Purpose endows a person with joy in good times and resilience in hard times, and this holds true all throughout life.”  --William Damon (The Path to Purpose, 2008)

The Project on Purpose and Values in Education (PAVE) has been heavily influenced by psychologist William Damon, who provides a clear and helpful understanding of the concept of purpose.  Having studied human development and character education for over thirty years, Damon began a formal study of the concept of purpose in the early 2000s, leading to his 2008 book The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life.  Damon’s project involved surveying over 1,200 twelve to twenty-six year-olds from five communities across the United States.  Interviews were conducted with about 300 of those who were surveyed.  The Path to Purpose is an essential read for anyone interested in the topic.

Defining Purpose

Studying purpose required defining it.  According to Damon, “purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self” (2008: 33).  Damon asserts that what differentiates “purpose” from “goals” is:

  1. That purpose entails a long-term commitment; and,
  2. That purpose has meaning or value beyond oneself. 

By his definition, an example of a purpose might be a young man who wants to study psychology and eventually get a degree in social work so that he can advocate on behalf of child abuse survivors.   

Purpose and College Students

The PAVE project seeks to promote further programming about purpose on campuses around the country.  Damon’s work on purpose is highly relevant for those who work with college students.  If institutions of higher education are meant to help foster an educated and informed citizenry, what is your college or university doing to help students find a purpose?   

As you ponder this question it is important to also understand more about the adolescents who will soon become your students.  In researching purpose, Damon categorized young people into four groups.  His definitions may remind you of individual students you know. 

  1. “The Disengaged (and non-purposeful)”:  show no interest or activity that indicates any care for those beyond themselves;
  2. “The Dreamers”: have ideas about topics that concern them but have made no real effort toward enacting their ideas either now or in the future;
  3. “The Dabblers”: have participated in a number of meaningful activities but lack real commitment to the cause or fail to follow-through in the long-term; and,
  4. “The Purposeful”: have identified something that matters to them, know why it matters to them, and are currently working on that issue with a long-term plan for future action (2008: 59-60).

The positive news is that Damon and his team surmised that about 20% of the young people in his study are “purposeful.”  The discouraging news is that 25% of them were deemed “disengaged.” “Dreamers” make up the next 25% with “Dabblers” making up the final 30% (2008: 60).  Damon notes that the “dreamers” and “dabblers” are critical because they have the most potential to find purpose (or not). For us, they are important because together they “comprise the majority of the population,” also known as our future and current college students (2008: 61).     

All of this is equally important in light of Damon’s finding about the development of purpose over time.  His study of 1,200 twelve to twenty-six year-olds found that only 20% of twenty-two year-olds fall into the “purposeful” category described above.  Apparently, finding a purpose occurs for most at the latest stages of human development (Big Questions Online: 2014).  Knowing that the ability to find purpose coincides with the time that many students are preparing to graduate from college, suggests that there is much work to be done on our campuses.   

With these characterizations and statistics in mind, Damon still leaves us with an inspiring place to begin our work:

“Young people treasure guidance from experienced adults who care about them and know more the about the world than they do.  To be most helpful—and welcome—the guidance must speak to the youngster’s highest aspirations.  But it does not need to humor unrealistically romantic dreams about mastering the universe.  Young people do not wish to be shielded from hard realities; they wish to learn how to accomplish their dreams in the face of such realities.  Informing them of the actual steps they must take in order to achieve their highest aspirations is educative in the best sense of the word” (2008: 124).