Helping Youths Find their Purpose


Bill Damon is a man with a purpose.

It is to help overindulged and narcissistic, drifting youth find theirs – thereby ending the boomerang syndrome that has sent some college graduates back home in a state of prolonged adolescence. It’s a subject that has long interested and troubled him.

The expert on adolescence and personal development makes his case in his new book, The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life. His approach is neither ideological nor rigid. Rather, he offers an empirical look at a generation partially adrift, and he suggests ways in which parents can encourage what he calls “forward movement” toward a purposeful life.

Damon discussed his book and the study underpinning it in a telephone interview and at a panel discussion in May at the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Human Renewal, in Washington.

“The big questions,” he said on the panel, are: “What kind of person do kids want to be when they grow up? Where is it leading? What are the ultimate goals?”

Damon, 63, directs the Stanford Center on Adolescence. Prior to going to Stanford University, where he is also a professor of education, he was a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University. He is also the author of The Moral Child and of Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in Our Homes and Schools.

In The Path to Purpose, Damon discusses the preliminary results of an ongoing study in which 444 people, ages 12 to 26, were asked multiple-choice questions. Of those surveyed, 50 were also interviewed in depth. Those studied were economically, ethnically and geographically diverse. The study is expanding to survey 1,200 people and interview 300.

The results showed 25 percent of the participants lacking any direction, 20 percent being highly purposeful, and the rest falling somewhere in the middle. The first group concerns Damon the most.

The study found “purposeful kids and drifters in all groups,” he says. “The ones I’m worried about are the ones who have stalled, given up, gotten cynical, not the kids taking longer to get married. I don’t treat delay as a problem, as long as there is forward movement.”

His book notes that Ben Stein, the actor-writer-lawyer, once wrote that his direction came in part from hearing his parents talk about their work around the kitchen table. But what of youth who don’t have parental role models to follow? That is why Damon says schools should worry about more than test results. Why one should learn is at least as important as what.

Damon’s own life offers a road map of sorts toward purpose. His father died near the end of World War II, and he was raised in the shoe factory town of Brockton, Mass., where his widowed mother designed footwear.

As a scholarship student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Damon was, by his own admission, a mediocre student. He was inspired, however, by working on the school newspaper. Covering a soccer game, he interviewed immigrant students on the opposing team and wrote about them.

“It got a lot of buzz,” he recalls. “A lot of classmates read it and said it was really fascinating. It hit me, the power of being able to do this: research, telling truth to people, giving information that would enlighten or brighten their lives.”

Damon thought he’d be a journalist, and continued to contribute to student newspapers in college and graduate school. He eventually turned to developmental science, “fulfilling the same mission,” he says. “Finding stuff out and writing about it. Sharing truth with people has been my calling, whatever I do.”

Damon’s path was also influenced by external events. A Harvard University graduate, Damon was an anti-war protester and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. The absence of the draft today, he says, affects purpose, as do economic conditions.

“A lot of stuff has discouraged young people from making commitments,” he notes. “A part of it is the absence of galvanizing great causes. On the other hand, there is a lot to be done in the world.”

As the father of two boys and one girl, all now adults, Damon has some firsthand experience with imparting purpose to youth. “It hasn’t all been 100 percent slam dunk,” he says. He is, however, proud to report that one of his children is an environmental economist and an assistant professor at the University of Washington; another is an attorney working for the federal government on human rights and immigration issues; and the youngest is just out of college and teaching Shakespeare to “highly disadvantaged” high school students in the Bronx.

“They didn’t come out of the womb being purposeful,” Damon acknowledges. “We had some complicated discussions with each.”

For parents and youth workers, The Path to Purpose provides a foundation for starting such conversations with young people.