The Untapped Power of Millennials - Blake Brandes TEDx Talk


Ivy and I did a ton of work to bring you this TEDx Talk (you can read the insane and epic behind-the-scenes creation saga here), and we're so happy that it's finally here!  You'll find a full transcript below the video, and I'm grateful to TEDx Hickory for the opportunity to share the Untapped Power of Millennials and how to make UnCommon Millennials more common. 

Official Transcript:

The Untapped Power of Millennials - Blake Brandes, TEDx Hickory 2016

I am the most unlikely-looking rapper you may have ever seen. There probably aren’t that many nerdy, white kids from Hickory, NC who did a PhD on hip-hop or deliver hip-hop motivational assemblies to students.

As you might expect, over the years I’ve heard a pretty common chorus of, “Wait, you rap?” Nevertheless I’ve believed in the power of hip-hop to connect people across cultures and transform lives. The story I chose to tell myself about who I was, combined with my persistent reframing of obstacles, helped me stay focused, persevere, and create a sense of purpose that drives me.

I’m also a Millennial, and given the negative public discourse around Millennials as lazy, entitled, and overprotected, you might call me an “UnCommon Millennial.”  I realize that’s a very Millennial thing to say.  But I am here to tell you that “Uncommon Millennials” are more common than you might think. And our future depends on making more of them.  

A couple of years ago my business partner, Ivy, and I were talking about this negative perception of Millennials and we said, “that description doesn’t fit most Millennials we know.”  The Millennials we know are passionate, courageous, and driven by purpose.  So we set off to determine what differentiated these seemingly UnCommon Millennials.

After comparing the responses from interview after interview with Millennial entrepreneurs, creatives, and leaders in various fields, we came to a striking conclusion.  These inspiring Millennials had different backgrounds and life experiences, but they all shared two beliefs in common.

The first belief Uncommon Millennials hold is that we can control the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of. The story we tell ourselves about who we are is typically informed by feedback we receive from people in our lives, media images, and culture. All of which consciously or unconsciously create expectations and judgments on our identity and capabilities.

We then take actions and see results that often reinforce the story we have about who we are. That is what is so powerful about knowing that first, we are telling ourselves a story about who we are; and secondly, we can control that story. If we think certain options are not open to us, we won’t pursue them. But if we choose a story that supports and empowers us, we’ll take actions that open doors and result in new possibilities.

I learned this lesson early on in my journey.

One day I was in the cafeteria at my high school, Hickory High School – just down the road – when I saw a commotion by the lunch tables. It turns out, a group of guys had formed a cypher, which is basically a rap circle. One person is usually beatboxing. And if you’re not familiar with beatboxing is it sounds a little something like: (beatboxing demo). Thank you.

So in the cypher one person is usually beatboxing in the circle and the rest of the people take turns rapping. I saw this and knew immediately I wanted to be a part of this experience. So I went home and started practicing beatboxing. I listened to amazing beatboxers like Doug E Fresh and Rahzel, and I would practice all the time. I’d even be beatboxing in the shower like (demo), and my mom would be like, “Blake is everything alright in there?” and I would yell back “Don’t worry mom, this fire is under control!”

So finally I built up the courage to start beatboxing in the cyphers at school. And I noticed the rappers were rapping about themselves, things they cared about, and stories from their lives. And I thought “I want to do that too.”

So even though I was nervous, the next time I decided to jump in the cypher. The guy rapping before me was this big dude who was rapping really aggressively. He finished his rap with something like, “Yo, you better watch it when I bust a rap, cuz if you’re not careful Imma bust a cap.”

And then I jumped in: “Yo man, that’s right, I really feel you. I always do my homework, yo, I’m really real too.” Thankfully he didn’t immediately throw me out of the cypher, but instead came up to me afterwards and said, “you are the most unusual rapper I’ve ever seen but you’re true to yourself and I respect that, keep doing your thing, man.”

In that moment, I realized the power of the story I had been telling myself: that even though I was an awkward rapper, I didn’t have to stand on the sidelines. I could be a participant and a practitioner of hip-hop as well as an appreciator. So that story was what helped me jump in the cypher in the first place and led to the encouragement from my fellow rapper, unlikely as it may be, that reinforced the story I was starting to tell myself that I could contribute something to the world through hip-hop.  

That story continued to fuel my passion and led me to study English and post-colonial hip-hop in undergrad, obtain a PhD in hip-hop and global youth cultures, and become a professional hip-hop motivational speaker.

