Inspiring Purpose


Book Review - 'The Path to Purpose'

Path to Purpose

Read our founder David Lorimer’s through provoking review on William Damon’s book ‘The Path to Purpose’.  In his book, Damon - one of the world's leading scholars in human development and Professor of Education at Stanford University - draws conclusions from a study of 1,200 young people aged 12 to 26 and detailed interviews from some 300.


David concludes by saying “this book is essential reading for all parents and those involved more directly in education, and its message needs to be heard at the highest levels of government.”


Young People Finding their Calling

David Lorimer


William Damon

Free Press, 2008, 217 pp., $15, p/b – ISBN 978-1-4165-3724-3



Bill Damon gave a keynote address at a recent conference organised by the Jubilee Centre in Birmingham University - this is where I first came across his work. In his previous books he argued for the universality of core moral values and the inadequacy of education simply based on self-esteem. Here he draws conclusions from a study of 1,200 young people aged 12 to 26 and detailed interviews of some 300. He relates two critical experiences of his own: as a student he handed in a sloppy, half completed assignment. When the teacher took him to task, he replied that he had not realised that the assignment ‘counted.’ John Hawes fixed him with a steely gaze and said: ”Mr Damon, everything you do in this world counts.” This is a remark well worth remembering. The other incident was as a graduate student studying with the Jean Piaget in Geneva. Evidently, the great man’s pronouncements were somewhat impenetrable and he became exasperated at the incomprehension of one student who failed to understand his concept of equilibration. He asked the student what was the best way to stay up and float in the water. The student suggested various responses including treading water, at which Piaget thundered: “No! You must swim, and in a direction. You must move forward, that will keep you steady. Plus, you may also have the advantage of getting somewhere.” Another very good piece of advice.


Bill begins by filling in the context of our time as one where many young lives are adrift, with record levels of mental distress. There is a great deal of uncertainty, apathy, drifting and lack of any general sense of direction. He treats this sociologically, although one might add that our scientific worldview insists on a world without any intrinsic purpose or meaning and the whole orientation of our culture is extroverted. Children are rarely encouraged to sit still and look within; they are in a state of constant activity and stimulation. Bill finds four broad categories of response in young people: about 25% are disengaged (interestingly, this corresponds to the youth unemployment rate in many countries), around 25% are dreamers, another 31% dabblers and only 20% purposeful. These figures ought to give pause for thought to any education policy maker, with only one in five young people really engaged in purposeful activity. The 25% disengaged had no aspirations and some did not feel it worth acquiring any.


Damon defines purpose as an ultimate concern, the final answer to the question why: ‘a stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.’ He argues that finding a clear purpose in life is actually essential for the achievement of happiness and satisfaction, a view that goes way beyond the superficial consumerism of our time and is reinforced by the research of Martin Seligman. He finds that family is the first source of purpose for young people, but there is less engagement in the community and especially in politics - they don’t see the point of this activity.


The chapter on profiles in purpose is truly inspiring, and shows what some young people can do and have done with focus and dedication beyond themselves. Interestingly, they regard themselves as normal and feel that anyone else could have done what they have done. People like Ryan Hreljac have exceptional clarity of purpose that generates a phenomenal amount of positive energy leading to the development of ‘self-confidence, optimism, gratitude and a deep sense of personal fulfilment.’ Ryan was only six when he became distressed about the lack of drinking water in Africa and decided to do something about it. Earning extra money from household chores was not going to be enough, his parents explained, when he found out that each well would cost $2,000. So he went out and started making speeches and presentations, raising the first $2,000 for one well. By 2007, the Ryan’s Well Foundation had built 319 drinking wells in 14 countries ( “Anyone can do anything”, he says, remarking that he will go beyond his limits and see where he ends up. The book is worth buying for this chapter alone.


Later chapters address the need to go beyond a culture of short horizons, and give parents some guidelines about how to help elicit a sense of purpose in their children. It is significant that there have been changes in the importance attributed to the contrasting values of developing a meaningful philosophy of life and being very well-off financially. In the 1960s the first rated as over 80%, but has now dropped to 42%. The second was 45% and has risen to 74.1%. This tells its own story: perhaps more consumption, but less happiness and contentment. Bill advocates that adults need to be active in creating a wholesome cultural environment and setting standards that are both constraining in terms of boundaries and inspiring with positive examples. The rhetoric of personal statements in applying for university is not sufficient; these aspirations need to be embodied in real life, and parents can help their children ‘effectively pursue their highest aspirations in a realistic manner.’ The questionnaire in an appendix is a great starting point, asking students what is most important to them, why they care, whether they have any long-term goals and the meaning of being a good person. Parents can also introduce young people to mentors and encourage an entrepreneurial attitude, a positive outlook, a feeling of agency and a sense of responsibility.


The concluding chapter calls for a culture of purpose for all young people, and Bill points out that purpose is both deeply individual and internally constructive, yet it is an unavoidable social phenomenon manifesting itself into engagement with others. We each live individually and collectively. This work will be harder for parents who themselves lack a sense of purpose, but research on the dying emphasises how important it is to have lived one’s own authentic life, to have sung one’s song. The ethos of schools undoubtedly has a role to play, but a cultural shift is also necessary, as many books reviewed in these pages attest. He concludes by saying that ‘we can offer young people possibilities that fire their imaginations, guidance that encourages their highest aspirations, support that helps them realise their aspirations, and the cultural climate that inspires rather than demoralises them.’ Young people will make their own choice, but we can make significant improvements in enabling them to choose what is best for them. This book is essential reading for all parents and those involved more directly in education, and its message needs to be heard at the highest levels of government.

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