Full text of Laurence Lewars’ talk: Questions Every Teenager Needs to Be Asked at TEDxDhahranHighSchool conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Questions Every Teenager Needs to Be Asked by Laurence Lewars
No one really knows what the world is going to look like, 30, 20 or even 10 years from now.
If history repeats itself, which it usually does, one day someone will be examining the way we’ve chosen to construct our society and many of our social norms today, may just very well be ridiculous things of the past.
So I wanted to take a moment, observe our world, the society we’ve created and talk about it. What kind of things would you have to say?
Now, I would love to come up here and talk to you guys about religion or politics or music or sports. Sadly, I’m not an expert in any of those fields. Anyone who’s seen me take a jump shot, could tell you that.
Now, I’ve decided to analyze the world from the perspective of a teenager. I wanted to find one problem; one issue which you’ve dealt with correctly may just change the world. That’s a big job.
So where do I start?
I turn to a friend, a friend who has never let me down in the past. And as long as I can remember a friend who has always been right, I turned to Google and Google told me, well, I searched in Google biggest problems for teens.
And under second I was hit with over 16 million results. I was bombarded with articles ‘top problems teen face’ and ‘teenage hurdles’, ‘life as a teen’. I quickly found that things like self-esteem, self-belief and a lack of self-fulfillment were some of the larger issues.
Now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Teenagers can be insecure. But, one thing I found interesting was a lot of teenagers are too insecure to talk about their dreams. A lot of young people don’t feel comfortable talking about the person they aspire to be.
At first I didn’t understand, but I quickly remembered a conversation that I was having with my family at the breakfast table in London, one summer. My parents were discussing my stance towards school and I told them my GPA is fine. I take really rigorous courses and I have a nice looking transcript. The usual regurgitated responses.
They, however, felt that my issue wasn’t my production at school or the quality of my work. It was that I lacked the passion to be taking my courses, the ambition to like go to school. And I completely understood.
A big reason why I went to school like many teens was for AP credits and a good looking transcript. So at this point in the conversation, my father asked me, “What exactly do you see yourself doing 15 years from now?”
I gave him the same response I’d been giving since I was in the fifth grade- ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ But at this point my sister burst out laughing. What could possibly be so funny though?
I’ve said I was supposed to be a lawyer at least a hundred thousand times. Why was this time any different?
When she was able to get her breath back, my parents asked her what was up with the laughing and she replied, he’s too embarrassed to tell you he would rather be a rapper.
Now at this point my face went red. I’d never known my sister to embarrass me like that before. And the conversation went on. My dad continued and he asked me, okay, let me ask you a different question: “What would you be doing 15 years from now if you could do absolutely anything?”
I paused. No one had ever asked me that before. I didn’t know. For the most part I knew what I didn’t want to be, I didn’t want to be unhappy. I didn’t want to be struggling financially. And I guess I just wanted to feel a sense of significance.
I was really struggling to answer the question because I think we’ve all been asked what you want to do in the future. But that’s different than being completely hypothetically asked, what you would be doing if you could do absolutely anything.
So I started thinking about my significance and I didn’t want anyone else to tell me I was significant. I didn’t want my significance to be quantified through bank accounts or Facebook friends or degrees.
I just wanted to match my own definition of what it means to be significant and just reach the significance I dream of. Because in a world with 7 billion people, it can be kind of hard to make a name for yourself.
But I’m not the only one struggling with my dream, which brings me to the center of my talk.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that we live in a world in which it has become the norm for us to accept that one’s dream is unobtainable, unreasonable or unrealistic just off the basis that people said so.
But that is not a conclusion that came from my time on Google. No.
Over the past few months I’ve been conducting research to figure out what teenagers think about as far as goals, dreams, the future, the purpose of life.
What are we as individuals here to achieve?
So the first thing I had to do was establish an audience. I wanted my audience to be enriched with enough diversity to make my findings credible. I wanted people of different age groups, people who practiced different religions, people who not only came from different countries but were raised in different countries.
