Meet Two People Who Are Addressing The Cause Of Teen Stress

"It’s hard to lead others if you can’t lead yourself first."

Generation Z has more access to information, technology and entertainment than any group of humans before. But why are stress levels in these teens and college students higher than ever?

Musician Caroline Jones and best-selling author and leadership expert Stedman Graham have come together to offer a one-word answer: identity. And to explore this, they've taken this concept of the personal journey on tour. 

To help students discover their identities, Jones and Graham work with high school students to tackle questions including, "Who are you?", "What are your core beliefs?" and "What do you dream of doing?" Self-awareness is at the key of their message.

Next week, the two will embark upon their second year of the Live Somina Tour -- a full-day workshop for students that focuses on self-empowerment and the cultivation of identity through performing arts and character development.

This year, they will travel through 12 cities and reach approximately 65,000 high school students at 100 different schools along the way. The two-part program first features a mix of Jones’ acoustic music performances and her inspirational storytelling sessions, which help urge kids to pursue their talents and passions. This is followed by Graham’s identity workshop.

Jones, 25, studied classical music growing up and attended NYU before embarking upon a career as a singer-songwriter. She performs for students on stage with an acoustic guitar, banjo and piano. Graham has written 11 books about identity development and is convinced that a lack of identity and self-awareness is what’s behind youth stress today.

The two spoke with The Huffington Post about the growing beast that is technology, where the education system is failing and how kids can develop a stronger sense of self despite it.

Caroline Jones performs on stage with her guitars, banjo and piano.
Caroline Jones performs on stage with her guitars, banjo and piano.

The Huffington Post: Caroline, you started bringing your music to boarding schools, high schools and colleges about five years ago while you were still in college yourself. In what ways do you think your musical program has resonated with students who are around your age?

Caroline Jones: My show is acoustic -- it’s just me up there with my guitar, banjo, piano and some other instruments. I think it’s the artist in me, but I focus very heavily on storytelling in between songs. I talk about the inspiration behind my songs and my journey as an artist. I am a very spiritually and emotionally curious person. At a young age, I amassed this wealth of spiritual and philosophical knowledge that has helped me live a fulfilling and self-empowered life. I just can’t help but talk about that. It fulfills me and it seeps into my show.

If a kid asks me about stage fright and says he’s scared to perform in front of people, the answer is almost entirely emotional. It’s as much about technique and craft as it is about how do you get yourself to a place where you can be in deep feeling of the song -- independent of how other people are going to think about it (which you can’t control)? That’s more important than making sure you have good breathing technique.

This will be the second year of the Live Sonima Tour and this time around, you guys are going big. You have rented out bigger venues -- some which seat between 2,000 and 5,000 students. What are some of the biggest themes you touch on in your program?

Jones: In between our two sessions, Stedman and I talk on stage to tie everything together. We talk about topics like self-reliance, happiness and fulfillment, the true purpose of education and what education actually should do for you. Like how you can empower yourself to make your education work for your dreams and your goals -- instead of just thinking about what job to get when you finish your education.

Stedman Graham: The school system often teaches you how to take tests and repeat the information back. You get labeled with a grade and two weeks later, you forget the information. It’s limited learning for students. But it’s never too early to get students to decide what they love, what they are passionate about and what they want to focus on. You want to teach them how to focus on the self and create leadership skills around the self first. It’s hard to lead others if you can’t lead yourself first. 

Stedman Graham on stage at the 2014 Live Sonima Tour
Stedman Graham on stage at the 2014 Live Sonima Tour

Stedman, you have been teaching identity workshops to students for nearly 20 years now. What are the biggest changes have you noticed in teens over the past two decades, especially with rapid advances in technology?

Graham: They have less control over their lives. They are not able to make good decisions about what they want to do in their lives. There’s so much information and so much confusion. They’re not as focused as they should be in school and I would say a lot of them just aren’t prepared to compete globally.

