Teens: Don't Be Lazy

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Twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris are on a mission to inspire ambition among their peers. The two political prodigies have released the new book, Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. Alex and Brett Harris explain their mission to encourage teens to act responsibly, become leaders and change the world.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, the Barbershop guys, and your comments and emails. But first, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. We've been talking about politics, and certainly this election season has been filled with drama, but it hasn't all been about the candidates. Young people have been engaged and involved as never before. Twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris are two of them. Using the power of the Internet they found at hucksarmy.com. That's a grass roots campaign to mobilize youth in support of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's bid for the Republican nomination for president. Now 19, they said to themselves why stop there? They're on a mission to inspire other teens to raise their expectations and do more, and now they've published their first book, "Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations." Alex and Brett Harris are with us now. Welcome to you both.

Mr. ALEX HARRIS (Author, "Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations"): Thank you so much.

Mr. BRETT HARRIS (Author, "Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations"): It's wonderful to be here.

MARTIN: Now Alex, let's start with you because you're 20 minutes older as I understand it, so you have seniority. Your book challenges the popular idea that the teen years are a time to goof off. In fact you say that teenage years are in fact a time when kids can do some really big and important things. Now that's a provocative idea. Did it come to you fully formed or how did the idea come to you?

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: It really has grown through our own life experience and through the experience of this last few years. It's provocative, but it's not a new idea. If you look back over history you find that the teen years were serving as the launching pad. They were serving as the training ground for life for young people and it's only been recently that we've had this modern concept of the teen years more as a vacation from responsibility rather than as that crucial launching pad, and really that time when young people are ready and able and should be attempting great things.

MARTIN: Brett, now this didn't start as a movement, correct? This started as a teen blog - just some ideas you and Alex were kicking around between yourselves, right, and you decided to open the conversation up to other people. Can you tell me about that?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Absolutely. And it actually started just a little bit before that. It started as two 16-year-old guys bored out of their minds one summer because all their plans had fallen though, and their dad coming in with a big stack of books saying I'm putting you on an intense reading regiment this summer, and so we were bored enough to read through books like "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman.

Thomas Friedman was talking about young people in China and India, how they're applying themselves, how they're using the teen years to launch themselves into a bright future, and how American young people are really apathetic, complacent, we have an entitlement mentality, and that we were setting ourselves up for disappointment. And when we read that the aha moment was when we said oh my goodness, is he saying that there are different results for living the teen years a different way? And if that's true, then what our culture tells us about the teen years, that it's disconnected from life and doesn't matter what you do, that's a lie and it's a very destructive lie.

So that was kind of the light bulb moment that prompted us to start, as you said, a blog. Two 16-year-old guys writing out a few thoughts and overnight it seemed it turned into a large website. We got news coverage within the first three weeks from the New York Daily News saying oh my goodness there's this very different teen blog, and it grew just through discussion of young people all over the world saying, you know what, this is what I've been feeling ever since I became a teenager. You're putting into words what I've been feeling and didn't know how to express.

MARTIN: Alex, when your blog took off like that, what did you two think?

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: It really has caught us by surprise. Even we didn't realize that young people were actually longing to be challenged this way, and we found that we've never had to argue with a single young person about this. When they see it, when they hear the stories, not just of the past, but of the present, of young people who are living this different kind of way, the light bulb goes on in their minds as well and they say that is what I've been missing.

MARTIN: Alex, that was you, right? Now, you're saying you've never had to argue with a single young person about this. Have you had to argue with anybody else about it? Are there people who think that's just lame, kids just want to, you know, eat pizza and ride around in their cars and wait to grow up?

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: Well, yes, there has been that response, because that's the expectation that our society as a whole has and it's not just for one area. It's in the schools, it's in the churches, it's in the media, and so there are adults who have grown up with this idea who themselves live their teen years with this mentality, and so it's hard for them maybe sometimes to recognize, you know, maybe we were doing it wrong. But when you look at history and you see how this has really developed in just the last hundred years, suddenly you realize, wow, it doesn't really have to be this way.

MARTIN: So, Brett, when did this shift from being gee, just a couple guys kicking around some ideas on the web to something bigger?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Well, right from the beginning we knew that we tapped into something bigger because two months in we were receiving invitations to participate in Alabama Supreme Court internships and grass roots campaigns in other states and it was through those experiences where we saw these ideas work in the real world with real young people from all differing backgrounds, all different personalities, these are not just type A, these are shy introverted kids as well, we saw it works, and then we were ready to take it, you know, even bigger than it was.

MARTIN: Is that where you got the idea for Huck's Army?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: We've been involved politically. As we said, we were grassroots campaign managers for several campaigns down in Alabama and so we did start a website for Huck's Army, and it really started as just a meeting place. There were all of these grass roots supporters, we just recognized there's a huge groundswell of support for this man Governor Huckabee, and they don't have any place to meet together, to strategize, to discuss, and to work together. Let's create that thing. And so we created Huck's Army.

MARTIN: Did Governor Huckabee, when you first put this together, did he understand it?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Well, I think Governor Huckabee was thrilled. It was a great way for him to stand on the pulse of how his supporters were feeling, about whatever developments were happening in the campaign, but he, more than that, I think he was excited to see that supporters were taking initiative and building the kind of networks and the kind of infrastructure that his campaign with its shoestring budget, didn't have the resources to build. And that's why you saw him have such strong performances on Super Tuesday and other times when it wasn't expected, because he had a huge amount of grass roots infrastructure. Huckabee, they talk about Obama really igniting the youth and getting them excited, Huckabee had very similar numbers in the states in bringing in younger voters and really getting them excited and involved and engaged.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with Alex and Brett Harris, they are co-authors of "Do Hard Things." It's a new book that challenges the low expectations our society has for teens.

