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."
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?
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."
Working hard for something they didn't choose themselves, and don't believe in, is counterproductive to long-term health and fulfillment. It is simply not sustainable. A purposeful life, by contrast, can unleash tremendous energy, creativity, exhilaration and a deep satisfaction with efforts and accomplishments, according to Damon.
Based on hundreds of surveys and in-depth interviews with adolescents nationwide, Damon has found that the vast majority of today's youth (about 80 percent) are not engaged in activities fueled by a clear sense of purpose. And despite the widely recognized importance of purpose in positive youth development, and especially in building the critical quality of resilience, Damon says purpose "remains a marginal concern" in many families and schools.
Damon is a strong advocate for bringing higher visibility to the concept of purpose, especially in the case of young people.
"We all need a purpose, but at that formative period of life, when you don't even know who you are, you really need it," he told the Weekly.
Finding purpose early builds confidence and habits of mind that can be practiced and strengthened with practice, contributing to a strong core, positive attitude and eagerness to learn about the world, according to Damon.
Purpose is something young people not only need, but want.
"It's impossible to work with young people and not see their yearning for purpose and relevance," said Becky Beacom, former Paly parent and manager for the Palo Alto health education division of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
Many local youth do manage to find purpose in activities they choose, whether it is in designing service projects, making films, playing a team sport, becoming active in their faith group, working on the robotics team, designing costumes for theater productions, playing in the jazz band, or studying science in order to pursue a vocation in that field.
A purposeful life is not a life without challenges, setbacks and difficulties. But if the activities make sense to the individual, the stresses encountered can contribute to positive growth and strength of character, according to Damon. All stress is not created equal, and with a sense of purpose, there are built-in protective factors against depression and a host of anxiety disorders.
"Hard times and stress and demands are not always negative things in development," Damon said.
"When kids have their own sense of purpose about what they're doing, they're in control of things. It's their agenda, they're owning it, and what we have found in our research is that kids who have a strong sense of purpose and find what they're doing is meaningful, those kids can be expending enormous amounts of energy, and taking on huge challenges and meeting all kinds of demands, and are quite serene about it, quite joyful about what they're doing," he said.
"What is too often missing -- not altogether absent but evident only in a minority of today's youth -- is the kind of wholehearted dedication to an activity or interest that stems from a serious purpose, a purpose that can give meaning and direction to life," Damon writes in "The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life."
If purpose is so important, what is it exactly? After extensive scholarly review and analysis, Damon and his team of researchers define it this way: "a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self."
"Purpose is a goal, but a particular kind of goal," Damon explained. Its attributes distinguish it from other goals: long-term stability, meaning to the self, intention to contribute to a larger community, and commitment to actions designed to accomplish the goal.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, Stanford's senior associate dean for religious life and a former Paly parent, describes purpose as an "internal compass" that serves both the self and the larger community -- it points a person to the places "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet," quoting from theologian Frederick Buechner.
Everyone is capable of finding purpose, according to Damon and others who have studied the concept. Palo Alto First Congregational Church Senior Pastor Dave Howell described the ingredients for purpose available to all: unique gifts each individual has to offer, the responsibility to share those gifts with the world, and the joy to be found in doing that.
Still many are living without purpose.
"They drift through life; they don't care; they're hedonistic; they're cynical; they're depressed," Damon said. But he is quick to add, even these people may find purpose eventually. "People can always learn and take charge of their lives."
Howell said the prevailing ethic in Palo Alto is often "if you can't be the best at something, don't do that." Instead he offers a different test: If you don't find joy, then go do something else.
"It isn't about being the best at something; it's about finding things that give you joy and meaning, and then your sense of purpose and who you are comes out," he said.
Most purposeful people have more than one purpose, according to Damon.
"What becomes primary depends on where you are in life, what you're working on, what is pressing at that given time," Damon said. Purpose also evolves as life stages and circumstances change.
A purpose can be noble without being heroic, according to Damon. It can be found in the day-to-day fabric of ordinary life.
"A mother caring for her child, a teacher instructing students, a doctor treating patients, a citizen campaigning for a candidate for the sake of improving the community, all are pursuing noble purposes. So, too, are the legions of ordinary people who dedicate time, care, effort and worldly goods to charity, to their friends and family, to their communities, to their faith, or to their responsibilities at work."
Hobbies may be of great personal value, but they are not purpose. They can turn into purpose only if a commitment is made to use that interest to accomplish something that benefits others, too. More than half of youth (ages 12-22) are what Damon calls "dreamers" and "dabblers," exploring ideas or activities that interest them. Many "eventually work their way to something more sustained and more directed" that becomes purpose. Often pursuing different passions or fascinations is a "transitional phase," characteristic of youthful investigation, on the road to purpose.
Finding purpose is closely linked to formation of self and identity. They build on each other in a hand-in-hand, organic process.
"Purpose and construction of identity absolutely play off each other, all the way through life. At one point in life, one will take the lead, and in another, the other will take the lead," Damon said.
"Very often when you think about who you are or who you want to be, that will help you define the kinds of purposes you will go searching for," he said. "At other times, it is the sense of purpose that galvanizes your personal strengths and makes it possible for you to develop that strong sense of self."
