with and compete with human interaction with students?

Hardin:    That’s a really good and important question to address.  We see YouScience as a kind of “democratizing” approach to developing purpose and self-awareness of aptitude. We do that by taking the best available science and wrapping it in an engaging product. So, we can deliver a highly personalized career discovery process to that student who has no available counseling.  But we can also deliver that same support to those students who do have access to professional or in-school assistance.  We have many schools and counselors delivering the YouScience profile as part of a bundle of services, and that’s a great approach.  But, the YouScience profile is written to be understood by students and their parents. It does not require professional interpretation and is available to any student, anywhere, any time.

Doss:  This leads me toward another area of concern.  There is enormous pressure on educational institutions to address “jobs” and “employment” and “competitive income results.”   The danger, of course, is similar to “teaching to the test.”  We end up approaching education as little more than a vocational exercise.  Does your theoretical framework point toward “jobs” or does it focus in some other dimension?

Hardin:   That may be the most important – and most nuanced – distinction we will talk about.  I really think we lose substantial value when we talk about “jobs,” rather than talking about purpose.  Jobs will come and go and change substantially over time.  What students need to do is understand who they are, what they’re good at and what will be meaningful to them over time. So, our first objective is to help the student build a foundation for decision-making.  We don’t intend to tell them what they should do; we help them decide for themselves.

Doss:   That seems incredibly important to me.

Hardin:  It is.  What we have found is that students love learning about their giftedness and how it applies to work, school and social contexts.  But they don’t generally have a framework for understanding what they love and what they do well in the context of work.   We  help students combine aptitudes and interests in a way that helps them apply those talents to career and education choices.  And given the rapid pace of change and innovation in our world today that ends up being eye-opening.  For almost all students, we expand, rather than narrow, their vision and opportunities.  Most students only know a few potential careers from the contexts of family and their community, and this can be dangerously misleading and uninspiring. We help them apply their giftedness to the broader career marketplace and give them the insight to see the careers that are increasing in economic viability and availability. So, students can then begin to set a path of intentional discovery and use their education to create more options, not eliminate them.

Doss:  On one level it seems that you introduce more complexity into the process, by increasing options rather than narrowing them. But, at the same time, you seem to be increasing opportunity.  And this seems to me to be linked to students exercising more autonomy and accountability for the process of discovery.

Hardin:  I think that’s right, because we do not want to usurp young people’s ability to think for themselves.  Ultimately, every young person has to control their own path to independence. Giving them an  “answer” is ineffective, and almost patronizing.   What we want to do is ignite that intrinsic motivation that every student has, rather than rely on external forces.  That motivation begins with understanding their own giftedness and seeing that there are real opportunities for them to pursue. Once they see the possibilities, then they explore and set a direction for their education and begin building options for themselves. I think the majority of young people do not want to be left behind. They want to succeed, and they want to make a difference in the world.  They just need better tools for self-discovery and decision-making.

Doss:   So, in some sense aren’t you as much about helping students understand something like “life experience” or “purpose” as you are about “jobs”?

Hardin:  I think that’s right, in some very important ways.  All of us know that, ultimately, everyone figures it out. But the real question may be when and at what cost? Life tends to reward those who discover their path sooner. What we want to do is accelerate the personal discovery process and expand young people’s vision of the opportunities available to them. If we can do those two things, and at the same time, provide a method for “mapping” those talents to the world “out there,” then we will have been successful in our mission.

Doss:  Speaking of success puts me in mind of measurements, and grades and value assignment.  Your process does not assign scores or rankings or any relative or absolute values of “performance.”   Why is that?

Hardin:  Believe me, this is not about giving every student a participation trophy.  For me, it works like this:  All humans are a portfolio of particular talents or natural aptitudes and each individual will have a unique, personal mix of these aptitudes relative to the population around them.  We want young people to focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses, and everyone is some mix of both.  For example, you might not be inclined toward numerical reasoning, but be great at idea generation and inductive reasoning. This might indicate that you would really enjoy work that involves solving certain kinds of strategic problems.  But if we assign you scores on these attributes, you are very likely to focus on the low score, rather than on the real gifts that you have.

Doss:  And in your world this is not just a good idea, or a feel-good approach, right?  You would argue that there is a clear scientific model for taking this approach.

Hardin:   Yes!  The science of aptitudes — what we naturally do well — and the science of interests — what we enjoy doing — are the foundation of our approach. Both of these scientific areas are quite well established.  We do two really unique things that take the science a step further.  First, we combine aptitudes and interests into a single algorithm to create a more reliable way to make career recommendations. Basically, the algorithm identifies someone’s “fit” by combining what they do well with what they love to do and what the market needs them to do. The second real innovation—and a critical aspect of YouScience’s sociology—is what we talked about earlier and that is that we have “democratized” this science by making it available in an engaging, easy-to-use online service.

Doss:  Do you view the YouScience approach and model as innovative or simply a creative aggregation of existing technologies and sciences?

Hardin:   Of course I’m biased but I think we are being very innovative in our approach, and we challenge ourselves to remain innovative.  At this stage of our development, our most important innovations relate to usability and distribution. We continually ask this question:   “How can we keep delighting users and enabling them to distill the necessary insights quickly and in a way that motivates them to pursue their career and educational decisions in a deliberate manner? What new data can we introduce that will better inform our users’ search for their highest potential?”

Doss:  So now that we have a bit of understanding about the epistemology of your approach, let’s turn next and look at the actual practice and technology of how you deliver your model.

(This concludes the first installment of a two-part interview with Philip Hardin, CEO of YouScience.  The next installment will focus on the online deployment strategy of the YouScience model.)

Henry Doss is a venture capitalist, a volunteer in higher education, a student and a musician.

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