3 Words that Greatly Improve Education: The Weekly Mentor by Oliver DeMille


The New Purpose

Family-hearth-geoffroyHere are three words that can make a wonderful difference in your family’s education! Please don’t do what many modern Americans do when they’re reading and come across an unknown word and either skip it or stop reading altogether.

Instead, read even more closely to really understand it. Learning new things is key—if not, we’re not really learning!

So really think about how these 3 cool words can help your family! And have fun with them:

  1. Autotelic (Definition: Doing something for the value of doing it, for its own merit, for its own sake. (See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 67-70))

For example, you are making autotelic choices when to take a job because you love it, study a topic because it fascinates you, spend time with someone because you enjoy being with them, or participate  in an activity because it’s fun.

Compare the opposite. Your child is having an exotelic experience (the opposite of autotelic) when he does something for some secondary or third-rate reason: like spending time with a “friend” because he wants to be introduced to the friend’s pretty sister, or reading a book because he wants to get a good grade in a class or doesn’t want to get in trouble with the adults in his life.

In the modern world, the large majority of what passes for “education” isn’t autotelic at all. It is done with an agenda, not for the sake of great learning.

Here’s the principle: For the most part people get a lot more out of autotelic experiences than from any other kind. In the case of children and youth, most of their life should be based around autotelic experiences. They learn better this way, and they’ll be happier through life.

Indeed, children who don’t spend nearly all of their time before age 17 living and learning autotelically are often said to “never have experienced childhood.”

Truly high-quality education is almost always autotelic. Period. This means the most successful life-long students study what they study because they love it—because they love learning. When this is missing, the quality of education drastically decreases.

The New Connection

  1. Eudaimonia (Definition: Connection with your true self, the real you. From Greek roots, meaning “the flourishing, happy, you.” Knowing who you really are, what your life is truly for, and living in harmony with these things each and every day. (See Matthieu Ricard, Happiness, 108))

familyAs one author put it: “After sorting through piles of data, the researchers have concluded that pursuing happiness can backfire, but pursuing eudaimonia rarely fails. Eudaimonia is the Aristotelian idea of human flourishing, pursuing long-term goals that give meaning to life, rather than short-term happiness that delivers a [fleeting] jolt of dopamine.” (Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Re-Imagined, 7)

At first blush, many people jump to the conclusion that only adults are really mature enough to find their eudaimonia. But the facts show the opposite. Most toddlers have it—all the time, all day, every day. They know their purpose—they seek happiness. And they do so autotelically as well.

Few teens have eudaimonia (a clear and passionate purpose in life), except those actively involved in sports, theater, music, or some other driving passion that they chose to pursue. Even fewer people in their middle years have it. Some elderly people get it back. But to have eudaimonia in your middle years, from 20-60, is rare. Still, that’s the goal.

Individuals who know who they are, what their life is for, and that they are fulfilling their life purpose each day are a lot happier than everyone else. (Gallup says that in the U.S. less than 20 percent of adults like their jobs.) Part of educating our children effectively consists of teaching them about this—so they can live happier lives. If they go after a career, instead of a life calling and purpose, they’ll most likely be part of the unhappy 80 percent.

The opposite of eudaimonia is “attachment,” where you have been swayed by other people or other things in life away from your true purpose and connection with your authentic self—and spend much of your life doing things to try to impress others, or because you think they require it of you. Unhealthy attachment thrives on connections to things that aren’t your genuine life calling. (For a lot of people, this includes their career and work life.)

This was the theme of the movie Dead Poet’s Society—deciding whether schooling and work life is more about eudaimonia versus unhealthy (and often forced) attachments. Quality education isn’t “attached” to all the problems in the world. Instead it’s fresh, exciting, and focused on helping each learner be himself/herself. Truly. Fully. Without fear. We don’t approach education this way very often nowadays, but we should.

Fact: “Anti-depressant use among Americans of all ages has increased over 400 percent in the last decade.” (Emma Seppala, 2016, The Happiness Track, 7) For those under 22, the depression is mostly about school; for those over 22, it’s mostly about work. Something needs to change!

We’re a nation tragically disconnected with our true inner dreams (autotelics) and life purposes (eudaimonia). We spend almost all of our time on other people’s priorities for us, and then wonder why we’re not very happy.

The New Calm

  1. Wuwei (Definition: A Chinese word meaning literally “non-action”. A more accurate translation into English is “calmness” as we pursue life. (Ibid., 86-87) )

Emma Seppala notes that wuwei-style expressions “like ‘live in the moment’ and ‘carpe diem’ sound like clichés, yet science backs them up robustly.” (Ibid., 24) For example, research shows that people who learn to focus on doing one thing well right now—instead of constantly multitasking—are happier and more productive in life, relationships, and work. (Ibid.) In fact, studies show that students who do this frequently actually test better than other students. (Ibid., 25)

saraHere are some additional traits exhibited by young people who were raised by a parent or parents who emphasized calmness in learning (rather than being driven in schoolwork):

  • They are better at concentrating.
  • They perform better on tasks that require memory.
  • Over time, they have more charisma.
  • They aren’t “permanently anxious,” like many other young people their age.
  • They are demonstrably more creative than their peers.
  • They exhibit more empathy—the ability to see things from the viewpoint of another person.
  • They are better listeners.
  • They have more self-confidence. (This list from Seppala.)

Seppala shows that modern education often “buries natural creativity.” (Ibid., 102) The way our schools operate focuses on convergent thinking (“getting the ‘right’ answer, learning what to think) and frequently undermines divergent thinking (creativity, and learning how to think).  She wrote:

“George Land, author of Grow or Die, suggests that this kind of training [provided in our schools] dramatically reduces our natural creativity…. He found that between three and five years of age, 98 percent of children ranked as ‘divergent thinking geniuses.’ Between eight and ten years of age [after most of them started school], that number had dropped to 32 percent. Between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, the number had dropped down to 10 percent.

