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Ep. 83: William Damon, Ph.D. - Purpose or Perish

August 08, 2019 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 83
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 83: William Damon, Ph.D. - Purpose or Perish
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 83: William Damon, Ph.D. - Purpose or Perish
Aug 08, 2019 Season 1 Episode 83
Sucheta Kamath

The greatest philosophical writings over the centuries have often examined the idea of the meaning of life. After the World War II, Viktor Frankl’s writing often explored the idea of the existential vacuum, which plagued those who entered the concentration camps giving them no reason to fight for life. What we realize now is that a sense of purpose and meaning plays a vital role as it offers protection from life’s undeniable hardships and discovering that purpose for oneself can be the meaningful journey in and of itself.

On this episode, our guest William Damon, Ph.D., a professor and psychologist at the Stanford School of Education, says that stress isn’t the biggest problem growing up today: It’s meaninglessness. Tune into Sucheta’s interview with Dr. Damon as they discuss how to help children build meaning beyond themselves.

About William Damon, Ph.D.
William Damon is Professor of Education at Stanford University, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose and author of The Path to Purpose. Damon’s other books include The Moral Child; Greater Expectations (winner of the Parent’s Choice Book Award); Some Do Care: Lives of Moral Commitment (with Anne Colby); Good Work (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi); and The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice (also with Anne Colby). Damon’s present work includes a study that explores the development of purpose in the college years and a study of family purposes across generations. Damon has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Show Notes Transcript

The greatest philosophical writings over the centuries have often examined the idea of the meaning of life. After the World War II, Viktor Frankl’s writing often explored the idea of the existential vacuum, which plagued those who entered the concentration camps giving them no reason to fight for life. What we realize now is that a sense of purpose and meaning plays a vital role as it offers protection from life’s undeniable hardships and discovering that purpose for oneself can be the meaningful journey in and of itself.

On this episode, our guest William Damon, Ph.D., a professor and psychologist at the Stanford School of Education, says that stress isn’t the biggest problem growing up today: It’s meaninglessness. Tune into Sucheta’s interview with Dr. Damon as they discuss how to help children build meaning beyond themselves.

About William Damon, Ph.D.
William Damon is Professor of Education at Stanford University, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose and author of The Path to Purpose. Damon’s other books include The Moral Child; Greater Expectations (winner of the Parent’s Choice Book Award); Some Do Care: Lives of Moral Commitment (with Anne Colby); Good Work (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi); and The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice (also with Anne Colby). Damon’s present work includes a study that explores the development of purpose in the college years and a study of family purposes across generations. Damon has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Producer:  Alright. Welcome back to Full PreFrontal, where we are exposing the mysteries of executive function. I am here as always with our host, Sucheta Kamath. Good morning, my friend. Very much looking forward to this conversation with today’s guest. Kick it off for us, please.

Sucheta:  Thank you, Todd. It’s so great to be here and we are going to have an amazing conversation. As I was preparing for today’s interview, I’ve been pondering over this important question that is – who is explaining to our children about the meaning and value of education? Of course, our educators are supposed to do that but is that really happening the way that will yield or lead to most successful encounter with education? You know, a lot of kids are complaining about Shakespeare’s plays that they have to learn in old English. They do not understand the meaning and purpose of calculus. I have heard, “I hate math so I’m never going to use calculus.”

So, this reminds me of in 2013, the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences published a report called “The Heart of the Matter.” The members included many celebrated individuals, including deans and presidents of universities. But the report was intended to advocate a dialogue on importance of humanities and social sciences to the future of our nation. The interesting thing is that transpired after the STEM Commission released a report on importance of science education, science and technology education. What was so interesting to me about that was it was the Commission’s explicit attempt to connect learning and education to the development of strong moral alignment and citizenship skills. The three points that they identified was purposed balanced solution humanities puts on and gets an individual in the habit of learning to think and reflect and simply neglected, it can become a huge problem.

So, as I kind of reviewed and dove deep into our guest’s work, he is specializes in answering these questions – how do we create prepared citizens? So, with great thrill, I would like to tell you who our guest is. Today, we have William Damon. He’s a professor of education at Stanford University. He’s the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and senior fellow at [00:02:58] Institute. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose and author of “The Path to Purpose” which I have owned and read twice now. Dr. Damon’s other books include “The Moral Child,” “Great Expectations.” It was the winner of the Parent’s Choice Book Award. He has also written several books including “Some Do Care,” “Lives of Moral Commitment.” Dr. Damon’s present work includes a study that explores the development of purpose in the college years and the study of family purpose across generations.

