Jack Bacon was 16 and a junior in high school when his mother died. Though he felt “broken” over her death, he continued to strive in school and sports and pretended to be strong for his sister. Bacon had always been a motivated, goal-oriented student and athlete. But sometime after his mother’s death, following a period of reflection, Bacon felt newly infused with a sense of purpose.
“The passing of my mother gave me a more important purpose besides advancing myself,” he said. Bacon saw with fresh eyes the sacrifices his father had made for the family, as well as his stepfather’s extraordinary kindness. He also felt the drive to live a full and rich life, as his mother expected of him. “I want to be a better athlete, better student, and better person, because that’s what my mom wanted me to be,” Bacon said.
These epiphanies now fuel his desire to be the best version of himself, so he can repay his father, excel in the classroom, distinguish himself in his sport — and be a person of integrity. Whereas he once saw his studies as a means to an end, today Bacon looks at education as important for all aspects of his life. “I realized that things I do can’t just be for me — it’s bigger than me,” Bacon said.
Purpose comes from believing that the world needs improving and that you can help, according to William Damon of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and author of The Path to Purpose. Traumatic events like the one Bacon experienced can trigger a sense of purpose, Damon said, but tragedy isn’t a prerequisite to developing a purposeful outlook.
Purpose is critical, because it is linked to dedication, energy and resilience — “psychological goods,” Damon said, that most aspire to. “Purpose is the number one, long-term motivator in life," according to Damon. Unlike passion or ambition, which focus on the self, purpose touches on the needs of the wider world.
Finding purpose in life is more challenging today than for previous generations of young people, Damon said. What used to be natural avenues through which to devote one’s life — faith, marriage, long-term careers and stable communities — have withered, leaving more adolescents unclear about what path to travel or how to get there. Just some 20 percent of high school kids can be categorized as purposeful, according to Damon's research; the rest vary between being motivated but lacking a plan, being active but lacking direction, and being neither active nor forward-thinking.
One way to help young people is by providing them with help to identify a calling. Parents can provide guidance for their children in multiple ways.
Act, but tread lightly. “You can’t write the script of life for your child,” Damon said. As difficult as that may be, especially for competitive and accomplished parents, stepping back and following a child’s lead is a precondition for effective assistance. Parental heavy-handedness may work in the short term, but is likely to backfire. Parents would be wise to think of themselves as playing the supporting rather than lead role, Damon writes.
Discuss what your work means to you. Rarely do kids hear from their parents about what drives them at work. Whether it’s helping others, expressing themselves or providing for the family, work often serves a larger purpose for adults besides remuneration. Conveying this message to children is especially important when so much professional work is abstract and remote. “The obfuscation of work’s deeper meaning,” Damon writes, “is a breeding ground for apathy and cynicism.’
Ask thoughtful questions and listen. Adolescents are more often lectured to than queried about their futures. If parents ask probing questions in a gentle way, they might inspire a teenager to think more about where she’s headed. What’s most important to you in your life? What does it mean to be a good person? What kinds of things do you really care about? How do you want to be remembered?
Open up regular dialogue. An annual Q & A about purpose is not enough to stimulate a purposeful mindset among kids. By making a habit of asking their children’s opinion on everyday events, parents cultivate their own listening skills and invite their children to offer hints about their values. For example, a parent can ask what a child thinks about a TV show, a commercial or a news story. Through careful listening, and repeatedly asking Why? parents can glean what’s truly important to the child. “When we evoke from children their own nascent ideas about what they find meaningful, we become better able to hear their first murmurings of purpose,” Damon writes.
Get on board with their interests. Parents shouldn’t fight their child’s healthy interests. Instead, offer opportunities for further exploration and provide resources when possible. Introducing children to other adults who share that interest is also useful; one might become a mentor. At the same time, it’s vital to allow children to direct their own course, even if they move on to other pursuits.
Be positive and share your wisdom. Having an optimistic mindset, and working to instill that in kids, can help them gain a sense of agency over their lives. Without glossing over life’s hardships and failings, parents should avoid interpreting every misfortune as an inevitable catastrophe. Children gain confidence when they look at life’s difficulties as challenges that can be addressed, and parents can also help by discussing their own practical wisdom, especially about work and relationships.
Use diagnostic tools to help them find their strengths. Some kids might benefit from testing that helps them discover what they do best. The Clifton StrengthsFinder test, for example, which was put together by the Gallup Poll group, helps takers identify their top five strengths out of a possible 35. Other useful diagnostics include the Strong Interest Inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Let them do the work. As tempting as it may be to dive in and “help” when a child shows an inkling of purpose, parents need to keep themselves at a healthy distance. In her book How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims warns against parents taking over and directing their children’s budding entrepreneurial or charitable impulses. “Remember, if you construct the enterprise, order the items being sold, or devise the storage method for the items being collected … and all your child does is make a sign or poster, stand there with a smile, and take people’s money or donated items, you haven’t helped your child develop any of these traits at all.” Better to observe carefully what the child is most drawn to, and follow up with thoughtful questions.
Encourage them to believe that what they do matters. Kids need to know that everything they do has an impact on others, for better or worse. “Parents should teach their children the basic principle Whatever you do in this world matters,” Damon writes. By conveying confidence in their child, and assigning regular chores that affect the family, parents teach that their child’s contributions have an effect. Encouraging volunteer work, delegating responsibility for pet and plant care, and seizing everyday moments to talk about impact are simple ways parents can convey that message to children.
When discussing the roots of his own purposefulness, Jack Bacon, now 19 and a freshman at Boston College, said that his parents’ way of rearing him taught him that his life mattered. “I’ve always understood implicitly that I would do something, and not just go through life,” he said. He’s highly focused, and intends to bring up his grades, improve his goal-keeping skills and be a better person. “Each day is very significant to me,” Bacon said, “because I want to make progress every day.”