“When Land tested a group of twenty thousand twenty-five-year-olds, he found that only 2 percent could think divergently. Land concludes that while creativity is naturally present at a young age, we unlearn it through our education system.” (Ibid., 103)

Another study, by researcher Dr. Kyung-Hee Kim, found that “since 1990 there has been a steady decline in creativity scores while IQ scores have risen.” (Ibid.) This corresponds with school curriculum changes from a broad learning program to national-test-based areas of rote emphasis. Seppala wrote: “Kim concludes that ‘people in general are becoming less able to think creatively, and they are less tolerant of creativity and creative people.” (Ibid., 103-104)

Seppala concluded that as a society we now seem to have “no time for non-linear thinking,” and that our schooling is now almost entirely focused on the so-called “‘important’ stuff, like the requirements of career…” (Ibid.) Her point is that this is a very bad development.

The New You

All three of these words highlight how much parents need to take a serious look at the education of their children. If we mindlessly stick with a model that ignores our children’s passions, interests, needs and potential, our kids won’t get the kind of education they deserve. They’ll get something much less–something tragically insufficient.

The new economy is focused on innovation, creativity, and ingenuity—while most schools (Kindergarten all the way up through university and graduate studies) are stuck in the 1960s models of rote memorization and multiple-choice national test scores.

That’s sad. Yet too many people are simply afraid to look for and adopt something better. They know the old school model is failing our kids, but they just keep using it anyway.

With that in mind, here’s one more excellent word to chew on:

Resilience: “When you stop being afraid and start being yourself.”
(Victor J. Strecher, Life on Purpose)

About the Author:

Rachel is the co-author of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning and the audio series Core and Love of Learning: A Recipe for Success, and the author of the award-winning educational resource, This Week in History. She is an accomplished musician, writer, literary editor, public speaker, consultant and momschool organizer.


  1. Charles Lee July 6, 2016 at 9:08 am - Reply

    WOW!!! I doubt if we will ever agree politically, but those three words – even though I did not know them prior to this offering – are how I am adjusting my life. I walk away from a six digit salary 18 years ago to pursue a career as a singer. This was my Autotelic choice. I didn’t and still do not make as much money, but I feel much better about myself. I found that this – then new – career foster a journey that promoted Eudaimonia. This person whom I met was buried deep inside of me by society’s “shoulds”, particularly those imposed upon me by the educational system. I think the Madison Avenue has a lot to do with the swaying away from the journey to the true self. Their influence is promote the self isn’t good enough without this or that product.

    Lastly Wewui is not only stifled by the education system, but once again Madison Avenue and the media in general. They do not train us to focus on the moment or the task at hand. They want us to focus on material possessions, thus promoting a very shallow existence.

    Overall I am glad you wrote this. It was very reassuring, encouraging and uplifting.

  2. Janette Wagner July 6, 2016 at 9:29 am - Reply

    I love this article! Thanks, Oliver. This past academic year, we had a student from Finland living with our family. She met the challenges of living in a new country with gusto and brought a smile with her in whatever activity she was pursuing. You taught me the name for this trait today: Eudaimonia. That is how Miila lives. I will definitely be revisiting these terms with the mentors at LEA. We find that our classes hit a really sweet spot when we are able to mentor with these principles.

  3. Sarah July 6, 2016 at 10:26 am - Reply

    I just started making a point to write down all the words I don’t understand as I read aloud to my daughter and I look them up in front of her as soon as we are done. I want her to see that it’s okay not to know everything and it’s good to continue learning as an adult.
    A few words I’ve just learned: vagaries, to whelm, ken
    We also look up pictures of any animal/plant form mentioned in a book.

  4. Angie July 10, 2016 at 7:05 am - Reply

    Would you please comment on the student (14yo) who really thinks every scholarly endeavor is – in his own words – a waste of time. He does love to read a certain genre of books and teaches himself how to set up servers and such. We homeschool and are involved in Classical Conversations, which does require a rigorous course of study at his age. Years earlier, I attempted (half-heartedly I see now, as I didn’t pull the plug on electronics as entertainment) a reset and want to do the same again. I am losing heart on how to help my son. I pray to see that spark of love of learning.

    • Rachel DeMille July 21, 2016 at 5:23 am - Reply

      It depends on his passion, his purpose, his talent. There is so much that goes in to what you’re asking. What does he spend his time on? Sometimes it’s truly a distraction, a wasteful obsession, an addiction; other times it’s a clue as to what a unique individual’s purpose might be.

  5. Daniel July 11, 2016 at 8:01 am - Reply

    Liz Coleman, president of Bennington college revealed that when education focuses on:
    1. Oversimplification of civic engagement
    2. Idealization of experts
    3. Fragmentation of knowledge
    4. Technical mastery
    5. Neutrality over firm character

    the results are toxic; ignorance, lack of character and conviction, indifference, loss of allegiance, faith, community, an increase of self-worth and compliance toward totalitarian authority.

    See 2006 ted talk by Liz Coleman. A Call to Reinvent Liberal Arts Education. President of Bennington college

    When I heard Dan Clark say, “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” I was glad that I spend most of my free time with the great minds of the classics.

    Thanks for the new vocabulary

  6. Nicole July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am - Reply

    I love words…I took notes! Looking forward to internalizing these terms!

    Thank you for taking the time to write this…It improves our quality of life!

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