I can’t wait to talk to him. So, Dr. Damon, welcome to the podcast.

William Damon:  Thank you. Delighted to be with you.

Sucheta:  Well, let me dive into this and ask you one question I ask all my guests – tell us a little bit about your own executive function. And since we are talking about path to purpose, did you discover your purpose when you were young or did you have to go through some process to come to discover that?

William:  I discovered my purpose in a very general way when I was young. In fact, I remember exactly when it was because it was in 9th grade which is of course the first year of high school. I was, at that time of my life, a very mediocre student and I was aware of that. I did not find much of interest in the classroom and I always tried to get away with as little as I could without getting myself into trouble. I was aware that I would be evaluated by teachers and I didn’t particularly want to get into trouble but I would do everything in a fairly half-hearted way. And the only thing I found of interest in school was that I signed up to be a reporter on the school newspaper. And the reason I did that was because I enjoyed sports and I loved hanging out with the sports teams. I was not eligible to compete in sports as a 9th grader but I loved going to football games and soccer games and so on. I would write articles in the paper about the sports games but I was really a very bad writer because I had never paid any attention to learning how to put sentences together or write coherent paragraphs.

Sucheta:  Really?

William:  Yeah. I mean, as I said, I was lazy. I was mediocre. I was only interested in the games that I went to. But what happened was, one day, I wrote an article about – it was kind of an interesting article about – a soccer match that our junior varsity team had with a visiting team of Hungarian children. Of course, this was a very low-level event but they always assigned me to the least popular events because I was such a bad writer. I always covered whatever was the lowest level athletic events that the school had to offer. But I was amazed at how great these Hungarian children were because they’ve learned to play soccer all their lives and Americans hadn’t at that point. I hung out with them afterwards and talked to them about their lives and they’d come over to this country with very little. I remember their lunches their mother packed them were bacon fat and green pepper sandwiches and I felt, Oh, gee these poor kids. They don’t have very much.

Sucheta:  Wow.

William:  But they were so happy and thrilled to be in America and to have an opportunity that America offers and they’ve talked about their lives and their hopes and their aspirations. I wrote that story for the paper and lots of my friends read it and it was a revelation because none of us had ever really appreciated the great benefits of being American citizens. At that moment, I understood how powerful communicating and writing could be and doing research which was what that was. That’s what reporting is, it’s trying to get out something new in the world and letting people know about it. I think the reward that I had from my friends saying, “Oh, this is such an exciting story. Thank you so much for writing it.” That convinced me to concentrate on my studies and to concentrate on my executive function, as you would say, and to think about how I could become smarter and more competent and develop skills. I actually became a good student at that point because I had learned a means to an end. I’ve learned that learning how to write well and learning how to spell and do all the difficult things that it takes to communicate in an intelligent fashion could serve an end, could serve a purpose, in other words. And that purpose was finding out new things in the world and communicating them so that it would help people make good choices about their lives and give people information they needed, and that continued.

So, from that time on – I didn’t, of course, know at the time I was going to be a psychologist or an academic doing research but – I did know that this was a kind of thing I wanted to do. I followed a lot of pathways that led me to my career now but that general purpose of finding out things, learning about them, writing about them, communicating them, that goes back to that revelation I had in the 9th grade.

Sucheta:  I love that story. It reminds me – I don’t think I have ever shared it on my podcast – I grew up in India and I was a great student, very committed, never given an opportunity to flirt with education, parents were very serious about my education. My father worked for a chemical company and it was a government company but many of his vendors would give him doing Diwali which is like, imagine Christmas, a calendar for the year which was like a notebook calendar. And so, my father would give it to us three children. My brothers were not interested in it and so I would have a choice of 5-8 calendars. These books are like with the yearly calendar and I would choose the one with most quotes or something very spectacular and those kinds of calendars would have goals and missions. And then what I started doing is, in my younger grades, copy the quote that they would write on the page and then I would not journal but write in detail a plan for the day.

