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The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life Paperback – April 7, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


The Path to Purpose is a beautiful and important book. William Damon takes on one of the most hidden and yet important elements of child development today and provides warm insight and clear advice." -- Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys and The Wonder of Girls

"If you are a parent, a teacher, or a policy maker, this is the book to read. Damon socks the crucial problem of our youth -- purposelessness -- right in the jaw and offers us a way out." -- Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness

"As a leading authority on meaning and moral development, Damon writes a timely and important book on one of our most pressing social issues -- how to instill a sense of purpose in the lives of children. Damon gives us a fresh and useful way to look at both education and character development." -- Dr. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia and Writing to Change the Worlds

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Young Lives Adrift

The life prospects of a young person in today's world are far from certain. Only a few decades ago, almost all young people knew by the end of adolescence where they would live, what their occupation would be, and whom they were going to marry. Today, most young people have no answers to these questions well into adulthood. The global economy has increased the opportunities, and pressures, for young people to move far from the communities that they grew up in. Even many of the best-educated will spend years in casual jobs without settling into a permanent line of work -- and, indeed, the whole notion of a permanent line of work has come into question, as many careers are evolving into a succession of relatively short-term, disconnected jobs. As for establishing their own families, young adults all over the world are deferring or declining marriage. If current trends continue, an increasing share of the youth population will never marry, or may wait until their childbearing years are almost past.1

Some of today's young welcome these changes and the new opportunities they offer. These young people have formulated clear aspirations for their future. They are strongly motivated, full of energy, optimistic, and have created realistic plans to accomplish their ambitions. Confident in themselves, they enjoy exploring the world and testing the limits of their potential. Far from needing any protection or prodding, they almost can't be held back. In a word, they have found a strong sense of purpose to inspire them and provide them with direction.

At the same time, many of their peers are floundering. In the face of the serious choices ahead of them as they move toward adulthood, they feel as though they are drifting or stalled in their personal and social development. A large portion of today's young people are hesitating to make commitments to any of the roles that define adult life, such as parent, worker, spouse, or citizen.

This delayed commitment among the young is taking place today all over the industrial world, from the United States to Japan to Europe. In Italy, to cite one extreme case, it has been reported that the majority of thirty-year-olds still live at home with their parents and are neither married nor fully employed. In the United States, a study of youth in their late teens and early twenties concluded: "Marriage, home, and children are seen by most of them not as achievements to be pursued but as perils to be avoided."2

The British government was the first to officially recognize the growing phenomenon of unoccupied young adults when, in a national report five years ago, it coined the term "Young NEETs" ("Not in Education, Employment, or Training").3 Recently, the Japanese government has reported, with evident alarm, that almost a million of its own youthful population had become NEETs -- and this in a society long known for its strong intergenerational work ethic. None of these reports has cited any economic slowdown as the problem. The economy in Europe, Asia, the United States, and other parts of the industrial world has been growing rapidly enough to offer plentiful employment opportunities for the young. But many are holding back. Perhaps they are daunted by the uncertainties they face, perhaps they are fearful of perils they perceive in the choices they might make, or perhaps they consider the prospects available to them to be uninspiring and devoid of meaning. The reasons behind their hesitation often seem mysterious to parents and educators, many of whom are becoming concerned that these young people have yet to find the kinds of engagements and commitments that make life fulfilling.

Many parents are also voicing the concern -- often humorously at first, but less so over time -- that their progeny may become "boomerangers," returning to their home nests long after they were supposed to have flown away on their own wings. I've come to call this the "How can I get my wonderful daughter to move out of our basement?" question. Of course, not all parents are troubled by seeing their children take some extra time to strike out on their own, and there is a positive side to the story: it does indicate a closeness that has eluded many families in prior decades. These days, grown children feel comfortable staying in their family homes, and they do actually seem to enjoy hanging around their parents and communicating with them much more openly than did people of the boomer generation when they themselves were young.

