Justice Education


An Interview with Bill Damon

Suzanne Shanahan

Artwork: “Village in Bay at Sunset” by Stephen Conroy © 2017

William (Bill) Damon is a Professor of Education at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose and author of The Path to Purpose. We sat down with him to hear about more than a quarter century of work on purpose.

Suzanne Shanahan: As you know, there are many conversations about purpose across education, but also within professional spaces. For you, where did that work begin?

Bill Damon: My original interest was actually in moral commitment. My wife, Anne Colby, and I worked on a project that was lifechanging for us, about living moral exemplars—23 people who had distinguished themselves in areas like charity, peace, justice, and civil rights. These were fairly well-known people whom we did case studies of and interviews with. We wrote a book from this project called Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment, which came out in the early nineties.

Our real interest was what makes these people tick, because they do so many things that are self-sacrificing and often frustrating in the long term. I remember one of the people who was working on poverty said, “I know perfectly well by the end of my life there’s going to be at least as much poverty in the world as when I began my work. But I still think I should keep going.” And that’s how all of these people working in great causes felt.

They also were very courageous, but felt that they didn’t really need courage for what they were doing because they did something that was second nature. They didn’t feel they had to screw their courage to the sticking point or anything like that. All of that really amazed me.

SS: So how did you move from exemplars who were pursuing careers that some might describe as “do-good” work, to the concept of purpose, which is more generalizable to a variety of professions and pursuits?

BD: After we finished that book, I joined with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in a project that we originally called Humane Creativity—we later decided that was too obscure, so we changed it to the Good Work Project. In the Good Work project, I brought my interest in moral commitment and the methods that I’d used to study moral exemplars, and joined with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s interests in creativity and the great work he’d done on flow and engagement and Howard’s interest in cognitive excellence and leadership and supreme human performance. The Good Work Project went on for at least 10 years and we wrote a book called Good Work about it. And we each, because of our backgrounds and our interests, learned things from the data that were somewhat different. I won’t speak for Mike or Howard, but I can say what I learned, and this will answer your question about how I got to purpose.

The thing that struck me the most among the good workers—people across fields such as journalism, medicine, science, law, and the arts—all of them were amazingly articulate about the public mission of their fields. They all reflected on what their fields were bringing to the world. They were very insightful about why the field developed the way it did and how the field could be used to promote that mission.

After the project, I began thinking that mission has to do with a field of work, a vocation, and is kind of a sociological concept. I wondered what the psychological equivalent of a mission was. How do people develop their own inner sense of mission? And that’s when I decided the right word there was purpose.

SS: One of the things that I find striking in your work is the analytic specificity and the deliberative approach from psychology. When we think about purpose at this moment, it’s kind of everything and anything in popular conversation—it includes conversations about well-being, about vocation, about meaning. Can you distinguish purpose and meaning for us analytically?

BD: I got the idea of purpose from Victor Frankl and some other people who had written about purpose—mostly philosophers, theologians. Even though Frankl’s book had been translated into English as Man’s Search for Meaning, “meaning” was not the word he used. He used a German word which is much more like a long-term goal.

I decided that purpose itself was its own particular capacity. It wasn’t just meaning. It’s meaningful, but it’s much more than that. And so it needed to be defined. We needed to develop a measure to study it. And we needed data about how people develop it.

In popular discourse everyone says, “I want to have a life of meaning and purpose,” as if those two words are joined at the hip. In the vernacular, people will obviously use language any way they want. But if you’re going to do science or even structured practice, you want every word to have its own meaning.

When we started doing this work, we actually spent several months reading theology and philosophy, and seeing how the word purpose had been used in a systematic, scholarly way so we could import that into the psychological science. And here’s our definition: Purpose is a long-term, active commitment to accomplish something that is both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.

SS: Knowing you picked those words deliberately, can you say more about why the components of this definition are important?

BD: Sure. To say it’s an active commitment means it’s not just thinking about it. To say it’s a long-term commitment means that it’s enduring. It’s not a one-time deal. You keep doing it. It doesn’t have to last for life; you can change purposes. But you have to stick with it for a while at least.

