A case for personal projects, finding meaning and a reason to step out of character

What do fifteen-year-olds wear? What do they care about? What do they think about? What worries them? What excites them? My mind was buzzing as I was reading articles online, searching for podcasts talking about the book “The Teenage Brain”, which I knew was about the subject but had never read.

Teenagers are different, they think in a different manner. I used to be one not too long ago, but somehow I found it hard to remember. I sat down quietly, closed my eyes and tried to rummage the corners of my mind for clues luring in hidden memories. The quest made me feel jittery. Trying to remember what it felt like to be fifteen was tiring. All those worries about who likes you and who doesn’t, the immense need of being accepted, being seen. The relief of being overlooked, as it was better than feeling unapproved.

Photo by Ben Weber on Unsplash

I opened my eyes, took a deep breath and started planning what to wear and how much makeup to put on. A black college sweater with bold white text on the sleeves, a number “89” on the back, black jeans and boots. Ponytail, which is my signature look anyway, it will make me feel comfortable, and relatable.

What am I going to say? How can I reach them? I wrote down notes throughout the days prior, ideas would hit me at any given time of day. It was on my mind constantly. How can I reach them? What should I say? I didn’t feel distracted, I felt focused. This wasn’t about me, it was more important than that. Eventually, I had a number of stories prepared, but no clear plan. I was okay with that.

We were three girls from the Eaing Disorder Association. An association consisting of a group of recovered volunteers who help others who struggle with eating disorders. A while back we had been contacted by a teacher in junior high. She asked us if we would be able to come and speak to the 10th graders. Initially, I was coming along to watch, I wanted to support them the other girls and see how they would handle a talk like that. It was the furthest thing from my mind that I would perform a talk myself. Yet, somehow, when the question was brought up, only a few days earlier, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

We met up well in advance. Checked that the sound system and the overhead projector worked. We were all set. The auditorium started filling up. Close to a hundred teenagers were filling up the seats facing the stage. The large room was dark, and the lights were on us. We looked out at the kids waiting for them to settle down. They talking, joking and laughing. One of the teachers came up in front of them and told them to quiet down. The talking turned into low muffling. That was our que.

One of the other girls walked out on stage. Ahe started talking about who we were, the definition of various terms, then about what we were doing as an association and finally sharing from her own experiences. Suddenly it was my turn. It was my turn to share. I stepped on stage, the lights were bright on my face and could almost make out all the people sitting in front of me. As I started talking an absolute silence went through the room. I walked back and forth, gesticulated with both hands, choking some tears at one point while my lips were trembling profusely. When the boy on the front row exclaimed “Uugh” I laughed and said “haha, yeah, you right, it was pretty nasty”, while I thought I am not talking to you today, there is somebody else in this room I need to reach. I was serious about the subject, but tried to share lightheartedly.

After an hour and a half had gone all three of us had been on stage. I felt like I could have been more prepared, but considering it was my first time doing anything like it, I was content. The lights filled the whole room and the spectators were leaving. One of the boys came down one of the aisles to talk to us. After a bit, he said, “thank you”. I rushed to give him a hug before he left, I have not before, nor since heard a more sincere thank you.

It was through this experience I learn about the importance and the effect of having a deeply meaningful “personal project”. We are all able to behave out of character when we are motivated by an important and meaningful personal goal. For me, it was reaching that one youth in the auditorium who might be struggling in a similar way as me and telling them that they can and will find a way out. Now, you might be curious, what was out of character for me. Taking an interest in my clothes and appearance to make sure I was relatable is not something I normally care to do. Applying my makeup to fit in among the kids, is not something I would ever care to do. Considering walking out on a stage to talk in front of a large group of people, is highly out of character for me, and would usually make me fantasize about getting a serious injury, leaving me in a hospital bed not able to attend my own speech.

This post was inspired by the episode “Why The Science of Trait Psychology May Just Predict Everything In Your Life with Dr. Brian R. Little” on “The Science of Success” podcast. I was recently asked if I knew any good podcasts on personal development, and this was the podcast I recommended. I would recommend it to any designer or entrepreneurs who is in the field of improving other peoples lives as well, as it offers a lot of information on the workings of humans, and how we make sense of and attribute meaning to our own lives.

If you’d rather read some more about “personal projects”, you might find this article interesting: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170131-the-secret-to-living-a-meaningful-life