Today is different. Unlike so many Sunday mornings, when I awaken and visit the back porch or the dock with my steaming hot java, this morning my view is of a small room with gray walls decorated by black-and-white photographs. I’m sitting in a swivel chair, surrounded by a microwave, a phone, a television, and a little two-cup machine to make my coffee. My teen boys sleep deeply, one in one of the two double beds, one on the pull-out couch. The sound of my fingers on the keyboard does not seem to be enough to awaken them.

Today, soon after they awaken, we’ll leave this small-town motel, make our way to the Tsongas Center at UMass (University of Massachusetts) in Lowell, about an hour outside of Boston. We’re here for the Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders.

A Giant Room of Brilliant Kids

Imagine, if you will, a hockey rink packed with thousands of high school students, all from different walks of life, different communities, and different schools. Yet they all have two things in common: they have some of the highest grade-point averages in their schools, and they want to be in science or technology. This annual by-invitation-only Congress was designed by the visionary Richard Rossi, head of the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists (who also designed another event held earlier in the week, for future medical professionals). It was created to keep these kids interested in science, to expose them to the greatest living scientific minds, to inspire them, and to help them learn and be exposed to high levels of thinking.

Driven to Change the World

One of the benefits of being a dad, in this case, is the chance to see who is in charge of our science and technology future — and it’s been comforting. This week I’ve watched speakers who are in or just out of high school and who have already invented things that have changed the world. Things like medical tests and robotic breakthroughs. I’m seeing thousands of kids who are driven to change the world, and I’m confident they will. And I’m able to watch some of the greatest minds in the world speaking to these kids, and have had a chance to meet most of them.

This is our third year at this event, and it’s become a bit of a family tradition for the Rhoads boys. Last year my dad came with us as well.

Great Minds

I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the future, so I love events like this. Great minds are so rare, and so much fun to listen to. And after listening to 30 or 40 speakers over three days, you start to see patterns emerge, and new ideas in your own mind. I first learned this concept when I would attend the early TED conferences as a sponsor, and later when Google invited me to attend a private event with 400 of the greatest minds in the world. I’m still not exactly sure how I got on the invitation list, but it was a treat to be around the most brilliant people I’ve ever encountered.

Just Like You and Me

What I learned there and am reminded of here is that these people are very rare air; they think differently, and they approach life differently. But in other ways they are just like us. They put their pants on one leg at a time. They have the same doubts, the same insecurities, the same issues and family challenges. Some of them aren’t any smarter, but they possess an incredible work ethic to pursue their dreams and ideas. These people did not have anything handed to them, but they have something in common … passion combined with determination to follow through on their big ideas, and a refusal to give up when faced with roadblocks.

Just a Kid

To help the thousands of teens in the room understand that these speakers were not born with some special advantage or gift, these people tell stories of when they were teens and the obstacles they faced. They talk about how they could not get adults to take them seriously, how they were ignored as “just a kid,” and how they struggled to get things done with their limited resources — something that of course helped them discover new and better ways to get things accomplished. These elements came up in their stories again and again.

These high school kids are fortunate to have a 3.5 grade point average and to be invited to the Congress, and the ones who attended were fortunate enough to have parents or friends or fundraisers to get them there. But what about the rest of the teens who don’t have these opportunities?

I Would Never Be Invited

As a teen I would have never been invited to this event because my grades were below average. In fact, I don’t think I ever got an A or B in anything — my averages were Cs and Ds, and I had a lot of failing grades. I was held back in the 4th grade, which was devastating to me.

I can remember being about 12 and feeling the pressure to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up, and not having a clue. I loved photography. I loved music. I’d play those K-Tel albums with shortened versions of the top hits over and over.

My Bad Grades

In our house, I was never scolded for my bad grades. I was never even given a talking-to about getting my grades up. Though I can remember those moments of terror as I watched my mom or dad open the report card, knowing it was bad. My dad always told me, “Though you should do your best, grades are not going to have a thing to do with what you want to do with your life.” Mom never seemed to be too upset either. (Of course, they may have been freaking out inside.)

In spite of my bad grades, I was filled with encouragement that I could do anything with my life that I desired. I heard it so much that I started to believe it. As a result I took my interests to a higher level and made efforts as a teen that I otherwise might not have made.

