We often flow in and out of conversations about deeper meaning and purpose. On one occasion it may just be expressed in a passing remark, on another occasion it may be the main topic.

There are plenty of tools and ideas out there to help people find a way of talking about what matters most to them. Here are just a few to get the creative juices flowing.

Values card sort

One approach to exploring what is meaningful is the Values Card Sort. There are various versions out there, such one from Motivational Interviewing with instructions, or an online version.

The basic format is to take a series of values, often printed and cut into individual cards, and invite the person to sort them into piles of Not Important, Important and Very Important. The exercise can be done alone or in an appointment, and can generate interesting discussion about “should” what matter and what really matters.

The Very Important pile can be further sorted into the top 3 or 5 values, which are then used to explore the relationship between these core values and the change being considered. In particular, we can consider each value in more depth by enquiring:

  • “What does that value mean to you?”
  • “How might making this change help you be true to that value?”
  • “How might that value be helpful to you in making change?”

"I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness."

Mother Teresa

Shifting perspective

Another way of opening up meaning or motivation is to ask hypothetical questions, such as:

  •  “If you were looking back on this situation in 2 or 5 years time, what would you like to have seen yourself do?”
  •  “If your best friend was in this situation, what advice would you give them? What would you tell them they should focus on?”
  •  “Imagine you have been injected with a vaccine that stops you feeling the effect of any drug. You’re well, you’re healthy, you just can’t get high. What would you do? How would you spend your time?”

Random objects

For young people who respond well to activities, you can put together some random objects (e.g. a leaf, toothbrush, teddy, foreign coin, candle, toy car, pebble etc). Alternatively there are resources such as photo cards and strengths cards that can be used in a similar way. Ideally the content is not obviously connected to the young person’s current concerns, to help open up free association and creative thinking. We can use these prompts to start conversation with questions such as:

  •  “Which one of these objects best represents what you want in life?”
  •  “Which object best represents your strengths?”
  •  “Which object makes you feel… (safe, hopeful, happy etc)?”

I wanna be a rock star

Sometimes young people talk about plans or dreams that don’t sound realistic. Maybe they are focused on becoming a famous musician or movie star. Maybe they plan to become a policeman when they already have an extensive criminal record. Maybe they dream of a life with no problems, no distress, no hassles.

Sometimes stranger things have happened. The world is full of people who have lived what sound like unlikely lives. But even if it is less likely to come true, the fantasy can still tell us something about what this person values or is attracted to.

For example, one person might want to a rock star for the fame and attention. Another might be attracted to the idea of being recognised as highly talented and want to hang out with other talented people. Another might be drawn more to the aesthetics, fashion or style.

If we can identify what in particular is appealing about that dream, we might be able to open up more immediate possibilities that offer a dose of that in day to day life.

"Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching somebody’s ear getting cut off. David Lynch is interested in the ear."

David Foster Wallace

Remembering not to forget

It’s one thing to discover motivation, it’s another thing to learn how not to forget it. Just because something is meaningful, doesn’t mean it always stays in the forefront of our mind, especially where there are other challenges and distractions going on.

It can be helpful to explore what helps young people to stay focused on what matters to them. It might be a key ring, a phrase, a metaphor, a tattoo. Whatever it is, finding anchors can help us to keep coming back to what matters when we drift or get caught up in other thoughts or feelings.

Creative discovery

One of the developmental processes of adolescence is working out who we are, what we want and what we need. This can be hard enough when young people come from well adjusted, supportive families, let alone if they have already experienced years of suffering, neglect or trauma. It’s not just a case of remembering what matters, but discovering themselves in a new and more hopeful way. 

Getting involved in some form of creative expression can help to offer the space to get to know themselves and discover their voice. While many creative pursuits often start with imitation, they become processes where we find ways to turn off our autopilot, reach within and see what comes out.

"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

Pablo Picasso