The Power of Purpose

Winter 2018

By Julie Lythcott-Haims

What do you want to be when you grow up? “What are you going to major in?” Adults constantly ask children and college-bound students these questions, and, depending on the answer, the grown-up will offer a beaming face, a quizzically raised eyebrow, or a frown in response. Even when the child is a stranger to us, we’re pretty sure we know which pursuits are worthwhile and which aren’t.

When my daughter’s nursery school teacher took me aside and highly praised her paintings, I thought to myself, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but that’s not gonna get her into college.” Avery was only 4 years old, but what she “ought to” do was already on my mind. I didn’t yet understand how dismissing my child’s artistic talents might be harmful to her. Soon enough, though, in my work as Stanford’s dean of freshmen, I understood the error in my thinking. I sat with far too many students who described what “everyone” expected them to study or pursue. And many responded through tears when I asked them, “Yeah, but what do you want to do?” I developed mantras that I’d fold into formal and informal conversations with my students, one of which was “Find your voice and honor what you hear.” This was my way of saying: “What you’re going to be and do in the world is up to you. Look to yourself for clues about what really matters to you. Give yourself permission to be and do those things.”

And at home, I did a 180. I stopped expecting that Avery or her brother would become any particular thing (a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an entrepreneur, and so on). I stopped thinking of them as little bonsai trees that I could prune carefully, and I began treating them instead like wildflowers of unknown genus and species that would reveal their unique and glorious beauty as long as I gave them the proper nourishment and environment. I began hoping foremost that my children as well as my students would find what Stanford professor of education and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence William Damon calls “purpose.”

Purpose Matters

Damon’s research indicates that a sense of purpose is essential for achieving happiness and satisfaction in life. He defines purpose as a person’s “ultimate concern,” that which, when known, becomes a person’s ultimate answer to the questions: “Why am I doing this?” and “Why does this matter to me?” Damon distinguishes purpose from short-term desires—such as an A on a test, a date for the dance, a new piece of technology, a spot on the team, or admission to a particular college. A short-term desire may or may not have longer-term significance, Damon says. “Purpose, by contrast, is an end in itself.”

In 2003, Damon and his colleagues began the Youth Purpose Project, a nationwide four-year study of purpose in people ages 12 to 26. Only 20 percent of those studied had found something meaningful to which they wanted to dedicate their lives. Another 25 percent were “drifting” with no sense of what they really wanted to do and no intent to develop that knowledge. The rest were somewhere in the middle. Twenty percent who have found their purpose is too low a percentage for Damon, who wrote his most recent book, The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, not only as a culmination of his work in human development but out of a sense that too many young adults are experiencing a sense of emptiness.

This emptiness does not arise from a lack of interest in having a purpose. A 2012 study by Net Impact, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping people make a difference in their world through their careers, found that 72 percent of college students feel that having a job that makes a positive social or environmental impact is very important or essential to their happiness. And millennial Adam Smiley Poswolsky, whose best-selling 2014 career guide The Quarter-Life Breakthrough has shown thousands of young adults how to pivot their lives toward purpose, writes of the desire he and so many of his generation have to find “meaningful work.” For Poswolsky, meaningful work “provides personal meaning reflecting who you are and what your interests are, allows you to share your gifts to help others, and is financially viable given your desired lifestyle.” And meaningful work stands in contrast to “mediocre work,” which pays the bills, passes the time, doesn’t align with one’s values, and may make you financially successful but “doesn’t allow you to make your unique contribution to the world.”

“So many young people I talk to end up pursuing paths out of parental pressure rather than personal alignment,” Poswolsky told me. “This leads to confusion and resentment, and sometimes unhappiness. Parents (especially in a job market completely different than the one they experienced as [baby] boomers) may not know what is best for their kids.”

As dean, I became very interested in helping my students home in on their purpose as a way of starting them on the road toward meaningful work. I’d tell them to forget what you think “everyone” expects you to study or do for a career. I’d say, “Study what you love, and the rest will follow.”

“When you study what you love,” I’d say, “you’re motivated to go to every class. You do all the reading. Maybe even the supplemental reading. You speak up in class. You go to office hours. You synthesize what you’ve read with what was said in class and with what you discussed with the professor and fellow students afterward, and you formulate your own thoughts about the material. When you study what you love, you probably end up with a great grade because you were intrinsically motivated to master the subject matter. But even if you don’t get a great grade, if you’ve studied what you love, you’ve put your heart into whatever grade you got. You’ve made a real effort. If you have the guts to study what you love regardless of what other people say, it leads precisely to the kind of success you’re looking for.” 

This article is an excerpt of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free From the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success © 2015 by the author and reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Griffin, LLC.
Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims is a former Stanford University dean and author of the New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free From the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success and the recent release Real American: A Memoir. This article is an excerpt of How to Raise an Adult © 2015 by the author and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Griffin, LLC.