Show Me Your Fingers

For instance, when I was getting the “Fingerprinting” merit badge in Boy Scouts, I came up with an idea. So I asked my mom to take me to the local shopping mall and wait for me. I went to the office, asked to see the manager of the mall, and told him I had an idea to fingerprint kids so that their fingerprints would be available in case they were ever lost or kidnapped. He liked the idea. Keep in mind, this was the 1960s, long before anything like this had ever been done. Then I went to the manager of the Kentucky Fried Chicken store. I had discovered that their little sealed wipes were great for removing ink. I got him to donate thousands of wipes. And I got the local police department to donate the fingerprint cards. I set up for a weekend in the mall, got the mall to advertise it, and me and my friends fingerprinted hundreds of kids and gave the cards to their parents in case they ever needed them.

My First Marketing Experience

Another time, I had joined Sing Out Fort Wayne, a local group distantly affiliated with Up With People, the national singing group. At 14, I was put in charge of publicity for our upcoming show, so I went to a local bank, asked to see the president, and asked him to run full-page ads in the paper for our group. I told him it would be good to have his bank name associated with helping a group of “responsible” teens. He ran the full-page ads, and our shows were packed. It was my first real marketing experience.

I could tell more stories, but the point is that interests and passion drove my actions. Though I had some self-doubt and fear about whether I could get these things done, my passion overcame my fear. I kept thinking about what my dad and mom continually said: “You can do anything.”

But… You Can’t Be…

Skeptics will say, “Yeah, but that’s not realistic. Why teach your kids they can do anything when the reality is they can’t do just anything?” There is usually an example attached to prove their point. It’s a valid point. Yet my reply would be that I’d rather have them try and find out their limitations than not try at all, and they will learn something and may accomplish something in the process. Plus they’ll learn quickly that they can accomplish most of what they set their mind to do.

The Tragedy of Disbelief

What I find tragic is the number of people who could have changed the world but who never tried because they did not believe in their ability, or believed that you had to have special parents, special circumstances, or a lot of money. For every story of success, there are dozens who never tried.

Part of the reason this happens is because parents often don’t believe their kids can make something happen because of their own broken dreams. So dreaming gets replaced with “Do what I did. Get a good steady job and a good income. Though I don’t like it, I’ll have a good retirement one day and can do what I love then.”

Why Kids Change the World

Look, I am not being critical of anyone or their circumstances. But the best and most likely people to change the world are young people with new perspectives and big ideas. We as adults need to embrace their ideas, support them, let them know we believe in them, and help them know how to change the world.

Art Revolution

In the art world, for instance, there is a giant upset coming. Young people who grew up around the artworks loved by their parents and grandparents are rejecting that kind of art for a new form of realism, rooted in 600-year-old techniques. In fact I’ve created a convention just for these artists to help fuel this movement.

Kids see things differently because of their comfort levels with new technology and understanding of things we adults cannot relate to. And as I’m seeing at this event this week, some are not allowing anyone to tell them, “You can’t do this till you’re out of college.” They are changing the world now.

Nurture Now

This event has inspired me to create an event just like this for future artists. I’ll add it to the list. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder that kids grow into adults rapidly and will soon take control of the world. We, as adults, need to encourage them, nurture their ideas, and not allow them to limit their own thinking.

One of the benefits of aging is watching babies turn into fine adults and seeing them do big things with their lives. We may never know that the little things we said or did had unintended consequences.

Last week I discussed the idea of encouraging others, and this week it has become crystal clear that our kids or grandkids need us to let them know there are no limits, no matter what their circumstances.

Not Another Dinner Party

A friend recently told me that her parents had people from all walks of life in for dinner. The kids had to sit quietly at the table to learn about these visitors. Later in life she learned her parents did not do it for their own entertainment, they did it to expose their kids to different people and ideas. It’s the same reason some families try to expose their kids to travel so they can learn about different worldviews.

The Two Important Lessons I Learned This Week

Never treat kids like kids. Treat them like adults, encourage them, and help keep them from limited thinking. The other lesson? Expose yourself to the greatest minds you can find, because they will stimulate your own mind and show you the possibilities yet to come.

Never Stop Influencing

We are never done till the final dust is thrown in our hole. Until then, with every breath, we can learn, we can grow, we can support and encourage others, and our own tiny influence could result in someone changing the world.

Mom, I Wanna Go to Mars

One of my sons intends to help colonize Mars. Their mother is mortified at the idea that we would never see him again. Yet who are we to rain on his parade? He needs to do what he dreams. It’s not about us. He needs to know we believe in him.

Helping teens, kids, or anyone change the world starts with you and me. Today is a good day to start … to listen, to hear dreams, and to encourage them.