Now that I reflect back, that became a purpose. Now, what I teach for living is teach children and adults how to envision a plan for self. It’s so fascinating.

William:  Yeah, yeah. Sure. That’s how it works. You start with something small and you build up a habit and then you learn how to become purposeful. It could take a while but start some small steps and it can start when you’re really quite young.

Sucheta:  Wow. So, tell us for those who don’t know, but what is the definition of purpose and particularly in the psychology realm, how would you define purpose? I hear a lot about goals, so are goals different than purpose?

William:  Yes. That’s a very important question. Purpose is a type of a goal but it’s a very special type of a goal. It’s not just any goal. The definitional criteria that we use in developmental science contains three important components and they have all to be there for purpose. One is it needs to be long term, not just a one-time event. So for example, if you want to go to the movies and find a parking place in town, that’s not a purpose. That’s a goal. That’s not your purpose in life. Or even if you do something dramatic like see somebody drowning in a river and jump in to save them, that’s wonderful, it’s heroic but you would not say your purpose in life is to save drowning people in rivers because it just happened once.

Sucheta:  I see.

William:  So, a purpose is a goal but it’s enduring, it’s long-term. There is a commitment there that you’re after something that will take a while for you to accomplish and it will endure for at least a period of time. There’s no specific period of time but it has to be more than just a one-shot deal. So, that’s #1.

#2 a purpose is something that you bring yourself to. In other words, you choose it. It’s self-chosen. Nobody can tell you what your purpose is by command. And again, there are a lot of things that people do by command that are important. We all need to follow traffic laws or children do need to do their homework if a teacher tells them to do it but that doesn’t become their purpose unless they themselves, unless the person himself or herself says, “I believe in this. I own it in a sense. This is something that matches my own beliefs, my own aspirations.” So, that’s the second thing. It has to be self-chosen which means it has to be meaningful by the way. It has to have a meaning for the person.

Sucheta:  Absolutely.

William:  So, that’s very important. It has to be meaningful and self-chosen but meaning is not enough. Again, there is one final thing that’s important as well which is that it has to reflect an intention to accomplish something that’s with consequence and of consequence to the world beyond the self. There are lots of things that we do in life that are meaningful and we choose to do that we enjoy. We may enjoy the ballet or going to poetry readings or going to nice restaurants and having a delicious dinner. All these things are fine. They’re part of life. They’re what makes life rich and pleasurable but none of them are full purposes because they don’t reflect an active attempt to contribute something to the world, to get something accomplished, to do something in the world that goes beyond your own desires for gratification or pleasure or edification or anything like that.

So, when you have those three criteria, when it’s a long-term goal, a long-term goal that is meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self, those three criteria, that defines purpose and it’s what makes purpose special and powerful. And just as one added point, purpose is therefore not the same thing as a lot of other concepts that are closely associated with it.

You mentioned goals. Well, purpose is not exactly the same thing as goals because it’s a particular kind of goal. It’s not the same thing as meaning even though purpose does include meaning. And people often blurt out “a life of purpose and meaning” as if they’re the same thing but they’re not. And it’s important to keep purpose distinct as it is with any scientific concept because if you’re in medicine, you don’t need four different words for the concept of liver. You have one word for a “liver” and it means what a liver is. Or if you are talking about penicillin, you don’t use the word in different ways every time you use it. Every word has a match with semantic content and that’s very important in social science and psychology as well. And so, purpose has its own unique territory and it’s because of that unique territory that it brings its special benefits to the self and to the world, which we can talk about if you want, but that’s why it’s so important to define purpose and use it in its own special way.

Sucheta:  Wow. No, this is really, really helpful. So, is it fair to say then that the purpose helps forge an emotional bond with the goals you have?

William:  Of course, because if you have a purpose, it means you have a commitment and the commitment will mean it actually becomes part of your identity because you’re committed to it. So, you’re very close to it. It’s part of who you are with the purpose that you’ve dedicated yourself to. And anything that’s part of your identity, you’re going to feel very emotionally attached to. There’s no question about that because that’s you. That’s your destiny. That’s the person that you want to be is the person that is pursuing this purpose that you’ve chosen.

