Tag Archive for Finding your Passion

Palo Alto Weekly section: The Importance of Teens Finding a Purpose

High school is a stressful time.  Schoolwork, family obligations, paid employment, extracurriculars, college applications–all are major demands on a student’s time. At the same time, teens are still wrestling with questions of identity and how they fit in with the social scene that emerges from their peer group.

Parents, wanting to be helpful, are often not sure how, and can end up making things worse.   The birth of new technologies, especially social media, mean that today’s students have a whole new realm to contend with.

In a place like Palo Alto, the culture of success runs deep.  Many parents have reached the pinnacle of performance in their selected fields:  CEO’s, venture capitalists, serial entrepreneurs, partners of prestigious law firms or ad agencies, executive directors of non-profits.  They want their children to live well, and too often that implies “live well off.”  Material success is a common goal, but even where parents agree that their children should have the freedom to choose a lower-paying, less prestigious career track, they aim to give their child a “full range of options” by having him or her go to the very best schools, resulting in major pressure to garner admission to Stanford or an Ivy League school.

And so begins the “treadmill”:  expectations (both parental- and self-) of academic success; excellence in sports, music, school newspaper or other “meaty” after school activity; volunteering or paid employment; and a range of support services to help prepare for standardized tests and college applications.

This combination has been literally fatal to too many students in the Palo Alto high schools.  The community has reflected and responded.  Improvements have been made.  Support services are stronger.

The cover story/section of the November 18, 2011 Palo Alto Weekly was an excellent multi-faceted review of different programs and experiences of people, both students and those who support them.

There is an interesting sidebar why college is less stressful than high school (more flexibility in choosing classes, more interesting material (professors that  probe “why?”), extracurriculars run by students–without as much “resume building” pressure, instructors that treat their students in a more egalitarian way, and just fewer hours of instruction and activity, less competition, and getting away from “pushy parents”).

But the main point of the story is about…


“People don’t worry about the right things,” [William Damon, Professor from Stanford School of Education, author of the book The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life] said. “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”

Working hard for something they didn’t choose themselves, and don’t believe in, is counterproductive to longterm health and fulfillment. It is simply not sustainable.
A purposeful life, by contrast, can unleash tremendous
energy, creativity, exhilaration and a deep satisfaction
with efforts and accomplishments, according to Damon.
Based on hundreds of surveys and in-depth interviews
with adolescents nationwide, Damon has found that the
vast majority of today’s youth (about 80 percent) are not
engaged in activities fueled by a clear sense of purpose.

Community service was an avenue through which several of the students found their purpose.  Youth Community Service (Disclaimer:  I’m a huge fan) and Executive Director Leif Erickson (Disclaimer applies here, too…) were featured for their work in service learning programs in the schools.  The stories of the students were inspiring.

I’m tempted to quote more and more of the article, but I’ll limit myself to urging you to read the original, and quoting one final sidebar:

How Purpose Begins

The following sequence outlines steps in a path to purpose
for youth, according to researchers’ findings.

  1. Inspiring communication with persons outside the immediate family
  2. Observation of purposeful people at work
  3. First moment of revelation:  Something important in the world can be corrected or improved
  4. Second moment of revelation:  I can contribute something myself and make a difference
  5. Identification of purpose, along with initial attempts to accomplish something
  6. Support from immediate family
  7. Expanded efforts to pursue one’s purpose in original and consequential ways
  8. Acquiring the skills needed for this pursuit
  9. Increased practical effectiveness
  10. Enhanced optimism and self-confidence
  11. Long term commitment to the purpose
  12. Transfer of skills and character strengths gained in pursuit of one purpose to other areas of life

Source: “The Path to Purpose: How
Young People Find Their Calling in Life”
by William Damon

It was interesting to me that people *outside* the family were instrumental in the initial stages of defining a purpose.  Also made me wonder how I, personally, can do a better job of giving teens that glimmer of possibility.


Three Questions to Uncover your Passions

What inspires you to give back?

Most giving back results from a personal connection to a cause or group.  If you haven’t yet found the cause that drives you to learn more, do more, and tell more people about it, try asking yourself the following Three Questions:

  1. What organizations do you give credit for the person you have become?
  2. What activities bring you JOY that you want to make sure people in the future can do?
  3. When you travel (in your own neighborhood or around the world) what groups do you see that are treated unfairly or need extra help?

Yes, OK, I’ll share my answers to these questions:

  1. What organizations do you give credit for the person you have become?
    (Chronologically…) My church (the United Church of Christ), Boy Scouts, Harvard College, Stanford University, improv, and the Reuters Digital Vision Program.
  2. What activities bring you JOY that you want to make sure people in the future can do?
    Listening to jazz, watching live theater, walking in nature, snorkeling.
  3. When you travel (in your own neighborhood or around the world) what groups do you see that are treated unfairly or need extra help?
    Those suffering from poverty, homelessness, and disasters. Women and girls, especially in the developing world, but in America, too. Cancer patients and their families. Torture victims.

These answers are a pretty good reflection of how I focus my giving back.


  • I volunteer quite a bit with my church, especially around Peace and Justice issues and our connection to Stanford University.
  • I spent a year in the Reuters Digital Vision Program volunteering with the Grameen Foundation on a project to improve access to microcredit (small loans to women entrepreneurs in the developing world) through software.
  • I view my performances with an improv troupe as giving back (we aren’t paid, and all of the ticket proceeds go to scholarships).


  • I make financial gifts to support my church, poverty alleviation and disaster relief efforts, Harvard, the environment, medical research and jazz (in roughly that order).
  • Being an active audience member, seeking out rising jazz talent (attending and tipping!) helps preserve that community.
  • I’ve set up a living trust that will, upon my death, distribute the bulk of my estate to some of the organizations and causes listed here. (Watch for a future blog post on this important topic….)

The Three Questions were the seed that germinated into the book Giving Back. I started trying them out on people in December 2010, and here are some answers that were shared back then.
I invite you to consider your answers, and would love to hear about them, in the comments if you feel like sharing globally, or in email or conversation if that’s more comfortable.

What organizations do you give credit for the person you have become?  What activities bring you JOY that you want to be sure people in the future can do?  When you travel (in your own neighborhood or around the world) what groups do you see that are treated unfairly or need extra help?

The Three Questions as posed to Lisa Chu's Essential Self Extravaganza (Dec 2010)