“Experts can’t innovate” is one of the most common sayings around our Venture Capital incubator, Lamp Post Group. Mired in research, bureaucracy, and old traditions, it’s hard for experts to think beyond their worn out ideas about how the world works.
This is one of the reasons I’m fascinated by millennials. They have less life experience than so-called experts, but that is precisely why they have so many important things to say. Important things that we need to listen to and learn from.
A new book titled 2 Billion Under 20 recounts the stories of these modern day heroes-the innovators and activators-who are barely out of high school. In the foreword, Blake Masters writes that “history shows that innovators can’t expect to be popular-at least not at first, and often not ever. That’s the price of doing new things in a world in which so much of what people do is to repeat what has been done before.”
These young adults are doing the unimaginable, in unprecedented ways. They are inspiring because they are proving that age never was a barrier to following your calling or deciding you can impact the world in a significant way.
But, if I’m honest, reading their stories also leaves me with a tinge of regret for lost time-the time wasted doing meaningless things. We all feel this way sometimes. And not only regret from high school and college years, but for some, regret that our whole lives have been in pursuit of meaningless activities.
I hope their stories inspire you to find a project, a cause, and mission that fuels your life, even if it doesn’t make sense to other people. Here are a few of my favorites.
At age 15, Jack created a sensor to detect early stage pancreatic cancer in under five minutes and for pennies on the dollar. After a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer, Jack felt compelled to do something, and began to pour himself into the sciences and advancing an early detection for the disease.
In high school science classes and by eventually moving his research to Johns Hopkins University, Jack sifted through thousands of “biomarkers” and found the one that indicates pancreatic cancer.
Jack says, “Through this research I’ve learned a very important lesson: through the internet, anything is possible...It’s a neutral space where what you look like, gender, or age doesn’t matter. It’s just your ideas and work ethic that count. There’s so much more to the internet than just posting duck-faced pictures of yourself online or watching furry cat videos. The Internet gives you the tools to be a scientist at any age.”
Brittney is an 18-year-old civil rights activist. After experiencing years of childhood bullying and a tumultuous family life as a child, Brittney fell into depression and tried to commit suicide on three occasions. In 2010, she decided to mobilize her anger, sadness, and loneliness into a movement to help others being bullied, specifically homophobic bullying.
Brittney created Spirit Day-”a day where people all around the world wear purple to stand up to homophobic bullying and show support for the LGBT community.” Her work was picked up by GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and was spread to over two million people. Celebrities, faith groups, organizations, schools began wearing purple as a sign of solidarity. The next year, over three million participated in Spirit Day. Now, in year five, Spirit Day-and Brittney- show no signs of letting up.
Kristen learned of her mom’s diagnosis of Huntington’s disease at age 13. She spent the next few years witnessing her mom’s slow deterioration, and eventual death. Of course, it left an indelible mark on her and her family. Knowing that there is a 50% chance that her and her brother were genetically predisposed to the disease, Kristen decided right then that she would pour herself into life and not worry about death. She also decided that when she turned 18, the legal age for genetic testing, she would get tested.
Kristen has made a documentary showing the process of getting tested for the disease and the effects of Huntington’s disease on her and her family. In the process, she has crowdfunded over $45,000 toward her project.
Kristen’s perspective is summed up in this, “I’ve come to terms with the idea that we are all going to die and we have no idea how or when it is going to happen. This seemingly obvious fact is not as morbid as it sounds. Instead, it is an opportunity. Those who choose to chase their dreams now, like me, will live a life fulfilled, regardless of when our time is up.”
Buntu grew up in a refugee camp in Kinyinya, Burundi. After being forced out of his birth country by genocide, him and his family fled to Tanzania. Despite paltry conditions and very few resources, Buntu began tinkering with electronics and became focused on producing electricity so that he could read at night. He would work with heat generated from a toilet to creating a battery made out of acid and copper.
After moving to the U.S. in 2007, Buntu transferred his tinkering tendencies to the internet, building his own websites and blogs. He continues to tinker online and has a growing curiosity for doing even more with technology.
Read this book, then show your kids. What we need are less duck-faced selfies and furry cat videos and more kids tinkering online in ways that can change the world.