The Pursuit Of Purpose

Whether it’s choosing a career or deciding to move out of their parents’ house, young people are putting off big life decisions later than ever before. Stanford education professor and human development expert William Damon wrote “The Path to Purpose” after observing many young adults who feel as though they are “drifting” or “stalled” in life. Damon believes their problem stems from a lack of purpose—a goal that lends direction and meaning to their lives and inspires them to accomplish something good for the world outside themselves. But the good news is that Damon says that this all-important but elusive thing called purpose can be instilled in kids at a very young age.

Why is it so important for young people to have a sense of purpose?

Purpose provides a lot of energy and motivation and also a sense of resilience. If you have a purpose, you don’t feel so bounced around by all the diffi culties that life throws at you. It gives you a reason to strive and try to achieve excellence. We fi nd that a lot of young people who are working hard and doing well in school are sometimes stressed and burned out because they don’t fi nd a lot of meaning in what they’re doing. They’re good kids—they’re doing what’s expected of them; they’re doing their work. But they’re not getting a lot of satisfaction out of it because they don’t have a larger purpose. If kids have some sense of what they’re trying to accomplish, then all the work they’re doing in school has some meaning to it, and it gives them some satisfaction and joy. And they don’t feel so burned out the way a lot of kids do.

How early can parents start to foster a sense of purpose in their kids?

You can actually ask kids as early as three or four years of age to do things around the house. This gives them the sense that they can help out a bit. Simple things like watering the family plants or helping Mom empty the dishwasher—basic little chores— are a great way to get kids to feel they can make a difference to other people.

This is the very early version of what will later grow into a sense of purpose. In developing these habits early, it will be a lot easier later in life for a kid to fi nd a personal sense of purpose.

How does this sense of purpose develop as a child gets older?

Well, when kids become teenagers they become a lot more independent. They need to fi nd their own way in life. So the kinds of purposes that teenagers fi nd will usually be discovered on their own, somewhere beyond the family.

They don’t just get them from Mom and Dad. They fi nd them in school, or maybe a part-time job, or maybe some other relative—something
beyond themselves to care about, and try to learn about, and try to
accomplish. But what’s really important for Mom and Dad to do is to
support and encourage the purpose the young person fi nds for himself or
herself. And that’s what we fi nd in all our highly purposeful young
people: the parents are there for the kids.

In your book, you mention well-intentioned
parents who make drastic mistakes. For example, there’s a young man
whose father threatens never to speak to him again if he devotes himself
to volunteer work before earning an advanced degree. What common
mistakes do parents make with the best of intentions?

One mistake is thinking
that kids will never listen, need any kind of guidance, or that they
don’t really care about what parents think.

A lot of parents
don’t understand how much infl uence they have over their kids and what
an important role they play in their kid’s life. So they step back and
they don’t give the kid guidance.

The opposite mistake is trying to write the script for
your child’s life. The parent in the book was furious because the child
wasn’t taking the direction the parent thought was exactly right. You
can’t micromanage a child; you can’t write the script for the child.

What about all the
parents who haven’t developed a sense of purpose?

How can they help their
children if they’re struggling with this in their own lives? Most people
who have children fi nd that as a purpose.

Family is certainly
an important source of purpose to a lot of people.

So, they may actually be
living a sense of purpose without having articulated it to themselves.

having conversations about purpose with your child is a way to both
promote the child’s sense of purpose and fi nd a direction that gives
your life meaning. I think these conversations are a win-win situation
for both parent and child.

Does it matter what a person identifi es as his or her
purpose? Or is it just having one that’s important?

It needs to contribute
something positive to the world. You don’t want to have a purpose that
hurts people and is totally selfi sh. So it matters in that sense.

Some kids are more apt
to embrace a purpose than others. Why?

Yes, some young people do
very quickly and thoroughly embrace their purpose. I profi led 12 highly
purposeful young people who are really off the charts. At the other
extreme, some kids are really having trouble with this.

What makes a difference?

A lot of
it comes down to the kind of guidance and mentorship they had, fi rst of
all in the home. So, parenting is really important. But also, if
they’ve been fortunate to fi nd a mentor in school or some other
setting, where someone gives them the right kind of attitude, they are
more likely to develop a sense of purpose.

I have one example in
the book, where the manager of a fast food restaurant hired a lot of
teenage summer employees. He said, “I tell kids they’re not just here to
fl ip burgers. I tell them, ‘Your job is to put a smile on every
customer’s face.’” And the teenagers who worked for this guy came out of
the job glowing. They had learned a great attitude about what work is
about, or what work can be about, even though it was just a fast food

are the long-term effects on society when young people fail to live
with a sense of purpose?

For the individual, it leads to a lack of hope and

Motivation is not there. Apathy, sometimes cynicism,
develops. And this is not a very happy way to go through life. For
society, if you don’t have a generation of young people who are
dedicated to the future, you don’t have much of a society. Especially
for a democracy.

do you think so many kids today fail to develop a sense of purpose?

We live in a culture that
is too focused on short-term, material goals, like celebrity, fame,
fortune— things that are unrealistic for most kids, and they don’t even
lead to happiness that much anyway. Those aren’t very hopeful values,
and young people are going to have trouble fi nding a meaningful
direction in life. So we need to focus on things that are more
substantial. Things that are less about “me” and more about “what I can
give to the world.”