Sucheta:  So, this is a little bit of a tongue and cheek question. If I am a person with executive dysfunction, I am not most optimal self and I haven’t learned all the skills that go into becoming most effective person which creates a burden for my family, for my  teachers or the world that I live in because I’m just annoying, let’s say. So, becoming a better person, can that be a purpose? Or because it’s not contributing to the greater world but when I become a better person, I am in a position to affect the world in a better way?

William:  Well, yes, if you see if that way, it absolutely can be a purpose. In other words, you’re doing it for other people in a lot of ways. You’re thinking about how you affect the world and how your behavior affects the world and how it affects your family, how it affects your friends. And so, that is a purposeful endeavor. There’s no question about it. If you remove it from other people and if you were to say, “Well, I want to become stronger or smarter and I don’t care about other people, just for myself, for my pursuit of my own glory or my own advancement,” then that would be more of a personal goal but it becomes a purpose as soon as you’re thinking about the effects you have on the world.

Sucheta:  Fantastic. So, why do people struggle in finding purpose?

William:  Well, it’s hard these days especially. I think it’s always hard because any commitment is difficult it means you have to give certain things up. It means you have to focus and work hard and dedicate yourself over a period of time even though it will be frustrating because these goals are not easy and you may fail many, many times. You may never, if your purpose is something very, let’s say, noble such as “I want to become a doctor because I’m very concerned about all the people that have cancer or Parkinson’s and I would like to help find a cure for these diseases.” Well, you may live your whole life and never get all the way there. In fact, maybe you can make a little bit of an advance or help out but you won’t totally accomplish it. And all of that is difficult. It’s difficult to live with this kind of suspended effort to get something accomplished that is not easy and maybe will never totally accomplished.

So, purpose is sometimes a very hard path to take but it’s very rewarding and in fact, the rewards include having a very fulfilled sense of life. The other thing I’d say is that it’s hard for young people because the world, as you look at it when you’re young and you don’t know much about it, is a very bewildering place. There are millions of choices out there, none of them are clear. It’s never clear what the future will bring, what a vocation would look like in 10 or 20 years, by the time you’ve finished school and what kind of choices you would make that would be purposeful. These are hard things to figure out for a young person. So, it’s not easy and growing up is not easy for anybody. But of course, I always say to my students, anything really worth doing is going to be hard. That’s the nature of life.

Sucheta:  So, is there anything particular in education and learning through the educational process that brings an individual closer to life purpose? I mean this, again, sounds weird but does math bring you closer to purpose or science? I can’t see that. So, what is it about the way you learn whatever it is that you learn that bring you closer?

William:  Yeah. It’s no particular. It can be any of those subjects. It certainly could be math or science or it could be music or history or as in my case, writing and so on. So, it’s not the particular subject that necessarily brings purpose but what brings purpose is finding a use for the skill that you’re trying to developed. So, when you understand why it is, for example, would people do chemistry and maybe what use you could make of chemistry or at the very least, why chemistry is important to human beings and consumers and why we should understand it. When you can answer that “why” question, why do I need to know this? Why do I need to learn this even though learning it will be difficult? But why do I need to take the effort to learn this? What benefit will it bring me? What benefit will it bring the world?

Whenever a student convincingly answers that question, the student will become purposeful in that subject matter, in that work. And the things that help include, first of all, the right kind of instruction that helps students understand the reason that people have studied these subjects all these many centuries, actual activities engaged in projects, for experience, where the students find a use for math or science or English, and observing other people, having good role models and seeing what it looks like for somebody to go about something in a purposeful way. Those are the experiences that help young people discover purpose in what they are doing.

Sucheta:  Wonderful. So, is it then advisable to educators who are listening to this, for example, that some of these are abstract ideas, so learning itself is complex and abstract and you need to learn but the purpose or application or use can be experienced or watching somebody do that. So, are these fieldtrips and immersion programs, and going on adventures, does that add to having a wider lens or does it actually directly help the student connect to the purpose or both?

William:  Yeah, absolutely. The answer is yes. Fieldtrips where students can see adults or people that have been successful in any number of areas, see how they actually work and especially if it’s the kinds of things that young people get excited by, a trip to the local air museum to see where maybe pilots would speak about aerodynamics or a NASA astronaut might talk about what it was like to go up in space and the science involved. I mean, that’s exactly how you get young people interested in science, when they see, “Oh, it was this science that enabled this person to go into orbit? Oh, my God. This is really amazing.” That’s exactly the kind of observations that young people can have that will get them moving and get them started. So yes, fieldtrips can be terrific if they’re connecting young people with mentors who are basically people who are good role models for doing purposeful work in the world.

