Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Not Just Getting into College: Parenting for Purpose

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson.

cowboyRemember the midlife crisis movie, City Slickers? Billy Crystal plays a burned out media sales guy. He finds no personal satisfaction in his work, and is embarrassed to speak to his daughter’s class on Parents Career Day. When asked what he does for a living, Billy shrugs cynically, “I sell air.” Those who have seen this wise, funny film years ago know that this is the wake-up call for Billy and two buddies to go West. The three men learn that life can be a meaningful adventure, thanks to the grizzled old trail boss, “Curly,” played by Jack Palance. At one point Curly says, “The purpose of life is just one thing,” and points his gnarled finger at Billy, who queries, “What? Your finger?” Curly growls, “No. You’ve got to find out what that one thing is.”

The person on the rock looking downwards.At Position U 4 College, I probe a student’s interests and long term goals.  I am often struck by the absence of purpose, even from students with remarkable talent. I once thought my role with college-bound teens was about the “HOW.” As I have become more grizzled,  I realize it is also about the “WHY.” William Damon, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow, Stanford University Education Professor, and Director of Stanford’s Center on Adolescence, wrote a book a few years ago that resonates for me and the families with whom I work. Its title is The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find a Calling in Life.

sleepinclassThe book is based on Damon’s adolescent study, in which a quarter of respondents appeared to be rudderless. He refers to these young people as “disengaged” (25%), while describing the other three groups as “dreamers” (25%), “dabblers” (31%), and “purposeful”(20%). Damon is not only observer who has noticed the lack of purpose among today’s college students, even those who have gained acceptance at elite institutions. In his bestseller Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, Yale professor William Deresiewicz explains how students on the high-pressure conveyor belt to the Ivy League often fail to develop the ability to think independently or adopt a sense of purpose. 

Damon identifies crucial factors for helping young people develop a sense of personal meaning and purpose. He views a parent as a “Socratic coach” who finds everyday opportunities to practice the precepts below:

motherdriveswithdaughterListen closely for the spark, then fan the flames. Damon offers vivid real-life examples, such as Ryan Hreljac, a first grader who founded Ryan’s Well Foundation to bring clean drinking water to children in Africa.

Take advantage of regular opportunities to open a dialogue. Damon references the dinner table as an aspiration “hatching ground.” I believe the car (dinner table of this generation?) also offers a great venue for picking up on a young person’s sparks of interest that may slip out on the way to a varsity soccer game.

fatherhandsomedaughterBe open-minded and supportive of the sparks of interest expressed. Damon observes that it’s easy to help your teen to build on an idea in an interest area you share. But what if your son or daughter’s inner voice is beckoning toward an area that is foreign to you? Or an area that you do not believe will lead toward a lucrative career?

Convey your own sense of purpose and the meaning you derive from your work. Damon references a WSJ article pointing out that “today’s workers more often spend their time talking on the phone or clicking on a computer than making tangible goods that a child can appreciate.  The child is left with the impression that the only thing that is valuable about the parent’s work is the paycheck he or she brings home.” Parents can talk about the flesh-and-blood aspects of their occupations, especially on days when they are cognizant of the meaning of their work to other individuals and society as a whole.

fathersonchangeoilImpart wisdom about the practicalities of life. No, parents should not impulsively dismiss “impractical” careers, like the father who tries to force his son to become a doctor instead of an actor in Dead Poet’s Society. Rather, Damon clarifies that parents can help teens figure out how to make their dreams come true by helping them understand what is realistically required to attain their goals.

Introduce children to potential mentors. Damon’s study shows that purposeful youth often look to people outside the home for the ideas and inspiration that help them find purpose. I could not agree more on the power of mentors. If, for example, one’s parents are not musically inclined, but the child is, it behooves those parents to go out and find a wonderful music teacher who can bring that talent and form of self-expression to life for that young person.

dadtechgirlEncourage an entrepreneurial attitude. Damon is not talking about simply supporting a young person’s business ideas. Damon advises cultivating the following approach to any area of interest for one’s son or daughter: goal-setting with realistic plans to reach goals; a can-do mindset; persistence in the face of obstacles; tolerance for risk; resilience when encountering failure; determination to achieve measurable results; and resourcefulness in attaining those results.

Nurture a positive outlook. We complain that our kids do not listen to us, but they absorb more than we realize. Damon cautions to beware of messages we unwittingly send.

socratesInstill in young people a feeling of agency, linked to responsibility. Damon encourages sending the message that our kids’ dreams matter, and they can make them come true. He urges parents to teach young people the realistic requirements of achieving goals, and create expectations that their students will take on responsibility.

Ironically, the ancient Greeks used the term daimon to describe an individual’s guiding force that calls that person to his or her unique destiny. William Damon encourages parents to do all they can to help their children hear and respond to that call. For a more in-depth understanding of life purpose, pick up a copy of The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman. Or watch City Slickers!