Is it fair to say that faith is central to what you do? Both of you? Alex?

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: Yeah. Well, Brett and I are - we're Christians, we're not ashamed of that, and this is what that means. It means that our life narrative is not, oh, we're being successful authors or successful speakers or getting on this show, even that's not our life narrative. Our life narrative is are we being faithful servants to Jesus Christ? And when that's the narrative suddenly it makes sense to do hard things because doing hard things is how you grow, and if this is all there is, you're just growing, growing, growing, and then boom, it's over and there's nothing else, it's kind of meaningless ultimately. But when you're part of a narrative that's not just all of history, but all of eternity, then suddenly doing hard things is the only logical conclusion. We do hard things because Jesus Christ has done the hardest thing. He laid down his life so that we might life with purpose.

MARTIN: Both of you see clearly see yourselves as instruments of God. What about people who don't have that faith perspective, who don't have that values orientation? Do you have a message for them?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: This is Brett, I'll take that. What Alex said was absolutely true. But on the other hand, in the book we make it very clear that this is not a message that you have to believe in God to benefit from. It's not a message that you have to be a Christian to benefit from. The truth is, is that doing hard things is how we've been made to grow. When we, you know, exercise our muscles, they grow stronger. When we challenge our brain, you know, we grow new neurons. That's the way our body works, the way we've been made. And so it's important for people to understand that when they do hard things they will benefit, and that's the message of the book. We go through five kinds of hard things that any person, regardless of whether they believe in God, will benefit from.

MARTIN: Can you tell me what those five things are?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Well, the five kind of hard things we share in the book are first of all, things that take you outside your comfort zone. Second, we talk about things that go above and beyond what's expected or required. Third, things that are too big to do alone. Fourth, things that don't pay off immediately, or small hard things. And finally, things that go against the flow that, you know, go against the cultural norms and the status quo. And these five kinds of hard things are things that will unleash tremendous growth and potential in every person's life, and not only could change their lives forever, but could change the course of history. These are the kind of hard things that history-making people do. People like Martin Luther King, standing against the crowd, going against the flow, stepping out, speaking up.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting to me, I'm thinking about this, and when I was reading the book I was thinking about this. On the one hand, I think it's true, responsibility does make us better people. I think anybody who's worked with young people in the military for example, who have real jobs, where people are really depending on them, you know, you notice a difference. On the other hand, we as a society sometimes consider it an advance, a sign of progress that we don't lay a lot of responsibility on younger people because we feel that that's not fair to them. I mean, we in some ways look down on societies that demand that young people take on what we consider to be adult responsibilities. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Well, this is Brett. I'll go ahead and answer that question. I think that is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed, and I think the distinction is whether you view responsibility as a burden or whether you view it as a muscle. If it is a burden that we are placing on our young people, then yeah it seems like it is a good thing to allow them to avoid responsibility as long as possible. But if we view responsibility as a muscle that they then have and can use and can benefit from, then we are robbing them by not allowing them to exercise that muscle until farther down the road in life. So we say no, young people need to start now. Responsibility is not something you can just pick up later down the road, it is something that you have to develop and once you develop it, it will be a blessing to you, and it will be a blessing to others.

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: And this is Alex, jumping in real quick. One other thing that I think is important is that it really is destructive to teach young people to view adulthood as spoiling the fun of the teen years, rather than viewing it as what it is. Really the fulfillment of teen years lived well.

MARTIN: So Alex, I want to ask you two this, but Alex, I am going to start with you. What's the hardest thing you think you've done lately?

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: The hardest thing that I've done lately has definitely been writing the book. We have a joke where we say, you know, you can't write a book called "Do Hard Things" and have it be easy, and it wasn't easy. It was very hard.

MARTIN: Good point.

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: The hardest thing that we have done. We really had a tight schedule to write it, and there were a lot of times where we sit down and the words would just not come, and we would be sitting there for several hours. You know, add a comma, several hours later, delete the comma, literally, and so that was definitely hard, but it was definitely an incredible growth experience and that's really what "Do Hard Things" is all about.

MARTIN: Brett, what about you? What's the hardest thing you've lately?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Well, we are twins, and so I'm going to have to say that the book was equally hard for me even as we're busy and we're doing a lot of travelling and speaking right now, I think the hardest things are some of the small things, the things like, you know, keeping our rooms clean at home, or staying in touch with our family when we are travelling, the things that no one else sees and that is something that we also share in the book, the idea that sometimes the hardest things for most people are the small things.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you both, now that you've written a book called "Do Hard Things," is it hard to just relax?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: That is a great question. This is Alex. I will take that. It's true, some people ask us, now does "Do Hard Things" mean that I can't ever relax and I can never have fun? And our answer is absolutely no. It doesn't mean you can't have fun. Sometimes the hard thing is to relax because if you are a real over achiever you can just push and push and push and never spend time with family, never spend time with friends, not get the rest that you need and that's actually destructive. That's not good and so for us, sometimes, you know, our hard thing is to relax.

MARTIN: Well, I'm dying to know what's next for you two?

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Well, we do plan to enter school this fall, and the plan is to continue to write, to continue to speak, and continue to do hard things, and call our generation to do the same.

MARTIN: Alex and Brett Harris are co-authors of "Do Hard Things" and the co-founders of the Christian teen blog, the revolution.com. They joined us from Portland, Oregon. Thank you so much, gentlemen for speaking with us and good luck to you both.

Mr. BRETT HARRIS: Thank you Michel.

Mr. ALEX HARRIS: Pleasure being on.

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Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations

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Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations
Artist
Alex Harris and Brett Harris
Label
Multnomah Books
Released
2008

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