Brandon Farbstein is an internationally acclaimed motivational speaker, author, and Generation Z activist.
Jay Ruderman (00:00):
Public speaking is Americans’ biggest fear. Now, imagine you bump into someone in the airport and they tell you they want you to speak to a crowd of thousands at a TEDx Talk.
Speaker 2 (00:17):
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman (00:27):
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and this is All Inclusive. Our guest today is Brandon Farbstein, and he did just that, and now he gives motivational speeches across the country. Brandon, thank you for joining us today and really enjoyed watching your TED Talk and learning a little bit more about you. Why don’t you tell us about where you grew up and how you got your start in activism?
Brandon Farbstein (01:00):
Absolutely. Well, first off thank you so much for having me, Jay, I’m honored to be on. And I really found my voice when I was 15, and I’ll get into that. But a little bit more of a backstory, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and I have a rare form of dwarfism, so I stand at 3’9″ and obviously don’t have “the average perspective.”
Jay Ruderman (01:28):
One thing that struck me that I heard you say in one of your recordings was a pivotal time in your life when you were 15 years old and lost hope and contemplated suicide. And I want to talk a little bit about mental health and how you got to that point and how you pivoted and said, “Okay, well, I’m not going down that direction and I’m choosing a different direction in my life.”
Brandon Farbstein (01:59):
Absolutely. Mental health for me has always been a very big aspect of my life and just my journey in general. And it really began for me when I was 11 years old and that is when depression and suicidal thoughts really hit me like a tsunami. There was no one specific thing that happened or that set me off but I got home from school one day, I think it was either in the fifth or the sixth grade, and I said to my mom, “I can’t do this anymore. There’s no point of me being here. I’m weird, I’m ugly, and I’m going to go kill myself.”
Brandon Farbstein (02:41):
And at that point in my life I was so done with suffering as much as I did. And it wasn’t just the emotional suffering but with my conditions comes daily pain and mobility issues. So having both of those stacked against you along with society just automatically not accepting you on the first glance because you’re so different and people aren’t used to that, and again, I thought that was such a negative thing for me. But it wasn’t until I got to that moment where I was moments away from ending my life and my mom was the one that physically stopped me from doing so.
Brandon Farbstein (03:25):
And I reached the point where I started getting professional help and it took about six different therapists and counselors for me to finally find one that I could be comfortable enough to open up to and be raw and real with. But I think understanding how vital it is to find somebody to speak to, finding a professional that can get you out of the hole that you’re in, because the truth of the matter is this, we cannot do this thing called life by ourselves. We need this constant love and support of not only our family and friends but also people in the mental health field, doctors, professionals that are able to help us when we need help.
Brandon Farbstein (04:11):
And I think a big misconception is that it’s weak to ask for help. But in fact, I think it’s one of the most empowering things that we can do for ourselves when we’re able to speak up and say, “You know what? I’m not in a great place right now. I need to find someone to help get me out.” That’s not only doing a huge service, giving yourself a huge gift for getting yourself out of that place that you’re in, but truly it’s unlocking your potential to give the light and the gifts that you have inside of you and share that with the rest of the world.
Brandon Farbstein (04:47):
And for me, that’s been huge to help me get out of my own way and understand the fact that what I’m doing is so much bigger than me. And even if I’m having a crappy day, what I always do to snap myself out of it is figuring out how I could make somebody else’s day just a little bit better. And it’s honestly as simple as sending a text to a friend saying, “Hey, I’m checking in on you. How are you doing? Thinking about you.” Or it’s calling up somebody that you haven’t connected with in a few months or maybe a couple of years and just saying, “Hi.”
Brandon Farbstein (05:24):
We often think that we have to make these huge monumental shifts for change to happen but I would argue that you don’t need to change everything for everything to change, start with what you can control, which is your own inner world, focusing on where your thoughts are going and what is consuming your time and energy as well and it makes the world of a difference truly.
Jay Ruderman (05:49):
So there’s so much to talk about and unpack from what you just said, but I just want to dig a little bit deeper. I mean, your family, your contemplating suicide must’ve been so traumatic and difficult for them but yet it seems like they were a pivotal part of getting you the help that you needed to have a different perspective on life. And maybe if you feel comfortable talking about how your family reacted and how they really helped you out in that situation.
Brandon Farbstein (06:21):
Yeah, absolutely. For me, I have two superheroes as parents and my mom and dad have always pushed me to be my own advocate and to speak up when I need to, whether it’s for myself or it’s the world around me that I see something going on and I need to say something. But I think it’s having the mindset that they always instilled in me that, yes, I’m different. Yes, I have things going on that other people don’t but that’s not a reason to live life small and to not be the fullest version of who Brandon is. And I think it’s also a really big aspect to not try, and if your child has a difference, making them work really hard to love that person and who they see in the mirror. Because it’s really difficult obviously when society is telling you, “You’re weird, you’re ugly, you’re deformed,” all these things, but you have to make the voice inside your head the loudest influence and the loudest of them all.
