Youth Leadership: Growing Slowly (and Compassionately) in a Pandemic

In the past months, I had the privilege of speaking in several youth leadership webinars. During these webinars, I usually talk about my experience leading a non-profit organization from when I was a teenager, the successes and failures I’ve had, and what I learned along the way.

Lately, I noticed a trend. The most common question from the audience (who are mostly in university or senior high school) is always something like:

“I want to create something based on what I’m passionate about. But how do I juggle schoolwork and other responsibilities when we’re in the middle of a crisis? I want to learn, grow, and try new things now. But how can I do that when it’s so easy to burn out?”

I always pause when I hear this question. I’m not a student anymore, but I’ve asked myself nearly the same thing every day since the pandemic started. It’s a painful question: I want to thrive, but how can I when sometimes just staying afloat is already a struggle?

I obviously don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to share five things that have given me comfort and helped me reflect better during these challenging times.

1. You don’t have to judge yourself right now based on what you harvest. Focus on planting seeds instead.

The sad reality is that we’re often judged based on what we produce: a grade, a recognition, a deliverable at work, a salary raise. But we have to remind ourselves that these things don’t define us. This is truer now more than ever because these ‘harvests’ will be even harder – or will take more time – to achieve because of the new challenges we face.

So instead of focusing on these outputs, we have to tell ourselves that being able to plant seeds is already achievement enough. When we’re able to read a book, complete an online course, reconnect with a colleague, organize our room, start a journal, commit to a healthy habit, or do anything that adds even a small positive value to our lives, these are seeds planted now that can help us in the future.

It’s just like that movie Inception. Even small ideas or actions planted in the beginning can end up changing the course of our lives.

2. It’s okay to think just about tomorrow or next week, not the next 5-10 years.

“How do we plan our future when we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow?” is another common question I’ve heard from other young people.

Very few people in the world expected that a pandemic like COVID-19 will disrupt the lives of billions of people the way it did, so we really don’t know what’s in store for us in the future. And I know it can be extra scary for younger generations who’ve grown up actually experiencing this pandemic, plus climate change, plus conflict and injustice, plus the radical changes brought by technology.

So knowing all these things, it’s still good to have a general plan on how you want your future to look like. But in the meantime, simply being able to plan the immediate next steps as you hike towards that future is enough.

In fact, having no rigid plans could be an asset because you’re flexible and adaptable when you need to be. After all, there could be one goal but many paths leading towards it.

3. It doesn’t have to be “100% or nothing”.

We’ve been told time and time again to give 100% to everything we do. But I don’t think that’s possible especially with today’s overlapping crises.

This doesn’t mean that we should always accept mediocrity. It means that we should give as close to 100% as possible to the activities that we prioritize. For those that we do not, less than 100% will do.

If we compare ourselves to smartphones, before the pandemic, we could have up to 10 apps all running at the same time and we’d still be okay. But with the added pressure, fears, and problems we experience today, even just 4-6 apps running simultaneously could be all we can take.

We have to acknowledge that, and we have to discern where our priorities truly lie. But even for those priorities, giving your 90-100% every day will not be possible. Some days are easier; others are not.

We’re not smartphones or computers after all; each day is a different challenge to wake up to.

4. Others can be more or less privileged than us, and we have to consciously understand that.

The virus is pretty much the same for everyone, but the pandemic is hurting each one of us in different ways. Some are having a much easier time and are able to thrive even in the face of crisis. But many are constantly just trying to breathe and eke out a decent living day in and day out.

Yes, there are those who found opportunity in crisis and have come out as winners despite coming from less privileged circumstances. But for 1 success story like this, there are probably 10 non-success stories that aren’t being told.

The reality is that there is no level playing field, and what I accomplish now cannot be detached from where I have been and what resources have been readily given to me.

As we try to grow even amid a pandemic, let’s be kind to ourselves when we find ourselves comparing our lives to those of our more privileged peers. And let’s also be kind – and try to extend a hand – to others who are having a harder time than us.

As we work towards a future where hopefully the playing field is more level, empathy will go a long way for now.

5. Be compassionate to others and to yourself.

If there is one quality that we should all have right now, it should be compassion.

Compassion is helping our families and loved ones in dire times. Compassion is knowing our teachers and classmates are having a hard time too. Compassion is being kind to health professionals. Compassion is supporting the small businesses that bring food to so many tables. Compassion is giving what we can to those who are most in need – and working towards a fairer, more compassionate society.

In this time of crisis, we don’t need to be heroes. We just need to be human.

But let’s not forget that we need be compassionate with ourselves too. It’s not fair to demand so much from ourselves such that there will be nothing of ourselves left to give. If we can ask for compassion from others when we need it, then we should also be making conscious decisions to be kinder to ourselves.

Take that break. Watch that movie. Enjoy that snack. Catch up on sleep. Call that friend. Read that book. Try that new thing. Hug. Laugh. Slow down. Even just for now, even just for today.

Life goes on – even in a pandemic – and let’s savor it when we can.

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