How do we teach and fundamentally integrate purpose?

What are the language, metaphors, tools, curriculum, and programs needed?


What if…

every aspect of high school was designed with the intent of teaching young people how to seek and develop a sense of individual purpose, not absorb a standard body of knowledge?

What if…

skills and traits like resilience, grit, independent decision-making, and curiosity were as prized as problem-solving ability, writing skills, and excellence in test-taking?

What if…

students could calmly and confidently navigate their learning journey and future path through the world like Polynesian wayfinders?


Bill Damon, professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and Director of the Stanford Center for Adolescence, has been researching the formation of purpose in youth for years. Based off of his work, we came up with this diagram to help students think about purpose:

Using the above diagram, we like to think about purpose using Damon’s definition:

“Purpose is 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.”
— Bill Damon, "The Path to Purpose"

shifting the landscape

In The Path to Purpose, Damon describes four broad categories of youth in the realm of purpose development:  the disengaged, the dreamers, the dabblers, and the purposeful.  

  • The disengaged are students who express no purpose at all, and are not active in any endeavor that might turn into a purposeful pursuit.  
  • The dreamers are those who express ideas about a purpose they’d like to have, but who have done very little to try out any of their ideas. 
  • The dabblers are those who have engaged in activities that appear to be purposeful, but show little awareness of the meaning of these activities beyond the present.  They often skip from one activity to the next without any coherent sense of what they wish to accomplish in their lives.  
  • 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’re trying to accomplish in the world and why.

Statistically, most kids are not in the “purposeful” quadrant… but what if high school was known for shifting for kids there?

design experiments

Take a look at our past and upcoming prototypes, and then share your comments, questions and ideas below! Interested in joining us on our journey of prototyping?  


// March 21-25, 2016

ISAK Project Week + Project Wayfinder

We are heading to the International School of Asia, Karuizawa (ISAK) in March to lead a weeklong workshop with their 50 sophomore students to test what tools and curricular experiences help students develop a sense of purpose.

We have designed the week so that we will touch on at least one tool or activity in each of the 4 Wayfinder “Ways” of the wayfinder ecosystem:   1.) exploration, 2.) reflection, 3.) insights, and 4.) support.  

For example, students will select and complete a “purpose-provoking” activity from a Wayfinder Guidebook that we’ve designed. We think the 2 key ingredients of these types of activities is exposure (to needs in the world, skills people can learn/use, and purpose-filled people) and experience.  

As another example, students will systematically think about how to map out and construct a personal community of support (thanks to a nifty tool developed by our friends at the Experience Institute), and then customize a set of tools that allows their mentors to help them celebrate failure experiences and be a safety net for students. 


// March 2, 2016

Wayfinder ‘Ways’ / 4 Corners Activity with High Schoolers from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

This is a quick intro activity we’ve designed as way for students to engage with the 4 Wayfinder “Ways.”  The page is set up to do a little self-reflection around the wayfinder practices.  Experiences (in the East) are like the sun rising, and Reflection (in the West) is like the sun setting… they are a regular, complementary cycle of intentionally and purposefully navigating through the world.  The Insights (to the North) are what rise to the top out of this ongoing cycle.  The network of Support (to the South) is the foundation upon which everything rests.

// October - November 2015

Hoops vs. Savannah

We designed this set of activities to do with students during ethnographic interviews as a way to get a glimpse into what degree of purposefulness students had.  


The first part of the activity involved physically mapping out all of the “hoops” students felt required/expected to jump through.  The second part of the activity involved asking students to imagine a “hoopless” world where they were completely free to chart their own path, and then explain to us what they would do (students definitely struggled with this part).

Although we used this exercise as an empathy probe, it was also a valuable self-reflection exercise for the students.


// October 5, 2015

Purpose Exercises in a Small Group

Over the course of 2 hours we facilitated a small group discussion with four students using these worksheets interspersed with micro-teaching moments by Patrick.  This was an early prototype to begin to explore how to navigate a fairly weighty topic, and also to get a sense of how students reacted to having a conversation on a different level than they’re usually accustomed to.

Feeling inspired?  Journey with us as we scale prototypes this spring.  

Comments, ideas, feedback are all welcome below.

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