Damon's research has identified a sequence of steps that commonly occurs as youth develop a sense of purpose. According to this research, the very pursuit of purpose builds critical skills and capacities -- resourcefulness, persistence, know-how and tolerance of risk and setbacks -- that transform the young personality by increasing feelings of self-worth, self-efficacy, confidence and control.
Recent Paly grad Colin Marchon was drawn to movies at an early age. He found himself thinking like a filmmaker -- seeing a place or hearing a song and imagining how he might use it in a movie. By high school, he was fully committed.
"One reason it enveloped my life was that I chose this activity," he said. "I knew what I wanted to do and was supported in what I wanted to do."
That support -- from his parents, Paly video production teacher Ron Williamson and people he met through the local nonprofit Media Center -- was critical.
"It's not always easy to pursue art," he said.
While Marchon was "pretty laid back" about school generally, he said he was serious about his video classes and emotionally attached to his films. He endured 12-hour editing sessions and regular roller coaster phases of despising, then loving, his film-in-progress. He learned how important it was to plan ahead and shoot early in order to achieve high quality. He worked at the Media Center and enrolled in other film programs, all of which continued to build his skills and stoke his passions. He learned to have perspective on others' reactions to his films.
"Sometimes they wouldn't get my films, and sometimes they would love films I wasn't as proud of," he said. Whatever the reactions, "you need to love what you're doing and just keep doing it."
Marchon is now a freshman at New York University Film School.
For many youth, their path to purpose is not so obvious or found so early. It may require more time to search and sift. During this process, Damon believes strongly in the value of asking and reflecting on "why" questions. Why do young people go to school? Why has my teacher chosen her profession? Why are there rules against cheating? Why is this activity important in my life? Why is it good to be kind? What am I grateful for, and why? Why is it important to vote? Why am I doing community service? (And if it is to document hours for a college application: Is that a good reason? Is there a better reason?) Why do I want to go to college?
Damon encourages parents, teachers and other adults to engage youth in these types of conversations. Students bear out the wisdom of this in remembering and valuing teachers who initiated class discussions exploring the reasons for things.
"My (Paly) English class was fantastic because we discussed the ethical underpinnings of the stories, and kids were able to connect that with their personal lives," Bisset said.
In addition to addressing the "why" questions, Damon and other youth experts believe that young people need to be encouraged by caring adults to explore a variety of activities, pay attention to what interests them, risk and experience failure, take time for reflection and play, and do all this amid a wide landscape of equally valued life pathways. Over time, it is this engagement, and the reflection upon it, that will build a sense of purpose.
Yet often parents, well-intentioned but misguided, usurp this role.
"The most direct damage that 'helicopter' parenting does is that it takes ownership away from the child of the child's activities," Damon said. "Who is owning that sense of direction? The child is thinking: 'It's not me.'"
During high school years, many local youth focus their lives on securing admission to a top college and may think of this goal as their purpose. But building a resume for college is not a purpose, according to Damon and other youth experts interviewed by the Weekly. A top college is "really a status symbol more than it is an educational goal," Damon said. "That is not a functional way of looking at college -- it should be seen instead as a source of education."
Pastor Howell agrees: "Getting into college is not actually contributing to the world. It's what you learn and how you use that" that is the contribution.
"As far as education goes, the most important thing is the match with the student's interests," Damon said. "There are plenty of kids here (at Stanford) who are not getting as good an education as kids at much less prestigious places because they are not motivated, or they're not matched to what they find here. So, status is the wrong thing to be following."
"It's a little bit like saying your purpose is working to make as much money as possible. You can have that as a goal but that is not a noble purpose or a purpose that is going to lead to happiness," Damon said.
"Children must understand that money is a means to an end -- hopefully, a noble one -- rather than an end in itself," he writes.
Damon claims that true success requires a sense of meaning that "runs deeper than fame or fortune" and that without it, a "dispiriting sense of emptiness" prevails.
Madeline Levine, psychologist and co-founder of Stanford's Challenge Success (an organization concerned about students who compromise health, integrity and learning due to performance pressure) agrees: "Status, money, possessions, achievement, the school your child goes to, or the grades he gets, are not factors that contribute to the development of a healthy sense of self."
Deceptively, kids who perform well may appear purposeful, but in fact they may not be. Instead they may fall into the 31 percent Damon describes as "high activity, low purpose." This group often shows signs of negative stress; they are working hard but not in control of the agenda.
According to Damon, it's not that hard to discern the high achiever who lacks purpose.
"It's the 'why' questions that tell you," he said. Ask a top student why he wants to go to Harvard University, for example. If it is to please a parent, achieve a social status, look good, make a lot of money, attract girls, avoid shame -- these are not the kind of answers that indicate a deeper, intrinsic, life-sustaining purpose, Damon said.
Lythcott-Haims agrees: "There's no depth to their answers. ... Trying to help a high-achieving, low-purpose person figure out what to study, what path to pursue in college, which activities to undertake as opposed to which to not undertake ... when they come to you seeking guidance, they have so little sense of what drives them. And they look to what's practical, what's going to be materially rewarding, what's the resume builder, as opposed to 'I am fueled by a real passion for this.'"
This is not to say that purposeful activities do not involve ambitious goals.
"You need high expectations, but you need them for the right reasons. ... It means challenging yourself to do something really valuable. And making the most of your potential -- for the right reasons," Damon said.