The Path to Purpose: Summary and Key Takeaways

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And now we come to our second book by William Damon, The Path to Purpose.

This book was originally written with adolescents in mind, as William Damon specializes in psychology for the youth.

But the principles in this book are essential for all of us, even if we are not young. And if we have children, this is especially important for us, is a big part of what helps a young person find their purpose is influenced by their parents and teachers.

My parents will be the first to say that they are not perfect, but one thing that my mother did instill in me from young age was the knowledge that I could do anything if I really wanted to. This is something that stuck with me, and it is something, with a few minuscule exceptions, that I believe to be universal.

In other words, we parents have a huge influence on our kids, and according to this book, that is especially true of helping them find their purpose in life.

Get it here!

So let’s talk about this book…


The main idea behind The Path Purpose is that a worthy goal in life is essential for us to achieve satisfaction and happiness.

The purpose helps us aim ourselves towards a specific path in life, to solve specific problems, and not wander around aimless.

Youths that don’t have a purpose tend to live longer with their parents and don’t move forward in life. But the easiest way to find that purpose is to find a problem that needs solving. Not just any problem, it must be a worthy problem.

In other words, when a young person feels they are engaged in helping humanity, they are much more likely to have a will to succeed in life.

What is Purpose?

So let’s start by looking at what William Damon classifies as a “life purpose”. I’ll start with a quote:

“What exactly do I mean by a ‘life purpose’? A purpose is an ultimate concern. It is the final answer to the question Why? Why are you doing this? Why is it important? A purpose is a deeper reason for the immediate goals and motives that drive most daily behavior.”

I love the phrase “ultimate concern”. I feel like most of us have one of these, even if we don’t realize it. We have something that, if everything else was taken away, we would still care about. It shows up in those who express interest over a long period of time, where people have put hours and hours into a certain thing. That is evidence that there is a life purpose at work.

The opposite shows itself in three forms: the disengaged, the dreamers, and the dabblers.

  • The disengaged care about little except there own pleasure.
  • The dreamers aspire for something, but lacked the practical, realistic plans to bring it alive. They are all imagination and no substance.
  • The dabblers go from one thing to another without sustaining their commitment. In demons research, only 20% of young people could be described as purposeful. The other 80% fell into one of the three categories above.

Obstacles to Finding Purpose

So how do we move ourselves to that 20%. Well, first we need to identify what is holding us back.

According to William Damon, the biggest obstacle is having a “short horizon”. Most of us think that success just comes to you, and this has spurred on by social media and much of the content we consume. We think that success is just lucky, and we have little control over it. Only the select few get lucky and find that success.

The reality is that “any success in life, from the mundane to the spiritual, require sustained effort.”

To think otherwise is to have a false sense of entitlement.

The media further encourages the thought that getting rich and famous constitutes a life purpose. It does not. A purpose is something much deeper than money or fame.

Parental Responsibilities for Your Children

Damon then goes on to give us nine pointers, nine tips to help us cultivate purpose in our children’s lives. You may find these to be similar to the nine tips given in his other book, Noble Purpose. So let’s take a look at these nine tips:

“Listen closely for the spark, then fan the flames.”

Every child has a “spark”, Damon tells us. It is up to parents to pay close attention to those sparks, and be prepared to ask questions and help develop those interests.

“Take advantage of regular opportunities to open a dialogue.”

Giving your child a lecture will not be very effective. Instead we have to simply look for small moments, little opportunities to chat with our kids about what interests them.

“Be open-minded and supportive of the sparks of interest expressed.”

We can’t dictate what are child should or shouldn’t be interested in. So we need to be open to what sparks life and then be willing to help them in those areas.

“Convey your own sense of purpose and the meaning you derive from your work.”

Be sure to point out when you are purpose in life. If all you do is complain about work, that is all your child will think work should be. So if you haven’t found purpose yet, it’s important to find that first before you can cultivate in your children, because they will see your example.

“Impart wisdom about the practicalities in life.”

In order to help children avoid being a dreamer not a doer, we have to instill bits of wisdom to help them understand what is realistic in life, and how you could realistically achieve any goal. This doesn’t mean that you should discourage unrealistic goals, especially if they are actually possible, but instead you should help break down those goals and allow your child to see what it would take to achieve them.

“Introduce children to potential mentors.”

While parents can have a huge influence on their kids, they should not be the only influence. Once you know what they are interested in, you should introduce them to teachers and mentors who can help bring out the best of those qualities in your child. Because let’s face it, you can’t be an expert in everything.

