The Path to Purpose

While the concept of “finding purpose in our lives” has gained a great deal of currency over the past few years, William Damon’s new book, THE PATH TO PURPOSE, tells us that this vital message isn’t being clearly or convincingly communicated to the young people in America who need to hear it most.

path2purpose3The book is based on the findings of the Youth Purpose Project, a landmark four-year nationwide study of how young people from the ages of 12 – 26 are struggling to find their purpose in life. Citing data from the study and from other recent research, Damon tells us why most of our efforts to goad our children on to success have fallen short. Instead of helping young people find enduring, life-fulfilling goals, he concludes our emphasis on superficial, short-term success is diminishing their natural optimism and creating a generation of young people who lack confidence and direction as they try to define their futures.

Damon is one of the world’s leading scholars in human development. He is Professor and Director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University and editor of the definitive Handbook of Child Psychology. In the PATH TO PURPOSE, Damon takes readers inside the minds of disengaged and drifting kids and exposes the depth of their confusion and anxiety about what they should do with their lives. Damon then tells the stories of some inspired young people who are thriving–and identifies nine key factors that have made the difference for them.

THE PATH TO PURPOSE is sure to resonate with the huge number of American parents (a clear majority in Damon’s study) who see their kids treading water and struggling to find a meaningful direction for their lives, despite the fact that they are working hard, doing well enough in school, and staying out of trouble.

Here are just a few key findings and insights from the book:

  • Many Americans have become expert at finding short-term solutions to get through their lives—and they are instilling the same sort of shortsighted thinking in their kids. While short-term goals (e.g., homework, grades, making the team) may be necessary for adapting to a present situation and young people can learn from them, they don’t allow anyone to ask the important questions (What kind of person do I wish to become? What do I want to accomplish with my life? Why should I strive?) that create forward momentum in our lives and lead to lasting satisfaction.
  • The advice we’re giving kids is increasingly cynical and makes them cynical: they hear dire warnings that things are unachievable and won’t net enough attention or profit, along with crafty advice about beating the competition. Kids need to hear how they can derive personal satisfaction from doing something that makes a difference in the world—even if they don’t get public recognition and huge financial rewards.
  • A parent cannot accomplish the task of identifying a purpose for a child, nor can a parent choose the child’s personality or write a script for the child’s life. But a parent can introduce options and help a child sort through choices.
  • Parents and teachers seldom talk to kids about the things that they find meaningful in their own lives and careers-and how setbacks and activities that seemed discouraging at the time actually led to something satisfying in their lives.