Friday, November 28, 2014


In a recent Huffington Post article, "The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager," Thacher School Headmaster, Michael Mulligan relays the status of teens today. On the one hand he extols them as "confident, connected, and open to change." They are service oriented, embrace diversity, and seek solutions to environmental problems. By reporting these facts one could interpret Mulligan's views on the Millennial Generation as happy, fulfilled and purposeful, yet Mulligan reports the opposite. He says, "We have raised a generation that is plagued with insecurity, anxiety and despair." He reiterates his point with evidence from former Yale professor William Deresiewicz' book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life who claims, "They are so stressed out, over pressured; [they exhibit] toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation." In reading such an alarming account of the emotional health of college students, one needs to ask why?

Deresiewicz points the finger at some parents and the way college age sons and daughters are raised with intense pressure to get into an elite college that will not only reflect well on the student's status, but the parents' status as well. Society plays a role in conditioning students to believe that everything they do is to look good in the eyes of admissions officers and employers. The pure joy of an intrinsic passion does not come into play if it does not serve the greater goal of getting into college or getting a job. Mulligan states, "You engage in community service not because you wish genuinely to make a positive difference in the lives of others but rather because that is how you burnish your resume -- service as check-off box," and this is just one example. There are many where intrinsic values are replaced by extrinsic ones. These points are all valid and true, but I’d like to elaborate further with the ways technology plays into these students’ emotional and mental states.

In a study at Baylor University, 60% of the students self-diagnosed themselves as addicted to their cell phones. Research shows that an overuse or addiction to technology can cause the same "stressed out, over pressured" student who may "exhibit toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation." There are many specific ways the Internet, social media, and dependence on digital devices contribute to these unhealthy moods.

A little known physical fact is that 80% of us hold our breath when we check email. Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft Research coined the phrase email apnea when she researched and found that people inhale when they check email, but in the anticipation of what is to come, they neglect to exhale. Without the exhale our bodies shift into a high alert state of fight, flight or freeze. If one thinks about the Baylor Study findings that college women spend 10 hours a day on their cell phones and men 8 hours, it means that college age Millennials are walking around in a state of non-breathing anticipation with an alert and frightened sympathetic nervous system. These physical conditions create anxiety and fear which is only augmented by Deresiewicz' findings.

There are other reasons for anxiety including Nomophobia - No Mobile Phone Phobia. Depression can be caused by Facebook and Instagram with a false reality that one's friends are happier and more popular than one based on the number of pictures tagged and posts liked. Aimlessness and lack of motivation can be blamed on the seductive and addictive nature of video games that are designed to entrap the user in a flood of dopamine hits, thus making it more difficult to put the game aside and complete schoolwork or go to a part time job. There are more statistics found in other entries in this blog.

Now with the problem identified, what are the solutions? In essence we can go back to 1854 with Thoreau's words, "Men have become the tools of their tools." In today's world, "Don't be the tools of your tools," can be transformed to "Don't let technology distract you and use you to your detriment. Use technology mindfully for the good."Thoreau also said, "Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves," and today's youth is lost. Not only from what I've read in the article, but also from what I've personally seen with my own daughters and their classmates. Many of today's youth are either dissatisfied in college, or taking a break because it's not only unfulfilling, it's causing depression and anxiety in pandemic proportions.

Teens are unhappy, and we've identified some of the reasons why, so now what? If today's teens are lost, then perhaps they need to go on a modern Hero's Quest and ask the existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Michael Mulligan asks similar questions. The first one, "Who tells us who we are?" can be seen from the extrinsic with the college admission process, employers, Facebook, Instagram, and fashion designers to name a few. What would happen if students went on their own Odyssey and ideally came to know themselves through intrinsic interest and experience, similarly to T.S. Eliot's famous lines, "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." What if we taught passion to purpose as a curriculum, and then once they knew a purpose, they could begin to think creatively about that purpose and move from idea to impact? What if we asked them how do you want to serve your world? And we want to know how it connects to your authenticity, your desire, and your compassion for humanity.

Howard Thurman states it a little differently, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive," and if one says, "I don't know what makes me come alive," then that is the first obstacle in the Homerian journey. The mission is to discover what you love to do. Discover your desires and passions. Then you test it out with purpose. You create a direction and a discipline to move from idea to impact, and ultimately you find meaning.

ABC Legacy’s Mission is to prepare today's Millennials and eventually Generation Z for the promises and challenges of an increasingly interconnected technological world including the dangers of technology addiction. With a “Power Down to Power Up" process that takes students from presence to passion to purpose, and then idea to impact, the Incubator provides the physical space for an "In the Gap" year program. Participants come to be inspired, focused and effective through technology awareness, mindfulness practices and entrepreneurial skills as they work directly with mentors to create their own social change initiatives. ABC Legacy is committed to lighting candles in the minds of the future leaders of the world and helping them ignite a positive collaborate impact on society.

"Power Down to Power Up" is the process  for ABC Legacy’s In the Gap program which is designed to be housed  within a thriving Innovation Center like the Bradford Mill in Concord, MA. Students spend 12 weeks taking frequent intermittent breaks from technology to practice mindfulness in order to synthesize and create new ideas, collaborate and plan to use technology mindfully. Through this process they learn an entrepreneurial curriculum similar to African Leadership Academy's to create social and environmental initiatives whether it be a TED talk, a computer language, a company, or a social impact project. The possibilities are endless once these college age millennials "come alive." There are Millennials who are thriving, and the question is, "What was their process?" 