Sucheta:  So, then are there many types of purposes or there’s only one type of purpose?

William:  Oh, there are many, many types of purposes. First of all, we’ve been only talking now about vocational purposes. And of course, there are many kinds of vocational purposes. Every kind of work is a calling itself. It doesn’t have to be heroic or high status or anything like that. A good plumber or a good gardener or a house painter or certainly truck drivers, all fields and professions have people that are purposeful, that are incredibly valuable, that are doing skilled work that we need. And so, it doesn’t have to be a high-paying job as an executive or anything like that. In fact, I would say it’s at least as common in the trades or that kind of work. So, all kinds of vocations can be pursued in a purposeful way as long as people believe in them and are responsible and are proud of the contribution they’re making to society. There’s absolutely no profession, no job or vocation that is excluded from the purposeful realm. They’re all potentially callings.

So, there are many kinds of vocational purposes. Every kind of work has one. Then there are other kinds of purposes. Faith, for example, many people find their purpose in wanting to serve God, and that is certainly a very high transcendent purpose. Family is a purpose for many, many people. Wanting to raise children or help take care of their extended family, that’s a very important purpose. And people can have more than one purpose at once. Many people have a family purpose, they have a faith purpose, and they have a vocational purpose. So, you’re not just stuck with one purpose in life.

Sucheta:  What is the civic responsibility and purpose towards your nation and for a fellow human being or community, how does that fit into this as well?

William:  Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. That’s another very important kind of purpose for every citizen is what you contribute to your community. You contribute to your local community in lots of different ways, serving on the school board or helping clean the neighborhood park or being a good neighbor. And then nationally, of course, we pay taxes, we do a lot of things that are duties but we also, I think, take on things that we believe in when you participate in the civic process, when you vote, when you do volunteer work, when you serve on a jury. All of these can be done in a very purposeful way and that’s what keeps society together as people is people being willing to sacrifice for their country.

Sucheta:  So, how do we go about instilling a sense of purpose in the minds of children whether it is while they are students, whether they are good citizens of the household, a good family member, what specific steps can one take and can it be explicitly taught?

William:  Well, that’s a good question too. To start with the negative, I think, it cannot be taught in the way that you just explicitly say, “Okay. Purpose is important and here is what your purpose should be” or something like that or “You should have this purpose.” That goes in one ear and out the other and is not very convincing and most of young people don’t even know what the word “purpose” means. And they felt they don’t want somebody else to write the script of life for them.

As I said from the beginning, purpose has to be the own, it has to be self-chosen. What you can do though is first, even with very young children, you can start building up habits that give them a sense that the things they do matter to other people and they make a difference and they can contribute and they can do things that are valued. So, even in the home with a very young child, with a preschool child, you can ask the child to help out. The child can help water the plants, for example, or helps feed the family pet or something like that, empty the trash or help mom empty the dishwasher or shovel snow. I mean, there’s lots of chores that children can do that are important to family. And it’s not that that gives them a purpose right then but it begins to build a habit of thinking beyond yourself and thinking that what you do can contribute to some larger society, in this case, the family.

And once you get into school, schools can of course teach children what the school is teaching is important to the world. They can teach children about society, about history, about why it’s important for people to be good citizens, to be dedicated to their country, to their local community, what happens in societies when people are sharing the responsibility, how that makes things work. All of this kind of information children are not born with, they need to learn, and school is a very important place to learn that through history, through social studies and so on. So, the idea of civic purpose is something that schools can help promote. And of course, vocational purpose, that’s right down the alley of schools.

I talked before about faith, that’s more in the realm of religious institutions but certainly any church or synagogue or any kind of religious institution have programs for young people to help them understand how they can pursue a faithful purpose in their own right and family purpose, that’s something that, of course, children get from their friends and family.

Sucheta:  You wrote about this, you said the intense focus on individual performance status or achievement can create a real high risk and can lead children to become self-absorbed. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think this is the balance that I don’t know if parents have learned how to master, when they want to push their children to achieve and become successful at learning, they also are instilling this bug, so to speak. Where do you stand in comparison to somebody else? So, your success, it needs to be solitary and the sense of community maybe lost at that. So, how can one bring balance in their perspective?