Jones: The Internet and the technological revolution of the past decade has made it so that information is no longer in the hands of a few people. Information and knowledge is power. Now everyone has the information literally at their fingertips at all times. We really need to make sure that our education system is preparing people to be innovative, creative and self-reliant. Those are the things that are going to make you successful. It’s not about memorizing information anymore.

Graham: Technology is changing everything. What they learn is not enough to prepare them for the jobs coming up. Things are constantly changing and courses and information become outdated quickly. It’s hard to keep up. They can be taught the basics in the traditional learning environment, but the basics just aren’t enough anymore.

How else do you think technology is affecting Generation Z?

Graham: The students come in with an entitlement attitude because they are empowered by the technology. They are empowered to think that they are ‘all that.’ But then the rude awakening comes when they can’t afford to go to college or they have to go back and live at home as adults. They have wasted a lot of time on their smartphones talking about nothing. There is a lack of focus. If you don’t know who you are, you can’t source the right information and apply it to your development -- so there’s no growth. The school system is set up for people to be average, not to be exceptional. It’s a cookie cutter.

Jones: I can say that this generation, more than any other generation, has an awareness and a hunger to empower themselves. I think people misread it as entitlement. Entitlement is a misunderstanding of power. And I think a lot of kids are ambitious and have big dreams. They have grown up in a world where all of the information in the world is at their fingertips. I think the reason that so many feel stressed or lost or overwhelmed is because they don’t have a strong sense of self to apply all of that to.

We are telling the kids that we know you have all this information, we know you’re overwhelmed and stressed and that you have people telling you what to do. But you need to have a core sense of yourself -- whether it’s a creative outlet like writing or sports or music or your own personal philosophy and beliefs. That’s why I call my program The Heart Is Smart. If you can just get in touch with your heart, yourself and identity, then almost anything is possible. There are infinite possibilities for what you can achieve.

Caroline Jones and Stedman Graham at the Live Sonima Tour in 2014.
Caroline Jones and Stedman Graham at the Live Sonima Tour in 2014.

What do you feel are the biggest causes of such high stress levels in high school students today?

Graham: There is so much information coming at you. A smartphone allows you to look at any movie or research anything you want at any time. You can Google anybody and find out who they are and what they’re doing. You never had that much access to information before. There’s so much noise. We aren’t focused on things that matter and we haven’t prioritized the things that are important. Our brains can’t handle so many things at a time.

Jones: Stress stems from a disconnect between who you are now and who you believe you should be. Self-love, fulfillment, passion, joy, creativity, excellence, effectiveness -- these states represent the opposite of stress. The best way to soothe stress is to evoke these positive emotions, and for me, music is that avenue.

Graham: It all comes down to having a stronger sense of identity. What we are trying to do is keep you focused on who you are and help you organize all of the things that are happening in your life. If you organize everything around you, you can empower yourself.

Jones: In the grand scheme of things, if we look at the previous generations, it’s actually a huge step forward that this generation even recognizes that stress is optional -- and can recognize that they’re stressed.

How are you able to get these really important themes across in a one-day workshop?

Graham: I try to give them some awareness, to raise their consciousness, to let them know it’s about self-development. It’s about what you do extra. It’s about excellence -- not only in school, but everywhere you go. Take charge of you and don’t fall into the habit of mimicking everything you see around you.

Jones: It reminds me of a Buddhist quote that talks about how you climb up a mountain to see the view from the top. When you climb down, you can’t see the view anymore -- but having seen it is infinitely beneficial because you’ll always have it in your mind. These kids have such impressionable minds. If they are able to be inspired, even for one day, by someone who knows who they are and is offering their gifts to the world, then I think that is really powerful. Even if it’s one hour or one moment where they felt really inspired and heard -- or we helped reveal something within them that they didn’t know they had -- that’s the lasting impression we are going for.

The Live Sonima Tour kicks off on Oct. 6 in Memphis, Tennessee. Other cities this fall include Beaufort, South Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; Miami and Daytona Beach, Florida.