What is Your Most Meaningful Commitment?  

This is a specific video prompt for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program. But it’s also a good topic for reflection for anyone who is thinking about applying for national scholarships and fellowships, and especially for those who are preparing for interviews. So take a few minutes to think about your answer to the question, “What is your most meaningful commitment?” and write it down on a piece of paper before you continue reading.

Ready? Next question: Why is it meaningful? It’s the obvious follow up question, but having sat through dozens of scholarship interviews I can tell you that this is the question that most often trips people up. Why do you do what you do? Why do you want to do what you propose to do? Top scholarship applicants are often so busy doing what they do that they haven’t adequately prepared for these fundamental questions. Ideally, you’d rather formulate your answer for the first time without an interview panel staring at you.

So, what is meaningfulness? The philosopher Susan Wolf’s book, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (Princeton University Press), offers a helpful formula for thinking about this question: meaningful activities are where subjective attraction meets objective value.

To think about this, let’s first imagine some activities that have one or the other of these qualities but not both. There are lots of activities that we might want to do, enjoy doing, but that don’t rise to the level of “meaningful.” Video games, binge watching Netflix, amateur hobbies and sports for example. For me, it's riding my mountain bike. These things have a certain type of value, enjoyment, which shouldn’t be dismissed. They have a place in a well-lived life, to be sure. But to say that something is meaningful, Wolf argues, is to say that it has some objective value over and beyond our enjoyment of them.

When we think about meaningful lives, we sometimes fall back on paradigmatic examples like Mother Teresa, Duke Elliington, or Steve Jobs. If ever there was someone who accomplished something worthwhile in life, we think, it’s people like them. But I must confess, I have very little desire to live with the poor in Kolkata myself. Sadly, I have little musical talent.  And I really don’t want to run a company like Apple. The point is that there are many things that might be worth doing in life - in other words, that have objective value - and that may be meaningful for other people, but we’ll only find them personally meaningful if we’re also attracted to doing them.

Meaningful activities are those in which subjective and objective value are bound up together in ways that create active engagement or what psychologists call “flow.” They challenge us to use and improve our skills, to overcome challenges, and to accomplish things that are worth doing and that we enjoy doing - even, and perhaps especially, when they’re hard to do. Enjoyable activities like sports or video games can teach us a lot about flow. If they’re too easy, we quickly get bored with them. If they’re too hard, we get frustrated. Flow happens when the challenges are increasingly hard enough to keep us actively engaged and improving our skills. Meaningful activities are the same, but with the added belief that what we’re doing has some greater value beyond our enjoyment.

What is this greater value? Well, that’s a tough one and there may not be a single answer that covers all meaningful activity. One formula you’ll often hear is that meaningful activities connect us with “something greater than ourselves.” In other words, we connect to something beyond our own self-interest: the good of other individuals, a cause, or something that leaves the world a better place than we found it. However, I don't think that these projects always have to moral projects per se. They may involve creations, accomplishments, or relationships that we wouldn't immediately categorize as moral projects.

Now, look back at what you wrote down at the beginning. Why is your commitment or activity meaningful? We might break this question down into some more manageable and concrete questions.

  • Why is it enjoyable? 
  • What are the challenges that must be overcome? 
  • What are the skills or character-traits that you must employ and develop to meet these challenges? 
  • What have you accomplished in doing so? Why are those things valuable? 
  • How does it connect you to other people?
  • What greater good do those accomplishments serve? 

If you cheated and didn’t write anything down at the beginning, start by thinking about your flow experiences. 

  • When are you so totally absorbed in an activity that time just slips away? 
  • When are you exhausted, but can’t wait to get back at it? 
  • Of the activities that generate these flow experiences, which do you believe has the greatest objective value? Why?

One of the great benefits of applying for scholarships and fellowships is that it forces us to put away all distractions and finally sit down to answer these most fundamental questions about why we do what we do.


Originally Published June 2017