But there were definitely challenges that I would need to reframe in order to persevere along the way.

This leads me to the second key belief UnCommon Millennials hold, which is that challenges are opportunities to help us learn and grow. While none of the Millennials we interviewed liked failure, they were willing to take risks that might help them achieve their goals because they realized that failure is a normal part of the path to success.

While there are many of my failures I could share to exemplify this belief, perhaps the most public one, was when I was invited to audition for the celebrity judges on the TV show, America’s Got Talent.

I made it through the first few rounds and ended up on stage at Madison Square Garden in front of three thousand people. And I was very nervous. I had done a lot of freestyle rapping and various performances over the years, but never anything this massive. And making me more nervous, sitting in front of me, were the four celebrity judges: Howard Stern, the radio host, Heidi Klum, the super model, Howie Mandel, the tv gameshow host, and Mel B, the former Spice Girl.

So Howie asked me, “what’s your name and whats your talent?” I said “my name is Blake Brandes and I rap.” Howie goes, “You rap?” And I said, “I do, and I actually freestyle rap, so if you bring up a random audience member on stage, I’ll make up a rap about them on the spot.”

So Howie goes in the audience, brings up this guy, and I ask the guy a few questions about himself. And then the beat drops.  And then I start rapping.  And it actually starts going pretty well. The crowd is laughing at the jokes; they’re cheering at the punch lines. This guy is having a great time because I’m making up a rap about him, and I think “Man, this is working, I could really have a chance at the million dollar prize!”

And then I heard a sound I had been dreading the entire time. *beep* I saw a big red X light up on the front of Howard Stern’s desk. And in that moment, I thought, “Okay, I have a choice. I can either just keep rapping, pretend like it didn’t happen and hope everything goes ok. Or maybe I should just quit rapping right now, I mean, if Howard didn't like it maybe other judges don’t like it either.” Then I thought, “Maybe there’s a third choice here. What if I turn this problem into an opportunity and flip it?” So with seconds left I said:

Time is running out but you know I’m not stressing
I came to reach the people and to teach a lesson
And yo it doesn’t matter if Howard gets to X-in’
I’m still gonna keep rapping - NO QUESTION

And the crowd went wild!

So now we go to the judges. Howard Stern is angry. He yells, “Freestyle rap isn’t a talent, you can’t get paid to do that. I vote no, you do not go through.”

Then we go to Heidi Klum, who says, “I liked it. I thought it was a talent. I vote yes, you do go through.”

Then Howie Mandel says “I liked it too. I thought it was more than just rap, it was comedy, it was theatrical. I vote yes, you do go through.”

So now it all comes down to Mel B. Imagine having your future in the hands of a former Spice Girl, that’s exactly what this felt like. So Mel B says “I liked it… but I’ve seen better. I vote no, you don’t go through.”

And I’m like that’s it, two “yes,” two “no,” – I don’t go through. But then the producers come out. They say, “This season on America’s Got Talent we have a special feature. There is a golden button that each judge can only use one time the entire season, but if they use it, it saves the act on stage and they go through to the next round.”

So now the crowd is going wild, they’re chanting "Send him through, send him through!” Howard Stern is on his feet yelling at Howie Mandel saying, “Howie, if you like Blake so much, why don't you use the golden button and send him through?” And the crowd’s chanting, “send him through, send him through” And Howie Mandel stands up and the crowd goes nuts, they are on their feet chanting “send him through, send him through!” And Howie goes, “I…I…just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”

And I didn’t make it through.

Objectively speaking, this was a failure. I didn’t succeed at winning America’s Got Talent, and could have taken that to mean that I should quit rapping and go hide under a rock somewhere. But because I chose to view challenges as opportunities, I didn’t get hung up on not winning a million dollars or getting a record contract.

Instead I focused on the unexpected gift that such a challenging, and occasionally, scary experience gave me. It takes courage to stand up in front of thousands of people, and 4 celebrity judges, but I did it. And it gave me the confidence to take the next big step in my journey and pursue what I loved full time.

So now you’ve seen the two key beliefs of UnCommon Millennials in action. And the next question presents itself:  How can we help more Millennials adopt these two beliefs so they, too, can create lives they love, driven by passion and purpose?

In other words, how can we make these UnCommon Millennials more Common? Let’s look at a couple of ways to develop these key beliefs.