William:  Well, yes, you’re exactly right. I think, that is maybe mistake #1 that many, many well-intended parents are making these days. Of course, they love their children and they want their children to do well in life and they think the way to do that is to get the children to try to be individually better than all the other children around and that would give them a better chance to go to a high prestige college and then they get into the competitive college application process, and that becomes almost — or the parents try to make that become a purpose in itself. But getting into a elite college is not a purpose. It’s a goal but it’s not even a very well-directed goal, I think, because the important thing is why am I going to college? What do I hope to learn? What will that give me that will then promote my ability to do something of consequence in the world to help me become the kind of person I want to be? In other words, college itself is a means to an end. It’s not an end in itself and it’s not a purpose. And so, getting into a prestigious college has no advantage at all in terms of purposes because students can get great education at many, many kinds of colleges. The important thing is the match.

So, I think you’re right, that many well-intended parents these days are putting too much stress on individual performance, on competitive achievement, on getting ahead of your peers. I think that what parents need to understand is this is not in the best interest of the child. Unless the child finds a deeper meaning, a deeper reason to learn other than just getting good grades and getting rewarded by status, the child will not continue. This student will not stick with it.

You see lots of students and colleges these days who are burning out early in their freshman year or in their sophomore year. They’ve lost steam because they haven’t found a reason. They haven’t found their own reason to achieve and that’s, by the way, one of the reasons that mental health facilities at college and all the colleges, the counseling departments and the various student help agencies are just overflowing with needs these days because there’s so many students that have come to college without having the right reasons for it and they’re feeling lost and they’re feeling purposeless and they’re drifting and they’re anxious, and as you said, they’re being so self-absorbed that it’s leading to stress and anxiety and a lot of issues that need to be then addressed through counseling or clinical mental health work.

Sucheta:  You know, as you were describing this, I was wondering if purpose can inoculate you from drifting in life. Purpose can inoculate you from meaninglessness that people often experience.

William:  Well, I think it can help. I don’t think it’s a silver bullet. It’s not the only answer. There’s a number of other important capacities that you need to develop in life, other character strengths. But I think purpose certainly is one of the character strengths that does help you avoid a kind of a drifting pointless existence. Especially when you’re young, it gives you a sense of direction. It gives you something to aim for, to aspire for. It gives you a reason to get out of the bed in the morning and learn and try and commit yourself to something. So, I do think that purpose is one of the character strengths that does help young people avoid a lot of the pitfalls of self-absorption, of drifting, of kind of an aimlessness that will not end in a fulfilled kind of feeling about life.

Sucheta:  So, do you mind quickly telling us what the other components are? Is it executive function is one of them [00:33:26]?

William:  Well, yes, I mean I think, you can break executive function down into a number of subcomponents but I would include things like future mindedness, self-reflection, actively open-minded thinking, all of those are important components of executive function that help you adapt to the world and those are things that, in addition to purpose, help you move forward in life rather than stall and drift. There are other kinds of character strengths that are important. I think compassion is important, empathy is important, grit is important, persistence, sticking with something, having the ability not to quit. So, all of these are kind of habits or you can call them virtues or character strengths and they’re all important. But I think, as I said, purpose is one of the essential ones. It’s not the only one but it’s one of the key ones.

Sucheta:  Yeah. As you described this, I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci book and he talks about his habit of going into rabbit holes and he left many unfinished paintings as well as he had accomplished many, many things. But when he became curious, he had this one particular math equation, I think, he tried to solve and he has pages and pages and pages solving that math problem that he never did even though that led to nothing or it was not part of anything. So, I see that grit and perseverance because it just builds a skill that develops like toughness and endurance.

William:  Exactly.

Sucheta:  You know, another very important thing you say that purpose is fairly late developing capacity and that caught me thinking also executive function which are a late developing skillset. So, what is the mechanics of that that makes it so emerged with a delay develop into the trajectory?

