How to make us all a little better, starting with teenagers

How to make us all a little better, starting with teenagers

They’re starting with teenagers, because we all know that they are the most irritating human beings to be around, and need the most improvement.

Actually, that might not be the reason. Philanthropist Eric Schmidt, the former Google Alphabet executive chairman and investor who is behind the program, believes that it is around this age that extraordinary people can be identified. Through the Schmidt Foundation, he has launched Rise for the World, a global program to find the most promising 15 to 17-year-olds wherever they are. Of these, a hundred will receive a scholarship to make the world a better place.

But for once, unlike most scholarships, not only the scholarship winners benefit. The application process has been designed with input from experts such as Angela Duckworth, psychologist and author of Grit, to develop all the applicants as they proceed through the process. In signing up the teenagers are asked to record a video describing the problem they would like to use their lives to solve, and what steps they’ve already taken to solve it. They can record the first and subsequent videos as often as they like. The videos of other applicants are available to be viewed and a couple of simple grading scales ask the viewer to give constructive feedback on the videos of others. So a continual improvement process is established, which encourages the teens to reflect on themselves, their performance, practice their delivery, and improve their answers.

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To complete the first phase of their application they’re also challenged to think about the ways in which they are privileged and describe actions they can take to become the person they want to be. Through it all they exchange feedback with others, so there’s a signal to indicate room for improvement, but no scope for bullying or disparagement. Is anyone else who’s wondering when the adult version of this lands? Imagine a productive TikTok or a constructive Twitter.

In the next phase of the application there are a series of short videos by high-profile people from a range of different fields. Duckworth describes the quality of grit and asks teens to record a video describing how they’ve overcome an obstacle. Sal Kahn, founder of the Kahn Academy, asks them to teach us something and, in perhaps my favourite module, reminds them that life is not all earnestness and ambition by asking them to record a video designed to make others laugh.

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In a module eliciting some of the most interesting responses, Noah Bopp from the School for Ethics and Global Leadership, gets the teens to reflect on action versus activism by explaining the exploitative origins of much of the world’s cocoa harvest and asking the sweet-toothed children whether they would still eat chocolate now they know how it is produced. Like it or not, there is no way to honestly answer these questions without being improved by the process, which is all part of the foundation’s dastardly plan.

So even if you just got that far and didn’t complete the eight-week project or win a place at the global summit, you’d have done something good for yourself and ultimately us all.

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It also means that, as well as hooking up the clever kids we know, adults can play along in the background by thinking about the answers as well.

Bregman may not be much of a prophet but he’s a decent historian. He knows what humanity has achieved and that we can strive for more. The quest for improvement is more valuable and less dangerous than destination utopia. Perhaps we can make this year better by pretending to be teens.

Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at strategic communications firm Agenda C.

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