Promoting a sense of purpose and meaning through natural mentoring

White, A.E., Lincoln, B., Liang, B., Sepulveda, J., Matyjaszczyk, V., Kupersmith, C, Hill, N.E.,  & Perella, J. (2020). “My Mentor Thinks That I can Be Someone Amazing”: Drawing Out  Youths’ Passions and Purpose. Journal of Adolescent Research, 1 – 26. 

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although young people have more career paths to choose from compared to previous generations, the sheer amount of options can simultaneously be overwhelming and stressful. 
  • This study examines how natural mentors can help promote a sense of purpose and meaning for high school students.
  • Four types of support provided by mentors were identified: 
    • Emotional
    • Instrumental
    • Informational
    • Appraisal support
  • The four identified types were also categorized by mentees’ perceived support: 
    • Affirmation (appraisal & emotional support)
    • Cultivation (developing skills & facing challenges)
    • Guidance (receiving advice) 
  • Findings highlight the importance of having affirming mentoring relationships, suggesting that this can help mentees discern and accept guidance support and cultivation. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This qualitative descriptive study analyzed the role that natural mentors had in cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning among 38 diverse male and female high school students. The types of mentoring support provided and the students’ perceived experiences of receiving the support were considered in the analysis. Directed content analysis revealed four initial overarching types of supportive actions that were provided by mentors: emotional, instrumental, informational, and appraisal support. The types of support offered were further categorized across three dimensions of perceived support by the mentees: (a) affirmation (e.g., the experience of emotional and appraisal support), (b) cultivation (e.g., the experience of being challenged and obtaining skills), and (c) guidance (e.g., the experience of receiving information and advice). In order for mentees to perceive and accept cultivation and guidance support, they first needed to experience an affirming relationship with their mentors. Findings may inform best practices for mentoring youth toward lives of meaning and purpose.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Previous literature has suggested that youth purpose development occurs through a combination of social learning, proactive, and reactive pathways (Kashdan & McKnight, 2009). Across these pathways, adolescents receive feedback about their relevant strengths, as well as develop relevant skills, a passionate enthusiasm for their purpose, and a desire to contribute to the world beyond themselves (Bronk, 2011; Liang et al., 2017). To develop a sense of purpose, adolescents receive various forms of support from people and their environments, and the most purposeful youth actively seek out this help and guidance on their journeys (Koshy & Mariano, 2011). Results of this study extend the literature on factors that contribute to youth purpose development, namely by suggesting that natural mentors are key people who offer support to adolescents on their purpose development journeys.

The types of supportive mentor actions—emotional, informational, instrumental, and appraisal—mirrored much of the previous literature on mentoring relationships between adolescents and their adult mentors. The literature has suggested that effective mentors provide adolescents with a space to discuss personal problems, facilitate trust, opportunities to learn social and job-related skills, and access to activities that they may otherwise have had trouble attaining (Chapman et al., 2017; Gaddis, 2012; McLearn et al., 1998). Indeed, mentors serve as a source of social capital and can help youth secure benefits through a connection to a social network or social structure (Gaddis, 2012). Mentors in this study wrote letters of recommendation for their students, connected students to opportunities (e.g., science fairs, camps, internships, and work-related experiences) that they either had trouble accessing or were not as motivated to pursue on their own, and leveraged social capital to introduce students to helpful people and resources. In addition, our study builds on previous research through mentees’ consistent identification of trust as an integral aspect of the social capital they experienced in their mentoring relationships (Gaddis, 2012).

Furthermore, the results enrich this literature by articulating the salient perceptions of cultivation and guidance (i.e., how students experienced the receipt of informational and instrumental support) and illustrating how mentors assisted their mentees in developing a sense of purpose (Liang et al., 2017). Findings that highlight the importance of students’ perceptions of support are consistent with results of other studies of social support, which have shown that students’ perceived level of social support tends to be a stronger predictor of positive outcomes (e.g., well-being) than social support measures completed by other raters (e.g., teachers; Chu et al., 2010).

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