William:  Sure. Well, some of it is just strictly neurological, that the brain needs to develop in a certain way. And I’m sure as you know, it isn’t until at least puberty that the brain really begins filling out in its full way – that, of course, happens in early adolescence – and that enables young people to project themselves into the future, to become future-oriented, to think about their identity, think about the kind of person they want to be not just now but 5 years from now or 10 years from now, 30 years from now. Normally for most young people, it isn’t until they developed the full neurological capacity that they’re even able to really do that in a very clear-minded way. So, that’s one reason purpose is late developing. And another reason is that there’s a lot of things you have to learn about the world. It is a very complicated place and you have to get out there and experiment with it before you can really make the kind of choices that lead you to a purposeful life.

Sucheta:  You know, I was thinking about this, that you need that knowledge of schema, a sense of big picture and you need expanded experiences in the world to even know how the world operates, so to speak.

William:  Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Sucheta:  It reminds me of my own journey when you are born and raised in India and then you travel all the way to another country, you have to learn so many ways, how things are done in another country, including depositing a check versus crossing the road versus how do you request somebody to take your name off a calling list, whatever it is, it has a cultural etiquette and cultural norms that you have to absorb and inculcate, if that makes sense. Right?

William:  Yeah. That’s a very good point, yes. And that takes a while. It takes a while before you have all those experiences, yeah.

Sucheta:  So, in closing, what do you think about the school’s effectiveness in examining its impact on helping children develop purpose?

William:  There are lots of types of schools out there and I always rush to say that there are some very, very good schools that really get it, that really are doing all of the prescriptions I’ve spoken about this afternoon with you and so I’ve seen some terrific models. In the minority, unfortunately, too many schools are still stuck on giving young people assignments that they find meaningless and not explaining why the basic skills they’re trying to teach are important and useful and interesting. And I think a lot of the school policies, the kind of big governmental policies in the past have gone in the wrong direction. I think people maybe now are realizing that and maybe there will be a shift in the pendulum towards more personalized meaningful instruction.

But what schools need to do is help young people find their interests, pursue their interest, find out why it is that the subject matter and the skills the schools are teaching are important and what they can accomplish with them. And all of that requires paying much more attention to individual students, having a curriculum that’s extremely varied so that every student can find something they’re interested in to pursue, giving students encouragement and support in pursuing their interests, and teaching subjects in an interesting way so that when you teach chemistry, you teach not just the formulas but you teach the uses of chemistry and maybe even some stories about how the great scientific discoveries were made. That’s the kind of thing that will light students up, will excite them and make them want to learn because they will understand why it is that people care so much about knowing these things that we are asking the students for. So, I think, there are some schools that are doing this and I’m hoping that the schools that are not doing it will pay attention and follow the leadership, follow the path of the ones that are doing it right.

Sucheta:  You know, this reminds me of a story of a very famous photographer who pictured, I think in ‘50s and ‘60s, all the old railways, I guess, and the carts and he has a beautiful photography book and I have it in my house. But when he was a young child, he lived in Maine and his house next to a port and he saw all kinds of ships, all kinds of boats and fancy ships or whatever go through, and he spent hours and hours and hours in a window from his first grade to fifth grade and he could name every single one of them based on the sound it made. But when he went to school, he would not pay attention and he was punished and every time sent into a timeout and yelled at, not a single teacher asked him, “What do you like?” And if somebody have found out, they have known that this kid can recognize a ship or a boat by the noise it makes. What a phenomenal kid that is.

William:  That’s a great example. That’s a great experience. We should use that in every teacher education program, that experience, because that’s exactly what teachers need to be paying attention to.  Very good.

Sucheta:  Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast today and particularly helping us connect the relationship between executive function and purpose because sometimes I find that struggling students are so bogged down by the skills that they don’t have, that the parents and teacher’s attention goes on to helping them develop the skills but the skill development purpose is lost on them. And also, it’s always framed in a negative way because they’re falling behind rather. So, there’s a threat that if you don’t do it, you’re somehow going to become somebody useless to the world which is so not true.

William:  Well said.

Sucheta:  So, thank you so much, Dr. Damon. If you have any closing thoughts before we close?

William:  No, I thought this is a very thorough and good discussion. So, onward with your important work.

Sucheta:  Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Producer:  Alright. That’s all the time we have for today. If you know of someone who might benefit from listening today’s episode, we would be grateful if you would kindly forward it to them. So, on behalf of our host Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest Dr. Bill Damon, and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.