The African Leadership Academy takes the best and the brightest students from all countries in Africa with the mission to create the new leaders of Africa. These students are thriving. They go to universities and colleges around the world and commit to entrepreneurial projects in their home countries. What can we learn from this model? Can we do the same for our schools in the U.S? Maybe some are, and I plan to seek them out, or I will go learn the curriculum at African Leadership Academy, following one of my own passions - South Africa.

In closing, I loop around to the beginning of this article. What happens when depressed and anxious teens seek passion and purpose to make a difference in the world, or in TS Eliot's words, "to Dare to Disturb their Universe?" I claim they find meaningfulness.  I end with, perhaps, a little known fact about the great spiritual philosopher William James. As a young man, William James went to Paris to study. He was extremely depressed and became suicidal, but he decided to make a wager suggested by a French philosopher. He would act every day for a moment as if the universe was full of purpose and meaning. At the end of this period, he had discovered so much meaning and purpose that he changed his life around. Thus, Presence + Passion + Purpose = Meaning.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

ABC Legacy Links with TextLess Live More

In 1997 I created ABC Legacy: Atoms to Bits Children’s Legacy where children and their families use the Internet to learn about other cultures, events, and problems around the globe, and then use technology to connect and collaborate to care and make a difference. At this point it was merely a concept. 17 years later, I’ve come back to actually creating ABC Legacy: Alliance for Building Connections to Change and Alumni Building Connections for Change.

I'm circling back to a passion I've had since my very first days of teaching at The Fenn School. At times I wondered why a women's history major focused on social justice was teaching at a predominately white, all boys middle school, and not a coed high school or inner city school. My dad helped me immensely when he said, "Your contribution comes from "lighting candles in the minds of the future leaders of the world." So that's what I did. I included women's and social justice history about change agents including Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, and the pro-democrayc students of Tienanmen Square. With these role models I urged my students to move from an idea for social good to real life impact, and many of my former students are doing just that. My dad's directive calmed my angst, and it has been my mission in some form or other for the last 28 years. Over the last month, I've been working with Millennials and professional peers to develop a program that teaches technology awareness within a larger framework. I'm creating a learning/working environment and process/curriculum that inspires social innovation.

In order to do this, there are some questions to ask about the role technology plays in this mission.
  1. How can we use technology mindfully rather than letting it use us mindlessly.
  2. How can we harness the infinite power of this tool to create positive impact and live our legacy in the world, now?
  3. What if we focused on leaving a positive digital footprint rather than trying to prevent a negative one?
These are all questions I ask as I unfold a model for a Millennial Incubator located at The Wheelhouse on Bradford Street in Concord, MA. The very Wheelhouse I pre-marketed before it existed four years ago. It's almost as if it was part of the plan that together with professional mentors in the education, social innovation and technology fields from Wheelhouse and fellow alumni, college interns and high school students learn the dangers of technology addiction and apply mindfulness practices in order to actualize their social impact missions and legacies.

But how did I get here? I’ve learned quite a bit since my visit to San Francisco and the Wisdom 2.0 Conference February 14 to 16, 2014. Through amazing synchronicity and connections, my blog entries about TextLess Live More on July 3 as well as September 19 has had a deeper significance. When I went to the Kick-Off Assembly for TextLess Live More at Milton Academy on October 6, I met Merritt Levitan’s parents Anna and Rich afterwards and we discussed our collective visions for the Millennial Generation and their use of technology as well as how to foster real engagement interactions.

The Millennial Generation ideally wants to use technology for social good and not let it use them, not let it cause them mindless distraction. Many of the teens and 20 year olds are more worried about the younger children and tweens, the iPad generation. From these discussions with Anna and Rich, as well as some of the young founders of TextLess Live More, students now at Harvard, Stanford, BC, Tufts and others, there are thoughts on the future of TLLM. The hope is that the number of schools participating will expand from 50 to 500 by the end of 2015, and one million people will be wearing the blue bracelets. I’ve found that when I wear the bracelet on my right wrist it is an extremely effective deterrent to picking up my phone while driving. It helps me resist the impulse to make a phone call, switch the song, or read a text.

My Teens and Technology blog that was also called Mindful Media Musings actually started out with the title: Confessions of a Tech Addicted Yogi, but I was too embarrassed that a yoga teacher, trained in mindfulness practice, had fallen victim to this ubiquitous distraction addiction. This blog includes the study of technology addiction in addition to mindfulness practices as ways to counter problematic technology habits, and it's almost as if the blog is a directive to myself. I am aware of the seductive and addictive nature of my digital devices, but awareness isn’t enough.

Often times it takes a Digital Detox or Tech Recess to recalibrate and re-align one’s intentions and mental clarity for a more mindful use of technology. TextLess Live More days, the first Monday of every month, are a wonderful way to take a tech break, become aware of habits, and engage with others who are also spending the day unplugged.

Tomorrow, November 3 is the second TLLM Day this year, and 174 people have joined the FB promoted “Turn off for What? CCHS TextLess Live More Day.” Join a community of over 50 schools, including students and adults in the CCHS community, by turning off your phone and living more mindfully, more like Merritt Levitan, more real, more engaged, and more present! I look forward to following up with comments and reactions from a CCHS student survey after tomorrow.

Tomorrow I'm going to start Oprah and Deepak's 21 Day Meditation Challenge, take a walk to Egg Rock, even if it's inclimate weather, and create a creative collage of tree images that remind me to stay deeply rooted to the earth.

What are you going to do on your digital free day?