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.