17 July 2009

The Path to Purpose

So someone asked me to take a look at The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, a new book by Stanford University professor William Damon. I didn't think I was going to end up writing about this but I can't help it.

Professor Damon's going after a critical problem in our society: the lack of meaning, the absence of a sense of purpose that so many of us feel. Of particular concern is the "generation of disconnected and unhappy kids" whose inner emptiness, whose lack of purpose is widespread. In his interviews and surveys of people between the ages of twelve and twenty-two, he says "almost a quarter of those we interviewed...express no aspirations at all. In some cases, they claim that they see no point in acquiring any." Damon links this to an increase in the rate of suicide and attempted suicide. The reason? Professor Damon writes: "I am unconvinced by the 'stress' explanation. Hard work and competition have never broken the spirits of young people as long as they believe in what they are doing."

This might be easy to dismiss as a developmental phase if Damon didn't see evidence of a life-long problem emerging from this aimlessness in young adulthood. "In the long run, that lack of purpose can destroy the foundations of a happy and fulfilled life."
As a parent and as someone who's interviewed a lot of people just out of college who want an entry-level position, I couldn't stop reading this book. Professor Damon is describing something we all know in our gut is true but hadn't quite recognized with such clarity.

Professor Damon's thesis is that schools and parents are failing to teach children how to find their purpose, why they're learning what they're learning. My guess is that's because most of those parents, teachers and administrators may not have figured out their purpose either.

I remember a friend of mine in school - you probably had one like her, too - who always held up class room lessons, demanding to know why she should learn algebraic equations or about the Teapot Dome scandal or how photosynthesis worked. She wanted to know what possible difference it could make to her life. I'm not sure any answer would have satisfied her but Damon suggests that such moments could provoke a more meaningful learning experience. "Incredibly, in all my years as a scholar of youth development and education, I have never seen a single instance of a teacher sharing with students the reasons why he or she went into the teaching profession."

In my very first documentary as a baby producer when I was just twenty-two, I spent months with a gang in San Jose, California, and the police who were working hard to curb their criminal activity. I can tell you that the very first sense of purpose those gang members ever had in their lives, they got the day they joined that gang. I spent more than four months talking to those guys. When I asked them what they envisioned for their future, I might as well have asked in Swahili. The future did not exist for them. They had no future picture of themselves nor any hopes or dreams. But, because of the gang, their day had structure, meaning, and purpose and, as flawed as those were, it must have been an enormous sense of relief to go from nothing to something.

Going one step further with this: I wonder what role a purpose-void plays in those who commit violent acts they say are based on their faith.

I remember the panic I felt before I graduated from college, wondering what I'd do for a living. I was clear that my choice couldn't just be about what might earn me the money to live. I needed to believe in what I did, that I had to feel that it might make a difference. That thinking led me to choose to learn how to tell stories for a living because what little meaning I found in my life had come from what I'd learned from the stories people wrote or told me. I wanted to learn how to do the same for others. The incredible relief I felt when I hit upon my purpose I can still remember, I can even feel it, physically, in my body today. But I also remember how I felt before I figured it out, how desperate, lost, and hopeless I felt and how eager I was for someone, anyone, to tell me what my purpose was.

I was lucky no one ever did. I was lucky no one ever tried to make my purpose serve their purpose.

The central impetus for The Heathen has been my bewilderment about the conflict between people of faith. William Damon's The Path to Purpose has got me wondering if some of the source of that conflict comes from people desperate to find a purpose without knowing how to do it for themselves making them ripe for false clarity.

1 comment:

  1. one of the very lucky things for me that happened when I was 12-14 was that I went thru a midlife crisis in which I confronted these very things. Having excelled at some things I worked at and been above average in others I didn't b/c I was gifted with opportunity, smarts, and some push from parents - I find myself deeply suspicious that the effort was ever worth the satisfaction at the end. And what did it mater if one was excellent at X, how did that mean anything? I and the universe were inching towards death and what did it matter what I did, even if it was good on limited terms?

    To me one of the best, if difficult answers, is that since the universe and existence is purposeless - that we have the opportunity to attempt to create meaning.

    The thought was offered me by my folks and while it offered little solace, I more or less embrace the idea behind it.

    Also, let's be honest, none of the things we are taught in school is useful, other than the way anything can be useful when applied to the problems which may resent themselves in that area. Knowing how to do certain kinds of math may only help you with math (or it may help you with your credit cards or understanding why triangles are stronger than squares).

    The idea I was taught early (that I failed to embrace - I was so angry at jumping thru hoops, that it took me along time to realize jumping thru the hoops was so easy it was simpler to yield than resist) was that process is important. Learning how to learn, learning how to apply what you have learned gives you the powr and flexibility to make choices when you do find something worthy or yer attn.

    Also, that it was okay to not have strong convictions or faith, placing oneself in the path of the "good" gives one the opportunity to opt in if and when you discover there is something you want. It's essentially "fake it unitl you make it." embrace process and wait for inspiration, seek inspiration and don't be crushed when it underwhelms. If things ARE pointless and you do nothing you are not somehow winning by refusing to buy into BS, but if things DO turn out to have some meaning, at least you don;t wake up and ask why you squandered your time in apathy.

    It's a practical kind of faith in it's own way. I have faith that doing worthless things that seem better than other worthless things may eventually turn out cooler than I thought. If you end up being process oriented, and less end result (although I'd argue pursuing end results are one way to confirm the process is a strong one) I think you find some happiness in being engaged.

    The world is full of beautiful little things and they tend to reveal themselves by engagement. I think education would serve itself by teaching kids to engage for the joy it. My 3 and 4 year olds know this, the lassitude and ennui is learned thru social patterning.


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.