An emotional rollercoaster of life-changing firsts, ecstatic highs and devastating lows needs a travel guide, and The Teenager’s Book of Life is it.
One evening I got a call from a friend and was asked to come up with a quote to inspire a group of teenagers. Usually I hate being asked to do this because teenagers are sick of adults telling them how to live their lives and I didn’t want to patronise them with some bullshit quote that I related to but they might never. Our son had been born a few weeks before and was suffering from colic. One evening driving down country roads to try and get him to sleep I tried to come up with that quote. I thought back over the ten years I had just spent in schools all over the world listening to teenagers. I found myself getting angry thinking of how wise those young people are but how much we under-rate them. How, despite the best efforts of great teachers, we force them through a soul destroying experience of education that hasn’t changed in a hundred years and focuses on their heads at the expense of their hearts. I thought about the number of times I had wished every adult in the world could hear what I got to hear from thousands of teenagers. Their wisdom, their courage, their beautiful tenacity in the face of great difficulties. Their stories would regularly bring me to tears. I wished for adults to see what I had seen so that they could change the way they see young people. Maybe then we could learn from them what they have to teach. I looked at my son finally falling asleep in his car seat and told myself that the way we support our children to become adults had to improve, it had to get better at speaking to the magic meteorite dust inside each one of us rather than treating people like they were robots. It was then the quote came to me and with that it was as if I discovered an underground river inside me and over the course of the next nine weeks the rest of the book burst it’s banks and flooded out. This was the quote that started it all:
“The most important relationship you’ll ever have in your life is with yourself, every other is secondary.”
In 2010 I was fortunate to be a part of a group that brought the methodology of the Australian youth organisation Reach to Ireland. Reach was founded by a special soul called Jim Stynes who was a sports star in Australia. But more interestingly for me was that his work with young people seemed so visionary and pioneering that I felt compelled to make it available in Europe. To cut a long story short, we brought the best elements of Reach to the northern hemisphere and called it Soar. What followed was a decade where I had the opportunity to learn from teenagers all over the world about the immense wisdom and courage they hold. Soar was a special experience in my life as it seemed to bring together all of my own journey up to that point and helped me make sense of so much I didn’t understand. I didn’t intend to write a book about what I learned from teenagers but it just seemed to happen. In some ways The Teenager’s Book of Life wrote itself, as if it was its own entity and now is a living, breathing thing. All I had to do was listen and write.
Once that first quote came to me I met a point where I second guessed the whole thing. A recurring image of going across a rope bridge and being told not to look down, don’t second-guess this came to me and so I powered on. One conversation with Hazel who created all the beautiful graphics, was a turning point, where she just encouraged me not to doubt this and just trust the next step would show itself. She was right.
Our son was just a few weeks old, and in the mornings at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. when it was my turn to feed him I would lie there in bed and just picture the next part of the book and sometimes audio record what was coming to me so I didn’t lose it. Then I would sit down that day and just let whatever came, keep coming. Then I would send chunks of writing to Amy and Jack – two incredibly inspiring teenagers who would review it and be my bullshit radar. From start to finish it took eight weeks to write The Teenager’s Book of Life. After I pressed send and submitted it for a final edit I felt like I had been knocked unconscious for the past two months and suddenly awoke and was not exactly sure what had happened! But what happened next was later that same night my lung spontaneously collapsed and I spent the next two months in and out of hospital undergoing treatment and surgery. So most of the editing and proofing of the final layout was completed from the hospital. During this time Hazel was an incredible support as she patiently went through the editing process with me and allowed for my feeble state of mind and body.
I wanted to write something true to the thousands of teenagers I had met. Something that I knew would resonate with them, that would really stir their souls and grab their minds. I also wanted to write a book that contained what is not taught in our schools. I realised most parents haven’t got the exposure to enough teenagers to be in a position to know how to connect with their own teenagers, so I wanted the book to almost be a map to guide those parents who feel lost or out of their depth. I wanted the book to be daringly honest, real and beautiful while also meeting the need that all people have at that stage of life but that goes unmet for the most part. I also wanted the book to be like a sucker-punch that had heart and passion but didn’t take itself too seriously.
Books written for teenagers usually come across as pretty uncool to Teenagers. They come across more as self-help rather than a journey to find themselves and find out who they really are and what they are here for. I wanted The Teenager’s Book of Life to respect teenagers enough to not patronize them but help them find out who they are and explore their dreams, feelings, friends, family, life in general, hard times, love and death.
Throughout the book there is a mix of thought provoking content, exercises that make you dig deep, quotes to inspire and nurture the soul, illustrations that speak to you and most importantly topics that pull on the heart strings, make you laugh, cry, reflect, look back and see how you got to this point. My hope is that the content reaches the core part of your being to allow teenagers (and everyone else) to ask the questions they never knew how to ask and to find the answers that can light their way!
Chapter 1 – Who are you?
Chapter 2 – Dreams
Chapter 3 – Feelings
Chapter 4 – Friends
Chapter 5 – Life
Chapter 6 – Hard Times
Chapter 7 – Love
Chapter 8 – Make it better
Chapter 9 – Your parents are idiots and so are you
Chapter 10 – Death
Each section contains:
The purpose of the exercises is to unearth the wisdom that we all hold but usually don’t even realise is there. The wisdom we have gained from life experience. Here is an example of one of the exercises. Each one is different. In this one you are asked to track your life journey to today and recall the ‘epic highs’ (these go along the blue line at the top) and the ‘heart-wrenching lows’ ( along the red line on the bottom) where you were knocked to your knees and felt the pain of heartbreak. I share my life-map in the corner and guide you through how to construct yours.
In each chapter there are quotes that speak to the particular theme being explored. The intention is to inspire, remind and challenge. I have heard of some teenagers ripping these quotes out and putting them on their walls – I thought that was pretty cool. Here are some examples.
The only quote I did not write was written by my great friend Tom Harkin. Tom has an almost telepathic understanding of young people and was my mentor when I started building programs for Soar. I have always loved this quote as I think it is both poetic and also so true. I was excited when he gave me permission to include it.
I love art that brings a feeling to life and so when I asked Hazel Breen to bring my writing to life it was the best decision I ever made. Not only did we work so well together but I also met a friend for life. Hazel took some of the pieces I wrote and infused them with a spirit that I love. There are many throughout the book but I want to tell you about how two in particular came to be. For example, one day I was saying that this book was all about reminding people that they have a voice that is unique to them and I wanted to encourage them to find it and use it. To not be afraid. I think we were also talking about tigers or something, but next thing Hazel she created this:
Another time I was saying that if I wanted people to take away one feeling after they read the book it would be that THEY ARE LOVED. That is where this stunning graphic came from.
I have often thought that as we grow in human years we lose much of the wisdom we had as children. I learned this first hand with my own son Jerome. Some of the things he has said to me are wiser than anything I have read in a book or learned from a professor. So I had the idea to write imaginary conversations between Jerome and his little brother, Jesse, on how adults lose their way and forget who they really are as they get older. With the exception of their last conversation in the chapter on death, every other one is based on actual chats Jerome and I had in the course of our days together while I was writing the book. I would then go and imagine what Jesse (called Bear in the book) might say in response. I sometimes roared laughing while writing these and at other times wept. Adults in particular love the Romy and Bear parts in the book and I think it’s because they speak to the child within them. Here is an example of Romy and Bear discussing hard times.
I adore a photo that can say a thousand things. So I wanted to include photography that paid homage to this beautiful stage of life. This photo is one that evokes the importance of friendship and how our friends are such a central part of our lives when we are teenagers.