There are two characteristics to this commitment that are important: It needs to be meaningful. That’s why meaning is a part of it. In other words, if somebody orders you to do it, that’s not purposeful. But it has to have more than meaning. It has to also attempt to accomplish something that goes beyond the self. There’s a quality of purpose that has a kind of transcendence to it—you are dedicated to something not only about your own personal meaning. Reading a poem or going to a movie can be very meaningful, but it is not a purpose because you’re not trying to accomplish something of consequence to the world beyond the self.

Purpose is an attempt to put your grain of sand on the pile in life, but you don’t have to succeed at it. As I said, the people we studied in Some Do Care did a lot of good for people, but they didn’t accomplish eradicating poverty or creating world peace forever or anything like that. But they kept going, and they kept trying.

But I also don’t want to make it sound like purpose is always heroic. It can be something as simple as raising children or doing a good job as a greeter at Walmart. It’s a mental state where you’re really trying your best to accomplish something that’s valuable to the world.

SS: One objection I hear in discussions of purpose is that it’s a matter of privilege. And I know in various pieces of work you’ve identified examples that undermine the idea that purpose is just an elite, privileged phenomenon. Can you tell us a little about those findings?

BD: Well, I can directly speak in this case from our data. We’ve studied purpose throughout the lifespan, and in none of our studies has it ever been empirically associated with socioeconomic status or with gender, race, or ethnicity. This came out very clearly, especially in our study of later life, ages 50 to 90, where we had a large, randomized sample. It was absolutely clear that purpose was equally available to impoverished people, to wealthy people, and to people living in all kinds of communities, because people everywhere find things to dedicate themselves to. And I also can bring in international studies that have used our measures. And again, as far as I know, I don’t know of any study that’s shown any geographical differences, any cultural differences, in the extent to which people are purposeful.

And of course, in all populations there are a lot of people that are not purposeful, too, and those people are also evenly distributed.

SS: That’s helpful. I was hoping that we could also address some of the conversations about purpose that might be slightly different than how you have described it.

One of the places that I see purpose conflated is in the well-being space. A lot of literature will say that having a robust sense of purpose improves your well-being, but sometimes purpose and well-being are discussed as if they are the same thing. Could you make the analytic distinction for us?

BD: Yes. First of all, purpose does not in and of itself create happiness. Purposeful people are looking life right in the eye, and that’s not always a happy experience because there’s a lot of misery in the world.

It is true that purpose can then make those experiences satisfying, but it’s not a recipe for happiness.

Purpose does, however, have a lot of psychological benefits. For example, it staves off self-absorption since it’s beyond the self. When you’re thinking about yourself all the time, that’s one sure source of unhappiness, because you’re worried and anxious. Purpose helps you get beyond that. People who think the answer to happiness is to become purposeful are making the same mistake people often make about happiness. If you have happiness as a goal, that’s probably the worst way to go about finding happiness. It’s not a sensible goal because happiness is a byproduct of doing lots of other things. It is the same with purpose. Purpose will be developed when you find something you believe in to dedicate yourself to, but pursuing it for its own sake or for improved well-being misses a central component of what it means to have purpose.

SS: As research about the benefits of having purpose have become more widely known, including through your book, it seems that not only parents, but high schools and higher education are really pushing purpose. I had a conversation with a student the other day in a course about justice. He was frustrated, and said, “Now I’m expected to have purpose too?” Like, are you kidding me? I see students experiencing pressure that says you’re not a complete human being or you’re not going to be happy if you don’t have purpose. Rather than making “find purpose” another task on a student’s wellness to do list, how can we enable people, as you say, to develop this over time as they encounter work and study that’s meaningful?

BD: Pressure on young people or on anybody to be purposeful is counterproductive. We just finished a study of purpose development in college, and we found the kind of reaction that you mentioned when colleges, in a well-meaning sense, have agendas where they’re hoping students will develop purposeful commitments around issues that they have defined for the students, like particular approaches to social reform.

