Early September can be a significant time of the year for youth and young adults, as well as their parents. Some are starting grade 12 and looking into the future, others are experiencing life after high school and its freedoms and challenges for the first time, and still others are settling into a new school routine, whatever the grade level. My own children are in kindergarten this year (yes, they are twins) and loving the plethora of new friends and activities that are greeting them each day in their new classroom. September indeed often presents an opportunity for new growth, but it can also create frustration, depression, and even anger for many young people.

One of my favourite scenes in a movie comes from an old classic of the late 1960’s – The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman. Benjamin Braddock, the film’s main character, arrives home after graduating from college but nonetheless feels no degree of urgency in seeking a job, further schooling, or any other “normal” course of action one might expect upon earning a college degree. His parents and their friends enthusiastically badger him about his plans, and receive few indications in return about what those might be. A key moment emerges when his father starts to show impatience at his son’s apparent lack of direction:

Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?


Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.


Mr. Braddock: Why?


Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.


Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?


Benjamin: No.


Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?


Benjamin: You got me.

So what was missing from Benjamin’s reply? Two important elements that are an essential part of the health and happiness of every youth and young adult: purpose and mastery. Notice I did not list “passion” as one of the two elements, which is a common refrain! Benjamin was not able to give any clue as to what his sense of purpose in life was, which ultimately creates a reason for living and moving forward in clear, intentional ways. Mastery refers to being adept at a particular skill, or put very simply, something one is good at. In aboriginal traditions, mastery was one of the most treasured elements a person could have, and it was recognized that its presence in a person was an indicator any individual’s health and happiness.

Just as Benjamin was unable or unwilling to list anything he was good at OR that gave him a sense of purpose in his life, our own teens and young adults can easily experience periods where they are similarly “drifting”. This can come across through depression, anxiety, or even through a simple reluctance to leave one’s home and connect with peers. Such a time is not without purpose itself, because it can actually be signaling something critical for those important people in his/her life to hear, as long as we are prepared to understand the signal. The message of this signal? I feel stuck in my current existence, and unless something changes, I will not be happy or healthy. Period.

Does the sense of “drifting” describe any youth or young adults you know? No doubt it can be incredibly frustrating to experience, particularly when questions about and suggestions of career and school possibilities do not result in productive conversation. The good news is that almost nobody is satisfied and healthy for long without a clear sense of purpose or mastery, or with a direction that may lead there. This is especially true when one’s peers with purpose and a strong sense of their unique personal strengths continue in their own directions, eventually leaving those without similar degrees of focus behind. The result is an opportunity to help a young person move forward in significant ways, at a time when they are often more open than ever to exploring change. In next week’s column, I will share methods to create essential, direction-finding conversations with someone struggling to find their way, and making the most of this opportunity.