Brandon Farbstein (07:34):
And my parents did a really incredible job of that ever since I was very young and started recognizing I think when I was four, when I had one of my major leg surgeries and I was the only one in a wheelchair, they made me realize that, yes, I’m different and I’m unique but that’s such a gift, and other people don’t have the gifts that I have. And just coming from a place of love and as much acceptance of myself and the world around me as possible, but obviously I had to learn a lot of that for myself and through the experiences that I had. But going back to what it was like for them I can see from the place that I’m at now how devastating it was.
Brandon Farbstein (08:26):
And it must have been that we weren’t able to talk about because I was obviously going through my own battle and it was a matter of life and death at that point. And they were also going through a battle trying to get me out of that but also the toll that it takes on my older sister and our family as a whole. So I have just so much love and admiration for my family for really helping me become the person that I am today and pushing me out of those darkest moments.
Jay Ruderman (09:02):
Let’s talk a little bit about the bullying because obviously that bullying affected you greatly and led you to a place where you were in a very dark spot and considering suicide. What was it like growing up? Were you in the public school system where these classmates, where these random people on the street… Because you’ve born the brunt of bullying. Was it cyber bullying or was it face-to-face? I mean, how did you experience that?
Brandon Farbstein (09:38):
Yeah, I always went to public school from K until I graduated 12th grade. And it started as just not being included in things, especially in the elementary and early middle school years. And I wouldn’t exactly call that bullying but right as social media started to really become an integral part of our lives probably back in 2013-ish. I was in, I think the seventh grade, that’s when I started really feeling the effects of cyber bullying and having that ripple across my life and to not just being on my phone but also being in school and changing the way people react to me.
Brandon Farbstein (10:33):
And it started just going really viciously into me being different and knowing that I wasn’t like the other kids. I honestly started hating myself and I wanted nothing more than to fit in and to have friends and to be invited to places and accepted. And I started listening to the things that people would say about me that I would never find love and how unattractive I was. And this really got to a boiling point in high school though, that’s when it got really bad for me.
Brandon Farbstein (11:14):
It started the very first week of my freshman year. And as you probably saw in the TEDx Talk I ride this mini Segway that at the time was this really cool-looking bright yellow Transformer-like Lamborghini hybrid thing that obviously drew a lot of attention. And when you’re in a high school with 2000 peers, you don’t want that type of attention and it was not positive at all. Unfortunately, the first incident I think was literally on the second day of school and it was a tweet that was sent out, a picture of me in the hall on my Segway saying, “The first person to punch this midget off the Segway gets $5.” That was what greeted me when I got to high school and it went absolutely downhill from there.
Brandon Farbstein (12:09):
But the interesting part and where I thought things would change was towards the end of my freshman year was when I gave my TEDx Talk. And I thought that would help and I thought it would make me be looked at differently like I was more than just the small kid and I was more than the person that was on the receiving end of all of these attacks on social media constantly, but unfortunately it made it worse. And like I just mentioned, having that type of attention in a school of 2000 people where everybody wants to be the same, everybody wants to fit in and follow the trends and do what everyone else is doing, it was literal hell for me.
Brandon Farbstein (12:54):
And it got to the point where I started receiving a new death threat, what seemed like almost every single week from the peers at my school, ranging from having them send me emails through the motivational speaking website that I set up, or making fake accounts on Instagram that said, “This disgusting midget should have been gassed in the Holocaust.” Or, “Who the F does he think he is? Nobody gives a damn about what he has to say.” Just all of these sick, sick things.
Brandon Farbstein (13:30):
And then I finally received one that made me just stop in my tracks. It was an email that I got saying, “Midget, if you don’t kill yourself somebody is going to come to your house on Thursday and shank you in the kidney.” And at that point I realized, “Wow, I can’t do this anymore. This is so toxic. This is affecting literally every aspect of my life.” It wasn’t just my school performance, it wasn’t just my mental health, but as you can imagine going through those traumas week after week and almost every single day walking into that school and feeling like you’re the target amongst nearly all of these people is an incredibly difficult thing.
Brandon Farbstein (14:20):
But I think what kept me afloat was the fact that I had this mission that I discovered. And if I didn’t have the realization that I had of what my purpose is at 15 through that TEDx Talk and having something bigger than me that could serve as my strength and inspiration that I could fall back on when I had none of my own, I don’t know what the outcome would have been but it definitely would not be me sitting here with the work that I’ve done and the accomplishments that I’ve been able to achieve because of making that decision that I’m not going to be the victim of my circumstances anymore. I’m going to use what I have and become the victor.