Every person needs to find their own purpose or purposes. You can’t give somebody a purpose. But what you can do is present a menu of options. Young people don’t come with an innate knowledge of what’s happening in the world, so teaching them about the world, and presenting the needs of the world, is an important step that precedes them developing a sense of what their particular contribution could be.

Also, you can teach in a way that is meaningful, where you bring out the human dimensions of the subject. Education should be teaching about the world in ways that young people can relate to their own lives and their own future prospects. We want them to be able to identify the issues that they care about in the knowledge that they’re learning, whether it be history or literature or psychology or science. And then students make their choices about what they want to commit to. You don’t give them a program and say, here’s the problem in the world and you need to go out and make this your life purpose. That’s what students are reacting against. But purpose develops when young people themselves find something important in the world to dedicate themselves to, and it is the job of colleges and K through 12 and parents to teach in a way that helps young people find their own worthwhile commitments in life.

SS: So thinking about this in the context of institutions of higher education, I’m hearing you say that we can’t make purpose a requirement or an expectation, but we can create the fertile conditions for students to find meaning and self-identify a sense of purpose. And that’s more about providing them broad exposure and engagement with various kinds of things and educating them about the world in ways that are accessible to them. Have you seen places that are doing this well?

BD: Yes. In our study, we found that the experiences that promoted purpose were courses that were field-based and sent the students out into the world and then made a connection between that and some domain of knowledge. Also, capstone kinds of courses, where the students produce something actively, do their own research project, or something like that, promoted purpose.

If the college has provided counseling or advising that help the students identify what their own talents and interests are, and connects it to some need in the world, we found that kind of advising promotes purpose. A number of universities are beginning to have centers on their campus that are dedicated to purposeful vocations or purposeful work, and I think that can be very useful, because if students voluntarily get involved in it, it gives them a menu of options that they can explore. As long as you don’t pressure them or tell them which options you want them to pursue, but just encourage them and give them the resources they need, that can be very helpful.

SS: What about relationships? To what extent can relationships help cultivate purpose?

BD: Relationships are absolutely critical in the development of purpose, particularly the mentoring relationship. We found that in all cases, people who become purposeful have somebody they’re observing and hopefully getting to know who is a purposeful example for them. They always talked about somebody that was either a real-life mentor to them, or a virtual mentor to them. It could be somebody that they never met. For instance, when we interviewed journalists who were good workers, an amazing number of them had a picture of Ed Murrow on their wall and said he exemplified the mission of journalism. So it could be somebody distant like that, but more often it was somebody who was a parent or a teacher or a manager who exemplified purposeful commitment.

When I write about our college data, and our study of higher education, I urge colleges to do whatever they can to provide meaningful advising to students because students really are looking for mentors.

SS: Thank you so much for your time with us. Is there anything else you want to share as you reflect back on this work and look at how it has evolved?

BD: Purpose has become a popular word in the 20 plus years that I’ve been doing work in this area, and I maybe take a little bit of responsibility for that myself, but lots of other people have contributed to that too.

It is satisfying to see how discussions of purpose have moved education beyond merely the transfer of knowledge for its own sake alone. Often in education, the “why” question has not been asked enough. “Why are we teaching chemistry to begin with to all these students, most of whom don’t want to be in the class?” And if you ask that why question, you start to bring all different sources of knowledge into human life. I think the discussion of purpose has stimulated more people to ask these kinds of deeper questions, and I’m glad about that.

William Damon is Professor of Education at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Bill’s research examines how people develop purpose in their work, family, and civic lives. He is the author of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life; and, most recently, A Round of Golf with my Father: The New Psychology of Exploring your Past to Make Peace with your Present. Bill is currently writing about how colleges and universities can promote purposeful learning among students with all varieties of interests.

Spring 2024

From the Editor


Suzanne Shanahan

Part I: Pursuing Virtue

Sabrina B. Little

Kelli Reagan Hickey

Blest Be the Ties that Bind: Remembering a Purpose of Religio in Higher Education

Luke A. Powery

Interlude: Purposeful Pursuits

Part II: Pursuing Vocation

James Coleman, Jr.