The Spark to Jumpstart Our Economy

William Damon’s book, "The Path to Purpose" is not yet on my bookshelf but in the meantime I read an article on the books key findinds in Education Week (June 11, 2008), "Majority of Youths Found To Lack Direction in Life." It seems that Damon’s findings point to one fifth of survey participants as having a "spark" or a purpose. In other words, 20% of our youth felt passionately about something, had been involved in the community, had an idea of what they wanted to do in life and were committed to leading productive lives. The downside is that 80% of our youth are either "disengaged" from their communities, unfocused or dreamers.

Debrah Viadero’s article on Damon’s book goes on to quote a Harvard professor of Psychology who adds "My own impression is taht, partiularly in the 21t century, many young people have extreme difficulty in ‘identifying’ (in the psychological sense) with their elders, and this makes the spark to which Damon refers more elusive." Viadero explains that both the Harvard professor and Damon agree that 9/11 and the constant display of heroes that fall from grace to land in infamy makes it more difficult for our youth to find a purpose.

Having lived in many cities, befriended entrepreneurs and started my own company almost a decade ago, I am convinced that the spark that drives economies lies in the people who are convinced that they can each add value to the world around them. The idea of having 80% of our youth unfocused or disengaged sounds like a human resources challenge for private industry and government social policy.  Welfare, social security, and all the other social programs need a vibrant economy where sparks abound and the productivity of many makes it possible to ensure care for all.  How can we reignite our youth and jumpstart our economy?


I believe the the failure to find a purpose is also inextricably tied to absence of stories and examples of passion and commitment. It may sound like I am vouching for romance novels but no, that is not the passion of which I speak. Passion is in many ways interchangeable with purpose. It is a driving force that makes you wake up and get where you are going. Though purpose may drive you to a goal, passion drives you to excellence. But excellence requires commitment and I see all around me a growing inability to commit.

Commitment has been deemed foolish. Foolish for business leaders to be limited by it, foolish for employees to give to management who does not value it. Somewhere in the 80s profitability took the place of commitment as the key to dignity and success. Social and material capital have been linked in so many success stories that the lesson we have passed on is "have some (if you cant make it) get some then you made it."  Our star class CEOs are those who focused on the bottom line, those who excelled in the numbers game. They became the heroes of Business school text book stories. The aftermath was divorced from the math to get the ideal bottom line. Somewhere in the 90s a generation of employees who had committed their productive years to a company woke up to find themselves written out before retirement. The lesson learned commitment is foolish.

What stories of success do the youth have? Sports stars, music stars,  Hollywood  royalty. Quick rises, sacrificing much of their personal life for fame.  And yet their life in infamy is still "cool" if they get the press and have the money.  At age 9, girls who enjoyed Hannah Montana had to learn about the pressures to be sexy in order to be successful. Miley Cirus might have been 15, but her lesson became the lesson to 9 year olds and younger. Jamie Lynn Spears may have been another teenage pregnancy but her tv fans were also 8-10 year olds. Both budding stars are the stories and examples our girls learn. These are stories that fill and entertain our children’s life.

Is the TV our only story teller? If so, the values, relations, and logic however we may think are unreal and flawed become the uncontested truth. If there are no stories, no examples, of commitment and passion then there are no lessons for the new generation to learn.  

The falls of heroes are not new but our youth should not have to look so far to find examples of  success or lives to follow.  We need to arm our children with values and critical thinking, self awareness and individual social responsibility. Our children look up to these "stars" in part because there is a bigger absence at home and in the institutions. In our current economy an average house subsistence requires dual income. Single parents have a tall bill to pay with one or two jobs. The practical result is parents divorcing from parenting, because time is money. The vast majority of children are "institutionalized" with systematic generic care is no longer 3 years of age but 3 months. Most of their living hours shaped by peers alienating them from other generations.

Are we explaining to our children the value of commitment, do we share with them our struggles? Our silence as parents gives validity to the many rational explanations and negotiation strategies kids design to understand the world around them.  What stories and examples do our kids get? What may seem illogical to us can very well become the obvious truth to our kids if there is no early discussion providing alternate explanations, different values and a logical path.

Passion, commitment, openness, innovation, hope, determination are all key values in the generation of capital-meaning the raw material and not necessarily cash- that moves economies. How do we get the spark into the next generation? Write the stories, talk about the lessons learned in life, teach by example and engage the next generation. The spark has to be nurtured, cultivated day by day. The sacrifices of parents should be clear to their children- not hidden. Sharing imperfection and need allows serves as the invitation to help and work together. "See a need, fill a need." If I don’t see the pain, if I don’t understand the sacrifice I cannot value it or learn from it. The goal is to reveal the underlying love and commitment alongside the frustration, anger or sadness. Knowing the complicated face of these emotions empowers are children to think and dream of change. hope for more starting with a solid support structure of commitment, openness and love.

But I am not advocating solely for parents with children, we have a slew of youths that have hit rock bottom and are open to change. Time is of the essence. Whose time? Ours and theirs. Reach out and get them to think of their passions, show them the face of a society that cares. Reveal to them imperfect difficult lives, get them to rethink their heroes and their sacrifices around them.  Give them the tools to see the world differently and discover their passion. Mentor a youth today and engage your own kids early, it is up to us to keep the fire alive and ensure the spark is not diminished. The call to action is here within the reach of most of us: through mentoring and parenting we become agents of economic development nurturing the spark that creates capital and the commitment to excellence that gives way to sustainability.