We teach children from a young age that passion is the greatest motivator; it makes us jump out of bed, energizes us better than a pot of coffee and guides our goals in life. This special trait comes with certain restrictions, though. Passion comes from an authentic desire within, and cannot be assigned or artificially created out of thin air.

Is it any wonder then, that teenagers are feeling pressure to find their true calling at an early age? 85% of teens report feeling stressed, most commonly due to academic pressures, according to an Associated Press/MTV survey. These high school students say they feel tremendous pressure to get into a good university, but few can envision what they’ll want to do after graduating. Rather than being motivated by a passion, they are driven by competition and conventional beliefs that college will lead to well-paying jobs.

Patty Leeper, a professional coach who holds a Master’s in Counseling and Career Development, often hears a common frustration shared by parents in her San Francisco suburb: the definition of success today is far too narrow, creating an extraordinary sense of pressure without perspective.

Leeper decided to take action when she discovered that her niece, a high-school sophomore, was taking the same mediocre vocational assessment that she herself took over thirty years ago. Surprised that her industry had advanced so little, Leeper started her own project, called The Purpose Program.

Inspired by the work of William Damon, Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, The Purpose Program helps teens identify interests and skills and figure out how they can be applied to the real world. Through careful reflection and several weeks of group work, students learn the distinction between outside pressure and internal sense of purpose

“Our children’s lives would be richer and more fulfilling if they felt pulled by something meaningful—not pushed externally by their peers, society, and parents,” says Leeper. Students need help learning that the talents they are born with are enough. “Like Dorothy had ruby slippers, teens have what they need to get where they want, but they just don’t always know it.”

Can Leeper’s philosophy inspire your own children? Here are some of her purpose-building tactics.

  1. Help your child find the interests, qualities, characteristics, and skills he or she brings to the world. Students in The Purpose Program tell personal success stories and write down words that express each other’s strengths, like “friendly,” “good at math,” and “good cook” to remind each other where their natural talents and interests lie. Leeper recommends Dr. Peter Benson's book, Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenager as a good reference for this activity.
  2. Reinforce to your teen the importance of finding the things they are passionate about. A great way to approach this discussion is by sitting down with your teen and watching "Roadtrip Nation", a PBS series featuring college students who travel the country and interview successful people. From Senators and CEOs to artists and fishermen, the featured individuals all say that the pursuit of a passion is far more important than going to the “right” college. The creators of the show, four friends who met during college, agree: “Our philosophy is that when we listen to ourselves and are honest about who we are and what we love, we are able to seek our own path and contribute to the world with our unique talents.”
  3. Provide a practical, concrete reminder of what your teen loves by creating a vision board. Sit down together and find pictures, drawings and photos that match the talents and qualities your child has. Kids are encouraged to follow their attractions to phrases and images that matter to them, even if they aren’t obvious.
  4. Ask others to review the vision boards independently and then brainstorm a list of ideas that relate to the words. These can be activities, summer jobs, college majors and careers that suit the student. This shows children what the outside world sees in the boards.
  5. Offer ongoing support and ideas to fuel the conversation, and encourage your child and her friends to share in the discovery of each other's interests. “Facebook is great for this,” she says Leeper.” “It’s really the only way to communicate if you’re working with teens.”

Leeper says she has received positive feedback from many of her students. “I have more self-confidence and a sense of direction. My decisions are motivated by what I like to do. Strive for what makes you happy, and do what you love in life,” says one student who completed The Purpose Program.

Despite the rave reviews, Leeper sees challenges in her program. She knows that it’s hard for teens to take time out of their day for one more commitment. However, the peer interaction it provides is invaluable because they don’t always open up and share insights with adults.

She also acknowledges many parents are nervous that the idea of "following your bliss" will hinder the chances of their children finding jobs in the future. But Leeper encourages her students to think pragmatically, and points to evidence that following an interest and being employable are not mutually exclusive. It takes all kinds of jobs to make the world work, and people can make a living in many creative ways.

“Help your child find her essence, and advocate for her sparks,” she says. This way, you’ll help her find a genuine sense of purpose that will keep her afloat through the storms of high school pressure and life beyond.

Have a questions or comment about The Purpose Program? Contact Patty Leeper.