A bit of light on this matter was shed by a May 2007 Fortune magazine piece on "baby boomers' kids," written delightfully by Nadira Hira, who identifies herself as one of those kids.4 Extolling (correctly) the extraordinary talent, energy, and creativity that mark her cohort of young people, the author makes the case that "all that questioning" that her peers are doing "will lead us to some important answers." In the meantime, the extended period of questioning and self-exploration is delaying that transition to permanent work and a home of their own far beyond that of any prior generation. Hira cites a survey of American college students from 2000 through 2006 showing that almost two thirds of the graduates moved home after college and over half of these stayed for more than a year. She quotes one twenty-eight-year-old (who himself wrote a book on the subject5) as saying: "If we don't like a job, we quit, because the worst thing that can happen is that we move back home. There's no stigma...our moms would love nothing more than to cook our favorite meatloaf." Another young adult, a twenty-four-year-old woman, echoes this sentiment: "I think parents want to feel needed, and it's like, because I'm so independent, they get excited when I ask for a favor."

Now, parental love for children is one of the world's great blessings; and it is true, fortunately, that most parents will gladly do anything to help their children get along. Also, it is unambiguously a good thing that most children feel secure in their expectations that parents will provide for their needs. But I am not convinced that most parents hope to spend their golden years providing basic needs for their children; nor do I believe that this truly would be in the best interests of the children themselves. What is in children's best interests is to find ways to make their own contributions to their families and eventually to the world beyond themselves.

The ultimate problem is not the parent's role in the child's life but rather the child's own personal fulfillment. During the adolescent years, a certain amount of soul-searching and experimentation is healthy. Adolescence is a transitory period of development, a kind of way station on the road to a mature self-identity.6 This formative period of life is said to begin with the onset of puberty and end with a firm commitment to adult social roles, such as those cited earlier: parent, spouse, worker, and citizen.7 During this key time of transition to adulthood, it is sensible for young people to spend time examining themselves, considering their futures, and looking around for the opportunities that best suit their own ambitions and interests. For many young people, an extended period of exploration and reflection during adolescence may be necessary to establish a fulfilling self-identity and a positive direction in life. This is what the renowned psychologist Erik Erikson once described as a constructive "moratorium" from reality. And yes, this "identity formation" task in some cases can take years of postponing choices in order to resolve the task successfully.8

Yet the postponements of many young people today have taken on a troubling set of characteristics, and chief among them is that so many youth do not seem to be moving toward any resolution. Their delay is characterized more by indecision than by motivated reflection, more by confusion than by the pursuit of clear goals, more by ambivalence than by determination. Directionless drift is not a constructive moratorium in either a developmental or a societal sense. Without a sense of direction, opportunities are lost, and doubt and self-absorption can set in. Maladaptive habits are established and adaptive ones are not built. It is not that there is a critical period for the acquisition of a fruitful direction in life. But it is the case that excessive delay beyond the period of readiness creates the serious risk that the young person may give up altogether on the tasks of finding a positive direction, sustaining that direction, and acquiring the skills needed to achieve the directional goals.

Today's young people are well aware that they will need to make a transition from adolescence to adulthood at some point; but for too many of them, this awareness -- which can be a source of keen anticipation for those who look to their futures with hope -- triggers a sense of vague foreboding or worse, a debilitating anxiety that can lead to further developmental paralysis. Indeed, extended disengagement from adult social roles is a prescription for anxiety and depression. To remain uncommitted to career, family, and other serious community responsibilities is an untenable position for a young person to settle into. Such disengagement becomes increasingly uncomfortable over time. It cannot continue indefinitely without psychological costs.

