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Searching versus Seeking

written by Aren Cohen 12 September 2007

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

Satya Sai City Ashram

Satya Sai City Ashram

Recently I was talking with an acquaintance of mine who is preparing to leave his job in investment banking to go to an ashram in India to practice mediation and yoga.  It was clear that he was excited by the prospect of this new journey, but he was also apprehensive.  Having attended business school and lived in the Tal Ben-Sharar notion of the “rat race” working on Wall Street, he was unsure of giving it all up to embark on a more spiritual journey.

Over the course of the conversation, we talked about the fact that his new endeavor would require bravery from him.  Yet the other thing that was apparent to me was that my friend was now a “seeker.”  In planning this trip to another part of the world, and, in a sense, to a whole other world for him, my friend was preparing to find a completely new side of himself.  As we talked, I thought more about this notion of the “seeker.”  My friend explained that he needed encouragement to undertake this new adventure, but that there was no question in his mind that he wanted to do it.  What was clear to me about my friend is that while he doesn’t know exactly what he will find, he does have goals in mind about what he wants to learn from this process.  By comparison, I explained to him, he is different from a “searcher.”

We all know people who are “searching.”  They are looking for something, but they don’t know what.  There are no clear goals and they don’t know how they are going to find what they are looking for.  Searching, as compared to seeking, feels aimless.  In the article “Strategies for Accentuating Hope,” Lopez, Snyder et. al. (2004) explain that hope is a reflection of three different capacities, namely our ability to set goals and then find our own agency and pathways to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.  What I noticed about my friend is that although he doesn’t know where his goals will lead him, he has set clear goals and has found the agency thinking (belief in himself that he can do it) and pathway thinking (the ways and things he is going to have to do to make it happen) to achieve these goals.  As a result, the label “seeker” seemed to fit the adventure he was about to undertake.  By comparison, the people I have met who are searching do not know their goals, and they are fuzzy on their agency and pathway thinking.  Searchers expect that the thing they are looking for will come to them, and they do not actively set about in a process to seek it out and find it.

It is important for positive psychologists and coaches to note the distinction between seekers and searchers.  A seeker has already set the path for herself.  She may need help motivating to follow the course, to reach the goals, to keep envisioning and acting upon her own agency and pathways, but there is something already in her mind that she wants to achieve.  A searcher, however, needs more help and clarification.  Searchers have to be supported to help find their goals in the first place.  They need to find the thing that will provide motivation and propel them forward.  This will require a more in-depth examination of values and wants, learning what makes the person tick and what gives his life meaning.  Here you are indeed helping a person find hope because you are aiding him in the process of naming and defining the goals that will give him a course of action.  Once these things are identified, the searcher becomes the seeker, and you can move towards helping him find the ways and means to achieve the goals that he has set.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., Turner, J. L., & Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice. pp. 388-404. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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Sue 13 September 2007 - 8:50 pm

Well, first of all, thank you for sharing your experience.
This article really struck a chord with me. At this moment in time I guess I’m more of a “searcher” than a “seeker”. But in my opinion what differentiates searchers from seekers is experience. I guess searchers like myself need to get out there and experience the world. In that way, we, searchers, can clarify our goals, desires, wants and etc..
But do not dispair! because life is a journey and the fact that we are trying to become a better person means a lot more than that we already become that “perfect” self.
What pos-psych is all for? Keep up the optimism 🙂

Aren Cohen 16 September 2007 - 2:34 pm

Hi Sue,

Thanks for your comment. The notion of experience is a great question. I suppose on the one hand without experience we are more likely to be searching than seeking because we have less information. Yet I know lots of people who set goals and make decisions with little experience and information. I think we have to be careful about “holding ourselves up” because we have less than complete information or experience. We are never going to have all the answers, so sometimes we just have to take the risk, set our goals and go for them. Waiting just leaves us in a holding pattern which does not allow us to achieve all we are capable of.

I think about it in the case of this friend of mine. He has no experience of life in an Ashram, but he has set this goal and gone for it. Also, think about people who get engaged. They certainly do not have all the information about what the future will bring with their partner, but they are willing to take the risk and set the goal of getting married and forging a life together—- all with a lack of experience.

So, I encourage you to shift your mindset from searcher to seeker. Just because you don’t have experience doesn’t mean that you can’t set real and tangible goals. Decide what you want to do on this stage of your journey and go for it. The self-efficacy of this process is sure to energize you.

Thanks again for your comment. Keep reading and being positive!

Nicholas Hall 17 September 2007 - 2:21 pm

Hi Aren,

How is it that you are able to succinctly clarify the difference between the two different kinds of “looking” 🙂 that I have been struggling with most of my life? Wow. Thank you for that. Defining the two different kinds of “looking” and how to approach them makes so much sense. Seeking is knowing the path you want to be on, though you may not know the outcome, you welcome it. Searching is not being clear on either the path or the goal, and more importantly seems to lack clarity in the heart about our own desires.

Did I describe them clearly? I want to be accurate and clear with myself because I want to be a seeker, man!!

Thanks for the article!

Janice 20 September 2007 - 5:03 am

Hi Aren,

Thanks for your article on searchers vs seekers. You’ve very articulately explained a distinction that I’ve sensed but couldn’t quite articulate in my own mind!!! In relation to a searcher, you suggested that “they need to find the thing that will provide motivation and propel them forward. This will require a more in-depth examination of values and wants, learning what makes the person tick and what gives his life meaning”. I’m wondering if you could suggest some practical questions/approaches for helping a coaching client to do this. Thanks!

Regina 9 November 2007 - 9:49 am

Hi Aren, I, like Janice, would be very interested in finding a few questions/approaches that clarify our true values and wants. I feel like I have live most of my life trying to please others aaround me – I am not sure if what I think I want out of life – is really the truth.

Aren Cohen 11 November 2007 - 2:13 pm

Hi Janice and Regina,

Thank you for your questions. I think it is very hard to tap into the difference between seeking and searching, but there are some guidelines. The first is that you need the person to be able to differentiate between intrinsic and extrinstic motivation. Am I doing this because I want to or am I doing this because I think I should (because of social mores)? Additionally, I think it is important to get people to voice their commitment to what they are looking for. If it is a causal, “oh yeah, I would like to look into that,” it is a search, not a seek. An investigation of the intrinstic helps illuminate the passions. Seeking is attached to passion. To help people seek you need to ask them questions about the things that make them passionate, their fears surrounding their passions and the things that drive them towards their passion. If they cannot confirm that they are passionate about their project, they are probably just still searching.

I hope that helps.


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