One way to help more Millennials adopt the first key belief — that we can control the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of —  is by providing what developmental psychologist Bill Damon calls purposeful role models. According to Damon, purposeful role models demonstrate how gratifying living life with a sense of purpose can be.  And they also share the struggles and frustrations that inevitably come with living such a life.

Sharing stories of purposeful role models in the Millennial generation was our goal in starting the Motivational Millennial Podcast.  Not all of our interviewees are millionaires, but they are living lives filled with passion and perseverance.  

For example, we met this amazing Millennial journalist named Sarah Stillman who told herself that she didn’t need to wait for permission to write a story that she knew needed to be told.  Sarah was passionate about investigating human rights abuses in Iraq but couldn’t get funding from any newspapers or magazines. Rather than giving up, Sarah went online, bought body armor, and paid to fly herself into a war zone.  Now, thankfully she made it back alive. But when she came back, she faced rejection after rejection from editors.  Until finally, her story was accepted by the New Yorker, and went on to win the National Magazine Award for Public Interest.  

We speak with amazing and extraordinary Millennials like Sarah every week on the podcast.  We want to share their stories of struggle as well as their stories of triumph because it’s important to hear stories about vulnerability as well as confidence. Our hope is that listeners will see their own journey mirrored and reflected by the interviewees and then tell themselves, “How can I create an empowering story for myself like this person did?”

We can all be purposeful role models for the Millennials in our lives.  You may have discovered a sense of purpose that has helped you live a fulfilling life. Alternatively, you may worry that you’re not perfect or you’ve made a lot of mistakes — good. Either way, that’s what Millennials need to hear. We need to hear about those times when you kept going even when you were uncertain or afraid.  The stories you tell yourself matter to the Millennials in your life.  

When we hear your story, we can say to ourselves, “If he did that, I can do this.” “If she overcame that I can overcome this.”

Now, if we look at how to help Millennials develop the second key belief, that challenges are opportunities, we really need to provide them with spaces where they can reframe failure in order to persevere.  Psychologist Angela Duckworth calls this ability to keep going in the face of challenges, “grit.” Training ourselves to view challenges as opportunities helps to develop grit.  And it turns out that grit is the strongest determinant for success in fields as wide ranging as education and the military to sports and music. We can help Millennials reframe failure and develop grit by encouraging them to take risks and fail in a supportive environment.

For example, my business partner Ivy and I decided to create a hip-hop motivational video series called The Up Beat.  For 52 weeks in a row, I wrote a blog post and a rap to help people overcome some challenge in their life.  Then Ivy and I would film a rap video and post it online.  The only problem was, I would often write the rap the night before we had to film, so it wasn’t always totally memorized.  One particular day, we stood in a park in Oakland, California, for hours while we filmed 97 takes in a row.  During this process, Ivy modeled “creating a supportive environment to fail.”  Every time I would mess up, she said, “No worries.  Just do one more take.”  

Now, she could have yelled at me for not memorizing the rap better before we started.  Or she could have told me to just stop and quit somewhere around the 90th bad take in a row.  But she stayed focused on the outcome we were trying to achieve and provided non-judgmental feedback to help us finally get the take that we needed. When I asked Ivy later, “How were you able to stay so patient?” she replied, “I was just grateful to be filming in such a beautiful location and to be working on a project that we really cared about.”  Talk about reframing a challenge as an opportunity, right?  

Can you think of a Millennial in your life who needs to hear, “No worries, just do one more take.”  In other words, “Just try one more time,” as many times as it takes.  In order to view challenges as opportunities, we need the space to fail and grow from the experience.

What is amazing here is that these two key beliefs that UnCommon Millennials hold are actually intertwined. We all have challenges we’ve overcome that we can look to as examples of times we were strong. Then we can use those examples to create a story of resilience that drives us forward.  Stories of strength and bravery become a part of our identity and create a continuous, positive feedback loop.

I encourage you to take some time to talk with the Millennials in your life.  Listen first to understand their challenges and the story they’re telling themselves about who they are and what they’re capable of.  Then respond.  Your stories matter to them. So does your feedback. And you can help them develop powerful stories of their own by sharing yours.

Why should we care about creating more UnCommon Millennials who are driven by passion and purpose?  Millennials are a massively undertapped social, economic, and leadership resource.  We are or will be your employees, bosses, co-workers, lawyers, doctors, and politicians.  We can enhance your life, your company, and your community.  We just need your help to make UnCommon Millennials a little more common.  Thank you.   

**Surprise Freestyle Rap**