Eventually I was able to survey hundreds of teenagers from around the world. Okay, I had an audience. What kind of questions was I going to ask them?
I decided to start with the two questions that changed my whole mode of thinking, that one conversation at the breakfast table.
First, what do you see yourself doing 15 years from now?
8% of people didn’t know. 78% found themselves choosing one of three occupations. 78% felt that 15 years from now they were going to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. So what do I do? I jot down the names of all the lawyers because you never know when that’s going to come in handy.
No but seriously, my first reaction was 78%, three jobs? Really guys. But I quickly remembered since the fifth grade I myself said I was going to be a lawyer. I was in the fifth grade. I didn’t know anything about law, but when I said I wanted to be a lawyer, I got a good reaction from people. I felt good saying it. It seemed interesting. I knew I had to do was talking.
So why was this number so high with thousands of honorable professional jobs out there? Why did people feel that they needed to be one of three?
I believe it is because of the norms that society has created. We’ve put an emphasis on certain jobs and we as kids or young adults feel that we should, we should want these types of jobs for ourselves.
I remember when I was about seven or eight I came across this game and I love this game. It’s called, some of you may know it. It’s called ‘the game of life’. It was a recreation of the classical game of life and me and my cousins would play this all the time.
See, the reason I love this game, it’s not just because I always win. The reason I love it is because like life, your status in the game is always changing. Now, there’s tons of ways that you can win at the game, but the easiest is to have a lot of kids pay your debt off early in the game and save a lot of cash.
Now who can guess the three top paying jobs in the game of life? They were doctors, lawyers and engineers. Now that’s just one really small, really specific example, but you don’t need to play the same board games I did growing up to agree with me that society has put a large emphasis on what kind of jobs we should want for ourselves.
And that emphasis is created through the media, through education and through family.
So the second question I asked, it was the question that changed my mode of thinking. We’ve already established that 78% of the people felt they needed to occupy one of three jobs.
And what would you think, if I stood here today and I told you the majority of them would rather be doing something else.
The next question I asked was: What would you be doing 15 years from now if you could do absolutely anything?
I found that 78% of people ended up changing their answer.
Now I want to make this really clear. It’s not the same 78% that felt that they needed to occupy one of the three more popular jobs. It’s 78% of the original group.
For example, out of the 8% of the people who answered the first question, not knowing what they saw themselves doing, a lot of them were able to acknowledge for the second question, Oh that’s what I would want to be doing.
And out of the answers that stayed the same, the 22% whose answers stayed the same between the questions, the most common job was doctor. So I thought that was great.
People were saying, the thing I see myself doing 15 years from now is the one thing I want to be doing. So what do I do with that? I jot down the names of all the doctors because you never know when a good doctor might come in handy.
Now here’s why this is alarming. First we establish that we live in a society where people growing up feel they need to occupy one of three jobs in order to become successful. Then we establish that they’d rather be doing something else.
From a young age, they’re able to differentiate between what they want to do and what they see themselves doing. They’re able to come to the decision that this is the one thing I want to do in this world, but this is what I’m going to do. They’ve decided for whatever reason that one thing is unobtainable.
So with this in mind, I had a whole second set of questions I wanted to ask, but I didn’t put out a survey this time. I didn’t talk to hundreds and hundreds of kids. I wanted to be more involved, more personal.
So I literally went around the school for three days, laptop in my backpack. And I would stop people randomly, whether they were friends or strangers, I would see if they had a couple minutes before class to take my survey; had let me interview them.
So I began the interview, why do you go to school?
Now, I was hoping for to get an education, which element I got. This was pretty much said in all of the conversations. But one thing I was surprised to see that came up quite a bit was things like I’m forced to go and because I have to.
Okay, I continued. What do you want to do with your education?
So at this point everyone was giving me the same answers. There were tons of different answers that basically revolved around the idea that I need my education in order to become successful. But then success was defined by raising a family and having a lot of money, to each their own.
