The Biggest Problem for Kids Today Isn’t Stress, It’s Lack of Purpose

Oct 28, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Over 20 years ago, like many college students in the throes of existential questions, I half-knowingly embarked on a quest for meaning. For much of the time, I felt like a castaway in uncertain seas with only gut instinct and grit as my guide. In retrospect, I can see that if I would have had better tools, my disorientation—and the angst that followed in its wake—could have been dramatically reduced.

As a high school humanities teacher at San Domenico School, my classes are designed to make these disciplines relevant to students’ lives. My aim is to help students discover how the humanities can offer insight into the most meaningful facets of our lives—relationships, education, work, money and belief itself.

This is precisely what attracted me to an integrative educational model called Purpose Learning: the promise of helping students develop goals that are meaningful to the self and consequential to the world. 

Purpose Learning Helps Students Develop Meaningful Goals

The latest psychological research has revealed a crisis of meaning growing in our younger generations. Dr. Bill Damon, Director of Stanford’s Center on Adolescence, has said, “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”

While high school students are the most stressed-out demographic in the U.S., it isn’t simply because they have too much to do, but largely because they don’t know why they are doing it. [pullquote]Purpose Learning provides a necessary antidote to our system of education that champions carrots and sticks over meaning and purpose.[/pullquote] 

Project Wayfinder is an educational organization developed at the Stanford University d.School focused on helping to reimagine education with Purpose Learning curriculum.  It draws upon purpose development research and brain science to aid the next generation to develop meaningful goals that positively impact our world. 

The lessons explore themes such as self-awareness, world awareness and purposeful action. Underpinning each activity are “big life questions” such as:

  • What do I value?
  • What holds me back from new paths?
  • How do I fit into the world?

Project Wayfinder - Find Your Way from Project Wayfinder on Vimeo.

Students Develop a Purpose Compass to Find Their Way

As students progress through the toolkit they begin to develop a purpose compass. The purpose compass enables students to distill their values, strengths and concerns into a discernible orientation in life. Purpose isn’t singular and it can evolve throughout one’s life. This is why the metaphor of wayfinding is powerful. It helps shape our perceptions and actions so that we are more attuned and adaptable to life’s inevitable shifts and changes. 

Wayfinding refers to the practices of people throughout history who have “read” the natural world to travel across immense areas of water and land. Knowledge of cloud formations, subtle changes of weather, the color of the sky or sea, absence or presence of flora and fauna, and the starry night sky, could reveal significant signs and patterns to help them find their way. 

In a culture fixated on linear progress, randomness, disruptions, and uncertainty are to be avoided like the plague. Yet these features are baked into the fabric of life. [pullquote]The metaphor of wayfinding empowers us to become comfortable with, and even grow from, uncertainty.[/pullquote] Traditional wayfinders, like the Polynesians, almost never travel on a linear path. Using the signs and patterns of nature, they are constantly calibrating along the way. 

Students Step Forward Into the World With Purpose

It didn’t take long for students to voice their opinions about Project Wayfinder. Into week two of the course, a unanimous sentiment emerged: this should be a required class. 

As we finished the course and completed the toolkit, one of the seniors had this to say about her Wayfinder experience,

“This class gave me an opportunity to examine what actually matters to me and how I can make that relevant and purposeful in my life. No other class I’ve taken has provided me with that experience.”

Another student captured their experience with this reflection,

“Project Wayfinder allowed me to slow down and reflect on my own accomplishments, ambitions and intrinsic motivations. By writing everything down and analyzing my experiences and life values, I have found what it is to be present, to create meaningful goals and seek purpose in all that I set out to do.”

Project Wayfinder helps to map students and teachers alike back into a landscape of meaning and purpose. While purpose is a robust trait it doesn’t develop without the right conditions. 

In facilitating this curriculum, I’ve experienced how psychological safety and vulnerability create the fertile ground for purpose to take root—and the teacher is the primary steward of this ecosystem. An atmosphere of compassion, respect and support is vital for the exploration of purpose.

Leading by example and with vulnerability creates a resonant tone. This includes doing the activities and sharing one’s own reflections and processes around purpose.

The journey of wayfinding is an ongoing process of growth, development, and self-discovery. It’s a countervailing force to our destination-oriented system of education. Though in the words of Ursula K. LeGuin, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, it is the journey that matters in the end.” 

This post was originally published on Thrive Global as "The Power of Purpose: Cultivating a Sense of Purpose in Teens" .

Aran Levasseur

Aran Levasseur is director of innovation at San Domenico School in San Anselmo, California, where he also teaches Philosophy, World Religion and Project Wayfinder classes. He is a Project Wayfinder Guide and hosts the podcast Hungry Minds.

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...