“Encourage an entrepreneurial attitude.”

This one is important. Having an entrepreneurial spirit is essential to developing your child, even if they have no intention of creating a business.

An entrepreneurial spirit means that you simply have the habit of making plans, following a vision, and are willing to take risks and deal with setbacks in the pursuit of your goal. This is an essential skill to develop for anyone, regardless of your vocation.

William Damon outlines seven different attitudes that you can help your child develop:

  1. The ability to set clear goals and make realistic plans to accomplish them
  2. an optimistic, can-do attitude
  3. persistence in the face of obstacles and difficulties
  4. a tolerance—or more, even an appetite—for risk
  5. resilience in the face of failure
  6. determination to achieve measurable results
  7. resourcefulness and inventiveness in devising the means to achieve those results.

If you can help a child cultivate these attitudes, they will have no problem pursuing their goals in life.

“Nurture a positive outlook.”

As mentioned in the last tip, optimism is one of the attitudes that you should give to your children. It is essential for developing a can-do attitude.

In other words, we want to live by the mantra: “you can do it!”

This can be hard, because sometimes we are overprotective of our children. We want to save them from hurt and disappointment. But in order to help them succeed and find purpose in life, we have to help them understand the value of healthy risks and challenges.

Sometimes they will fail, but they will never even have the chance to succeed if they don’t try.

“Instill in children a feeling of agency, linked to responsibility.”

Lastly, we have the attitude of agency. Agency gives us a sense of empowerment, the idea that we are in control of our environment. This lends us a sense of responsibility as well. Because when we have control over something, we have stewardship over that thing.

In other words, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”

Great Quotes from The Path to Purpose

“Life, much like so many athletic events, is largely a game of recovery.”

“Here is the sequence of steps we have identified in achieving a path of purpose: Inspiring communication with persons outside the immediate family Observation of purposeful people at work First moment of revelation: something important in the world can be corrected or”

“One of the most intriguing ideas in the developmental sciences over the past decades is the phenomenon of the “J-shaped curve.” While observing children learning to master new skills in dozens of domains (math, writing, the arts), psychologists noticed a surprising pattern: as a learner struggles to master difficult new challenges, there is often an initial decline in skill. Errors are made on tasks that previously seemed easy, and the learner feels more “stupid” than ever before. This is the dip that forms the middle part of the “J.” But it turns out that the “stupid mistakes,” in retrospect, were nothing more than growth errors. Once the learner gets past the dip, performance rises rapidly to new heights.”

“In my prior work, I had encountered the notion of purpose many times, but dimly and indirectly, as if through a telescope with an all-fitted lens. None of my earlier studies was about purpose per se; yet I now see that much of what I have been trying to understand for many years does in fact hinge on purpose. A study I conducted (with Anne Colby) of extraordinary moral commitment found that people who pursue noble purposes are filled with joy, despite the constant sacrifices that they feel called upon to make.”

“A person can change purposes, or add new ones, over the years; but it is in the nature of purposes to endure at least long enough that a serious commitment is made and some progress toward that aim is achieved. A purpose can organize an entire life, imparting not only meaning but also inspiration and motivation for ongoing learning and achievement.”

“The purposeful are those who have found something meaningful to dedicate themselves to, who have sustained this interest over a period of time, and who express a clear sense of what they are trying to accomplish in the world and why. They have found a cause or ultimate goal that inspires their efforts from day to day and helps them fashion a coherent future agenda. They know what they want to accomplish and why, and they have taken concerted steps to achieve their ambitions.”

“To qualify as a worthy purpose, the how of a course of action, as well as its why, must be guided by a strong moral sense. Finding noble purpose means both devoting oneself to something worth doing and doing it in an honorable manner. For this reason, a telling way to distinguish between ignoble and noble purposes is to analyze whether both the means and the ends are honorable.”

“The single greatest barrier to youngsters finding their paths to purpose is the fixation on the short horizons that infuses cultural messages sent to young people today. A popular culture celebrating quick results and showy achievements has displaced the traditional values of reflection and contemplation that once stood as the moral north star of human development and education. Instant mass communication transmits tales of highly envied people who have taken shortcuts to fame and fortune to every child with access to computers and televisions (and that amounts to just about every child in any industrial society). Among the most common formats for television shows at present are contests in which ordinary young people rocket to fame or fortune in a matter of minutes, days, or, at most, weeks. The appeal of quick material success is amplified by current economic conditions, which have led to unparalleled abundance and affluence for some, fierce global competitiveness for others, and the specter of deprivation for many others.”