01/31/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Kid President -- A Lesson in Courage, Compassion and Ultimately Identity

Have you seen the video from Kid President (♯kidpresident ♯awesomeyear)? No? Then you need to fire up your YouTube before you read further (find video here). His courage and compassion, as well as the fact that at so young an age he can leverage social media to formulate his opinions better than most people I know, is truly admirable. What makes it more so is the fact that he is fundraising for what I assume to be a very young friend with cancer.

The online community is a brilliant enabler for young people today to have a voice and share their world in a way never before possible. But there are downsides; they can end up being pushed and pulled in numerous directions on a daily basis. Outside of the online environment, the flow of information is so vast that teenagers feel judged, isolated and feel the desperate need to conform. True, this is not a new feeling, but the exposure to these opinions and pressures are exponentially more potent and public than in previous years (Walker-Smith says we've gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970s to as many as 5,000 a day today).

Our grandparents generation had time to breath, to learn and to listen to themselves, even to be bored, whereas today our life is filled with constant chatter. The philosopher Eckhart Tolle describes oneself and the link to continuous and often overwhelming narrative:

It is when we identify with this inner chatter, when we come to think of it as us -- that the thinking becomes compulsive... Not being able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction but we don't realise this because almost everybody is suffering from it. So it's considered normal.

As I near my 30s, I look back on my teen years, and my 20s so far, with incredibly fond memories. But I also found it extremely difficult to get over insecurity, self-confidence and self-esteem challenges. I was often unable to shut out the constant chatter and would place its significance above my own. I was a 'comparer' and I am only just now gaining enough confidence to share my own voice (this blog being case-in-point). Of course, not everyone will find they have the same challenges as me, but I think more can be done to support those who do -- the world is open -- physical and virtual boundaries are blurring. News from thousands of miles away is relayed in minutes, and travel is limitless.

So how do we help this generation wade through constant information, opinions and judgements to support them in growth of their own, very precious identity?

My thoughts:
  1. Be pertinent to this in the education system -- general studies, pastoral care, sports, science, IT classes -- they can play such an enormous part in helping young people identify what they believe within vast information channels, how to articulate this and to not be afraid of thinking differently from everyone else.
  2. Create specific collaboration forums online -- social media is brilliant at curating content, but it could expand further in supporting the creation of the content itself -- online forums to support bringing the individual narratives more to the fore and enabling more 'kid presidents' to articulate themselves.
  3. Continue to recognize the 'kid presidents' and do not patronize -- there is no reason why the game-changing ideas must come from people with years of experience in this world.

Finally, as a woman, I must pause. We have read and heard many times about the pressure on young girls to look and seem perfect. The anorexia, the magazines -- this must continue to be combatted, but I would like to focus momentarily on the mind. The use of Wikipedia is 50/50 men/women, and yet 91 percent of Wikipedia contributors are men. A McKinsey survey published in April found that 36 percent of male employees at major companies aspired to be top executives, compared with 18 percent of the women. A study of Carnegie Mellon M.B.A. graduates in 2003 found that 57 percent of the men, but only 7 percent of the women, tried to negotiate a higher initial salary offer. I am so proud that women now have more choice more of the time - mother, professional, wife, friend -- all or some, but I think communities can be created younger to help overcome what seems to be a universal recognition that women believe in themselves less and support them in defining their version of "you."

If I could make one recommendation from my own limited experience, it would be to be part of a community you are proud of. I am proud to be part of two women's leadership forums (DLD Women and 85 Broads). They are imperative at promoting and developing women from a women's point of view, and not just professionally. I think these forums (Women in Leadership, The Women's Leadership Network and numerous others) should open access to teenagers and college students. A certain quota of free places at conferences, events, dinners, online forums should be granted to teens and college students (and their chaperones if needed) and they should be given the opportunity to contribute as well as listen. I would have been truly grateful as a teenager to have been given access to women who had gone through that pivotal period of growth, come out the other side and were excited about helping guide the next generation to succeed, in whatever path they choose to take.