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Driven to succeed: How we're depriving teens of a sense of purpose

November 18, 2011
Palo Alto Weekly
Prof. William Damon
Prof. William Damon
Finding purpose can help youth discover their own path to success, says Damon.

By Terri Lobdell

Miranda Chatfield graduated from Gunn High School in 2008 having done everything she was supposed to do. Smart and determined, she aimed for admission to an Ivy League college, took challenging classes and studied hard, often into the wee hours. The result was a prized admission to Cornell University.

Her achievements came at a high cost, however.

"I remember fear -- being fearful of my teachers, my classes. I was ... just so constantly worried about academics. 'What if I failed this test?' 'What if I have three tests on the same day?' 'I just can't go on. I can't make it.' Desperate feeling," Chatfield, now 22, said. "I've only begun to reflect on it in the last year, and it sounds strange, but maybe to some extent I repressed it after leaving high school because I just didn't want to think about that anymore. But there were times when I had stayed up the whole night ... and I had a test at 8 a.m., and I just felt like I couldn't do it."

Chatfield would ask herself, "What's wrong with me? Why can't I keep up?"

She describes the Gunn environment then as competitive, judgmental and "hostile to learning." Her parents, she said, pushed her but were not as demanding as other parents. She felt the added pressure, though, of other students' parents being "transferred" through her peers onto her. The high anxiety among peers at school, and on Facebook, was contagious.

"I was thinking once I got to Cornell, everything would be perfect. But I learned ... it doesn't seem to end," she said. Within two years, she was burned out, anxious and lost. She needed a break.

"I didn't feel like I belonged there," she said. "In a certain way, I wasn't really ready for college."

After taking the past year off to reflect and recharge, Chatfield returned to Cornell this fall with greater self-knowledge, better coping skills and renewed purpose.

Trevor Bisset also aimed for "the prize" of a top college and drove himself at Palo Alto High School to perform at the highest levels academically, athletically, and as a student leader. He had plenty of company, he said, recounting how the right college admission was "the end-all, be-all" for many of his peers. This quest carried with it a fear of failure -- fear of failing parents, friends and the advantages of a privileged upbringing. Not getting into that top college for many students, Bisset said, "would say something terrible" about their worth as human beings.

Bisset, who graduated in 2005, was rewarded with admission to Pomona College. But instead of thriving, Bisset spent his first two years at Pomona "acting out, drinking way too much, and very depressed." Hitting rock bottom, he stopped out for a year to "get off the hamster wheel and reflect."
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Like Chatfield and Bisset, many Palo Alto adolescents spend their high school years in a contest for credentials, accumulating grades, scores and accolades they hope to leverage into a rosy future at a top college. For many, this is an intensely competitive, stressful process that crowds out other activities important to healthy development. Increasingly, it is a process that is not sustainable for many young people -- despite their tremendous abilities and stellar performances -- and contributes to a rising tide of mental health issues, a sense of drift, emptiness, "something missing," or a lack of joy, according to many educators, psychologists, parents and other youth experts.

These concerns also apply to students with more modest goals and achievements, who end up feeling "less than," discouraged, isolated or hopeless in the midst of a pressure-cooker culture.

"Is everybody talking about this? Yes. I go to a conference once a year with colleagues at peer institutions. It's very much a concern for all of us," said Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford University dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising and a Palo Alto parent. "The mental health outcomes are an acute concern, but even without them ... I think we would all be lamenting that something is amiss ... regardless of how elite the school is or how selective or how high the achievement level of the student."

Increasingly, the experts who examine these troubling youth trends say it's the adults, not the youth, who have lost their way. With the best of intentions, adults have undermined the normal, healthy process of youthful exploration, engagement, risk-taking and idealism through overprotective, over-involved parenting, teach-to-the test schools, and a hyper-competitive, commercialized college admissions process. The result is youth who feel pressured to adopt unfulfilling, short-horizon goals and meet ever-greater expectations along a narrowly defined path to success, without due regard to their own inclinations, health or well-being.

Many parents recognize these forces and the problems created. Some rail privately against it, and others attempt public action towards change. But most feel daunted in the face of a prevailing culture that craves achievement and status and are challenged to bring balance to the equation, even within their own households.

It is not for lack of trying. As a community, during the past decade, concerned citizens have spawned a wide variety of committees, panels, conferences, studies and programs, all of which have focused on stress reduction, parent education, homework and testing policies, broader visions of success, the importance of balance and self-care, how to identify the signs of mental health disorders, and how to help a young person in trouble. The efforts have contributed to a more caring, connected community, many say.

However, according to Weekly interviews with students, parents, educators, psychologists and others working with youth, too many young people still feel driven beyond healthy limits by the demands they feel from parents, schools and the college admissions process. By most accounts, the pressures have not receded over the past decade but instead have continued and, in some ways, accelerated.

Many are wondering how to make the treadmill stop. And if it stops: Will young people still be as smart, as accomplished, as respected? If they get off the treadmill: Will they still be able to live a good life?
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William Damon, Stanford School of Education professor and psychologist, has spent years studying this set of issues and believes that it is a sense of purpose -- intrinsic, sustaining and noble -- that is missing in the majority of today's youth, causing many of them to drift and founder. And it is this lack of purpose that should be attracting community attention, and not just its by-product, stress.

"People don't worry about the right things," Damon said. "The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it's meaninglessness."

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