My next question, if this is what you believe to be success, raising a family and having a lot of money, you need education to do that, what is it that you would want your children to achieve?
I was hoping for answers like ‘I want my son to change the world.’ ‘I want my daughter to leave a mark on history.’ Those are not the answers I got. The most common thing that was said was ‘I want my child to be happy’, which is great.
But when asked more specifically, what do you want your child to achieve? I got answers like ‘I want my son to get a good education’ and ‘I want my daughter to make enough money for herself. I was starting to see a cycle, a really boring cycle.
So we live in a world where dreams take a back seat to job security and passion comes second to production. So are we living to live or are we living to clock out? Are we just repeating the cycle?
So with this in mind, I basically come to the conclusion that okay, kids all around the world had given up on their dreams and the only reason that we spent our entire youth attending a school was so that we could one day make enough money, retire and then teach our kids to do the same.
Great.This is all leaving me kind of upset. I told myself, come on Laurence, it’s not too late to do a talk about sports. The next day I got cut from my school’s basketball team. I decided, no, we’re sticking with this talk.
So at this point I had one more set of questions I was going to get the answers to. I put out another survey, this time completely anonymous. And from my survey there are two questions I really want to share with you guys today.
The first question: Do your parents know what your dream is?
56% checked the box indicating yes, which left 44% of these parents not knowing what their child’s dream was. Now 24% of the kids said ‘No, because my parents have never asked me. They’ve never shown an interest in my dreams.’
And the 20% felt that ‘no, because even though my parents have shown an interest, maybe they’ve asked me… they brought it up. I don’t feel comfortable talking to them about it.’
I found this very alarming. I hope, off the basis of my talk alone, these types of statistics could improve whether I’m interviewing hundreds of kids or I’m just talking to someone who lives in your households, have these conversations.
So then the next question I asked, in a world with 7 billion people, do you believe that you are significant?
43% of the people who took my survey felt- No. My life holds no significance.
Now the definition of what it means to be significant is different for every person. One person might say being significant is having the entire world know my name and when something happens to me, everyone knows.
While another person might say to be significant, you just need to be meaningful to two or three people, the people sitting at your table maybe.
The definition of significance varies between the individual, but that is not what you need to take into account when you look at this.
What you need to take into account is that people answering my questions are kids. Some as young as 14 starting their first year of high school freshmen. When did we get to the point where 14 year olds were giving up on their dream and deciding that my life was not significant?
This was all frankly depressing.
We live in a world where it’s not realistic to aim extremely high just to miss. That’s considered failure. It’s not smart to do that.
I for one believe you don’t fail when you aim high and you miss, you fail when you aim low and you hit. You fail your community. You fail your family and you fail yourself because from the young age of 14, when you have your entire life ahead of you, you come to the conclusion; you make the decision that you are not going to reach your full potential. You are not going to achieve what you could achieve.
We live in a world where instead of being that special one in a million, we’ve all heard the phrase before, that special one in a million. We sit back, we blend into the crowd of the other 7 billion.
TEDx is about ideas worth spreading. My, my idea, changing your mindset. What if we lived in a world where everyone believed they could be significant? What if we believed in a world where kids go to school because they want to go to school?
I for one, want to live in a world where if you ask my child, what’s the difference between your dreams and your goals?
He says, ‘nothing, because I’m young, I’m ambitious and I have my whole life ahead of me to achieve what I wish to achieve.’
To change our social norms, that would take a movement, a movement that requires all of us. It’s not hard. You just turn on a switch.
Don’t be so quick to doubt your neighbors. Don’t be so quick to doubt yourself and don’t be so quick to doubt your significance.
If there’s one thing I want my talk to achieve, it’s that I hope anyone watching this takes this into consideration and asks the questions I’ve asked today.
Have the conversations that I had at that one breakfast table in London, because you never know how significant that conversation just might be.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure.
Thank you so much.