I do not wish to suggest that most of today's young are in "deep trouble" or any kind of immediate peril. In fact, the most visible indicators of youth well-being look somewhat better today, or at least not worse, than they did ten or fifteen years ago. In the United States, today's young people are less likely than the young of ten years ago to become pregnant while still teenagers; they are less prone to violence and crime; they are somewhat less vulnerable to the lure of addictive drugs; and they are no more prone to major eating disorders (with the exception of obesity, which is still on the rise among youngsters and adults alike). Most students are staying in school for more years and are attending c... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (April 7, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416537244
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416537243
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #80,910 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on July 23, 2009
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
There are many things we teach in school. We teach students about the world at large, how to remember useful facts, how to think. But one thing we often miss is the importance of teaching kids to find and cultivate a purpose. Helping students to find their goal in life, their reason for doing the things they do, and their "end in itself" is just as important. The main thesis of this well-written and -argued book is that kids who have a purpose generally tend to do a whole lot better in a whole lot of areas than kids who are "drifters" or "dabblers," who may have short-term goals but lack a long-term unifying goal.

The Path to Purpose is based on some studies that Damon and his students have done about kids and purposes. What they found is alarming: "In our interviews and surveys, only about one in five young people in the 12-22-year age range express a clear vision of where they want to go,what they want to accomplish in life, and why." (kindle location 234) Some are "drifters" who don't have much direction to their lives, while most are "dabblers" who have toyed around with a few ideas as to what they want to do and why, but haven't found any clear direction yet.

The first part of the book focuses on the problem and why it matters. Why a purpose? Because cultivating a sense of purpose gives kids (and adults) a reason to try hard, a passion about which to learn, and a reason to endure both good and bad. Just like working a meaningful job versus a meaningless one, students tend to excel when they are working towards a goal and feel that goal to have meaning.

The second part will be the most interest to those already convinced that a problem exists. Here, Damon gives advice on how parents and teachers (with focus on parents) can help kids find purpose.
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Dr Damon is the cutting edge of student development. Purpose is the central building block where we start with all students, workers, managers and our family. His book maintains the focus by painting a picture without the weeds on the side.

He sees the value of Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven® Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? and he has Major Problems with self-esteem by james Dobson The New Hide or Seek: Building Self-Esteem in Your Child, Dr Damon is certainly correct about not being distracted by the weeds. James Dobson's Gospel of Self-Esteem & Psychology.

He documents many "happiness studies" showing happiness is NOT related to affluence, fame or attempts at ego-boosting. Sustained happiness is engaging with other people. However sustained happiness is NOT associated with "imaginary" or manipulative help as shown in the angry, failed green movement activists because there must be a positive real change, not just a promise. A false purpose is disruptive and distructive.

All people who respond with resilience have:
.Purpose extending into the future.
.Social competence.
.Problem-solving skill.

People with long-term purpose, learn their world and discover unknown talent and energy. Purpose puts meaningful direction in you and has an impact on the world. Life, like sports is about resilience, not giving up. Work is our main purpose-place.
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“In my prior work, I had encountered the notion of purpose many times, but dimly and indirectly, as if through a telescope with an all-fitted lens. None of my earlier studies was about purpose per se; yet I now see that much of what I have been trying to understand for many years does in fact hinge on purpose. A study I conducted (with Anne Colby) of extraordinary moral commitment found that people who pursue noble purposes are filled with joy, despite the constant sacrifices that they feel called upon to make. In a subsequent series of studies (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) of men and women who have done socially valuable ‘good work’ in their careers, I was struck by how vividly these people were able to answer our questions about what they were trying to accomplish and why. An elevated purpose was always on their minds, driving their daily efforts. This purpose was their ultimate concern, essential to all their personal successes—it gave them energy; it gave them satisfaction when they accomplished their goals; and it gave them persistence when they ran into obstacles. ...

This work led me to examine how young people find their purposes in life. Do adolescents have purposes, and if so, how do they learn them? What kinds of purposes, in addition to those related to careers, are inspiring today’s young? What happens when young people are unable to find any purpose at all to devote themselves to? The present book is the first account of the insights that I and my students have been gaining through our initial research into these questions.”

~ William Damon from The Path to Purpose

William Damon is a Professor at Stanford and one of the world’s leading researchers on the science of morality and child development.
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