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Sparks for the future

By Sarah Odendahl

Girl with graduation cap blowing gold sparkles from her hands
It’s the time of year when “adulthood” is becoming a very real concept for many of our youth - college acceptance letters are arriving, tuition deposits are due, graduation ceremony and celebration plans are underway.

When I think back to that time in my life, I remember lots of people asking variations of, “Can you make money doing that?” when I told them about my plan to major in theatre and music. It was the height of the Great Recession, so I can’t really blame folks - and yet, at 18, it was impossible not to be hurt by the lack of support from the adults around me.

In 2011, Dr. Peter Benson of the Search Institute in Minneapolis gave a talk at TedxTC. He spoke about the research they were doing into “sparks” by asking youth, “Tell me what it is about you that gives you joy and energy.”

In his talk, Dr. Benson defines sparks as “something that gives their life hope and direction and purpose” and explains the three different categories of sparks: a skill or talent; a commitment, such as social justice or environmentalism; or a quality, such as empathy. Further research has shown that sparks and relationships are both important parts of the developmental context that helps youth thrive and leads to long-term outcomes like vocational success and employability. Yet, only ¼ of youth have someone in their broader community who knows and nourishes their spark.

At one point in his talk, Dr. Benson offers this sobering thought: “Young people bring to our world a special capacity or gift, that our world desperately needs, and we so easily snuff it out.” He also shares an important piece of wisdom demonstrated to him by his grandson: “The spark is not necessarily the same thing as the work you do.” In concerns over youth’s career trajectory, are we unintentionally snuffing out the thing that gives them hope, direction, and purpose?

There’s an often quoted statistic that the average person has seven different careers in their lifetime.  While there’s no data to back that up, because as the Bureau of Labor Statistics shares, there’s no definition of what constitutes a “career change,” it is true that people hold an average of 12 different jobs in their lifetime. It’s also true that Millennials and Gen Z are changing jobs at a faster pace than their older counterparts. Employers are increasingly looking for transferable skills to measure an employee’s fitness, rather than only industry-specific education and experience.

As we move into the time of year where future planning takes on more weight, I challenge you to hear the youth in your life without fear for their future career. How can you support them to live into their spark?

-- Sarah Odendahl, Extension educator

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  1. Sarah, thanks for bringing the notion of sparks into the conversation of career preparation and advancement. As adults it's hard not to look far down the line and make assumptions and conclusions for youth when youth are moving into their career plans, but this does not take into account the numerous encounters and ways their own trajectory can change as they journey. What began as a passion for outdoor recreation, or theater, or STEM may itself evolve as youth have more encounters and experiences. The key thing in all of this is to let the passion guide them, and help them transfer those passions to other areas of their life when a specific career choice may not meet all of those needs.

    1. I agree, it's difficult to remember youth need to discover for themselves instead of "taking our advice." I think Extension professionals are often in a great position to demonstrate the often winding path a career can take and how a particular spark can be a part of our life without being the entirety of our career.


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