Lessons From Summer Camp

How finding purpose can keep you out of trouble, and how to pull that off.

Posted Jun 13, 2017

For as long as I can remember I attended summer camp, and during that time color war was always my favorite part of the summer. We always knew it was coming, yet we were always surprised, and it was fun to be surprised.

Fake fire? Hunting accident? Missing camper? Racoon invasion? Bring. It. On. I recall the feeling of unity and competition in the air as each team pushed on, each camper finding their place and their way to support the “most winning team____.” It was fun. I would leave each summer with no voice left from all the shouting and singing, and my disposable camera filled with poor-quality pictures, many of them featuring the backs of other kids heads during the grand sing-along.

Yes, I was a bit shorter than the other kids, but I made up for it with my shouting and enthusiasm and ability to climb the sides of the stage to staple up the backdrops for the plays.

When I think back on what stood out the most to me about the experiences was the fact that for some period of my summer I was important. I had a mission. I was a critical part of something with the ability to contribute and make a difference. Sure it was just color war on some random campground, at some random camp in the middle of Canada, one that would never be remembered or noted by anyone but us, but for a moment our place in the world was defined and with it, our purpose.

When I meet teens and young adults, from many backgrounds and with a variety of struggles, one of the most common denominators is the lack of a sense of purpose and belonging. Our colleges are failing to hold the interest of our young people, and the increase in teens who opt out of college and young adults returning home midway is hard to ignore.

Figuring out what you want to do or be isn’t easy by any means. Who knew what they wanted to be at 6? 10? 14? Now? And if we all ended up where we imagined we would be at 6 years old, there would be a lot more firemen and astronauts than small-business owners and accountants. Though the process can take time, and there is no specific formula, here are some tips on how to get things started.

Start early.

I worked with a woman who began introducing her daughter to the medical field while still in diapers. She bought toy tongue depressors, stethoscopes, and nurse dress-up clothing, and she filled her playroom with doctor-inspired books and images. This is the reason (she adamantly claims) that her daughter is now in medical school. Go figure. The idea however is not a bad one, though perhaps not as intensely.

Providing outlets in a targeted and organized fashion (think: research ideas together, plan outings, take notes, and create homework or presentations) to various professionals, businesses, sports facilities, volunteer opportunities, locations etc. can be a mind-opening experience. It’s hard to know what you want to be if you don’t know what you can be, so increasing exposure also increases the odds of finding a good match. Exposure can start at a young age, but it’s never too late to start, especially If you want your couch back. Even in instances where the young people I am dealing with are struggling with intense issues such as depression, suicidality, drugs and the like, having an idea of, or potential for, a purpose can often be the catalyst for life-changing growth.

Be persistent.

Many times, the fear of failure becomes the failure itself, and often your teen or young adult is looking for you to give up on them so that they can finally give up on themselves. Part of life is learning to fall and get up, and then fall and get up again. We learn from our mistakes, and grow from our challenges, so make sure that you have the support you need to confidently cheer your young person on even if you want to punch through a wall. Remember that not everyone is cut out for everything, and there is no harm in trying to direct someone to a more achievable profession; however, be wary of “practicality” and appearing to push for “settling,” which is tantamount to giving up. If I had taken every practical step that was recommended to me, I would never have achieved what I truly felt I could have (and still can).

Be inventive.

Tackling a problem, and especially helping someone else tackle a problem takes patience (enough for two) and more importantly: creativity. As the saying goes: “Insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result.” Sometimes even trying to do something differently can drive you nuts.

It is important to realize that when focusing on an issue such as this, one can get lost in the effort and the challenges and frustration can cause you to be even more limited mentally, unable to see past the problem. At this juncture treating the endeavor like a project can be very helpful. Researching new ideas (Google, Pinterest, library) and innovative opportunities can really be helpful as well as can taking a “break” or stepping back for the purpose of refreshing.

Ask for help.

The good news is that for everything that you don’t know, there is usually a professional or experienced individual that does. Make use of your network and resources to provide various opportunities, insights and experiences for your teen or young adult, another voice or perspective, therapeutic support etc. Many people fear that by asking for help they are acknowledging failure yet this is further from the truth. It takes a village to raise a child, and the same applies to cultivating a future adult.