Jay Ruderman (15:05):
Was your school system at any… Did they help at all throughout this process?
Brandon Farbstein (15:09):
I’ll be as honest as I can and I’m just going to blatantly say, no, they did not help. They were being the opposite of helpful for a lot of these specific cases and just… I think the mindset that they had and albeit it was, if it’s not happening on school property, AKA, it was happening in the afternoon or in the evenings, so they claimed it wasn’t during school hours or on school grounds, that there wasn’t anything that they could do.
Brandon Farbstein (15:41):
And there was part of me that absolutely understood that. But the other part of me that didn’t is when there started to become videos and pictures of me in the halls of my high school, clearly showing during the school day this was happening. And even if it was being waited to post until after the school day which these kids were smart in trying to evade the rules as much as possible, but what really shocked both myself and my family is when it started to get into all these threats and people saying for me to not only kill myself but that I was going to get hurt.
Brandon Farbstein (16:26):
And another one that came in was somebody who was going to put an IED bomb on my Segway. And obviously just this crazy array of things that people clearly did not mean and were saying it to try and get attention or try and get a response from me. But we then involved the local police department and tried to get the district attorney involved in pressing charges and even just getting a restraining order to find out who this person was so that I wasn’t in any actual harm. Because I went into this school every day not knowing who was behind these attacks. And that was just retraumatizing so much to not only be on the receiving end of all of this hate and the disgusting vile comments, but to think that anybody around me, anybody I was sitting next to in a classroom could have been the ones that did it.
Brandon Farbstein (17:29):
And what we chose to do through a friendship that we had with a state delegate here in Virginia, we decided to start testifying at the Virginia General Assembly. And I think I testified about five different times to various committees and subcommittees sharing my story and sharing really what it was like to actually be on the receiving end of something like this and have to leave my high school midway through my junior year because I started getting all of these death threats and I was terrified to walk in that building and let alone the effect that it was having on me mental health wise. And we were able to get two laws passed, one that is a bullying prevention aim and the other one that’s big on social and emotional learning that requires empathy to be taught in the public school curriculum, starting in kindergarten and building on every single year from that until they graduate high school.
Jay Ruderman (18:31):
People have talked about mental health and I think life today is extremely stressful no matter who you are. And I think it’s becoming more acceptable to talk about mental health and not just to bottle everything up inside which ultimately will lead to very negative feelings and self-harm. You touched on it but I just want to delve a little bit deeper into the fact that you really helped pass two new laws in Virginia around bullying and social, emotional learning. One specifically that requires curriculum on empathy to be taught in all K-12 classrooms. I wonder if you could just delve a little bit more deeply into that process and what these laws aim to accomplish.
Brandon Farbstein (19:23):
Yeah. The first one that we got passed in 2017 when I first started testifying fixed a loophole that allowed school administrators to basically keep families and parents out of the loop of what was going on involving a bullying investigation or an incident. And we really discovered how detrimental that is for families when my own was trying to… Obviously my parents like I mentioned are my biggest superheroes and they wanted nothing more than to be involved in all of these different cases and trying to make sure I’m as safe as possible. But when they requested to get information or to get a call back from the principal or the administration we received nothing, and it was almost like we were left on a deserted island with no support system around from the school.
Brandon Farbstein (20:22):
And this first law requires school administrators and officials to alert parents within five days of an investigation, mandating that they have to report what their findings are and what next steps are in terms of if their child was a victim, what the punishment is for the perpetrator, and the plan to sure that it doesn’t happen again. And if the child is the bully, then obviously alerting the parents that they’re in trouble and whatever the disciplinary action is on that point.
Brandon Farbstein (21:01):
And that for me was a smaller step in the direction of where I wanted to go. Every little bit counts, no doubt, but this next one that you mentioned on empathy for me is definitely one of my proudest accomplishments because I truly believe everything good starts with empathy. Humanity begins with empathy. Empathy is the line in the sand of where to start from in terms of all of these different issues that we’re trying to address. I think instead of being reactive we have to be proactive.
Speaker 2 (21:41):
You’re listening to All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more, view the show notes and transcripts at rudermanfoundation.org/ allinclusive.
Jay Ruderman (21:52):
Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you are listening. Brandon, I want to take you back through what was a pivotal moment in your life. In October of 2014, and you’re in an airport about to go with your family to catch a flight to Miami, and a woman comes up to you and you have a talk for an hour and a half and the next thing you know you’re giving a TEDx Talk. Tell me about what that experience was like.
Brandon Farbstein (22:25):
After that talk in front of about 1500 people, and I had these older gentlemen in suits coming up to me with tears in their eyes saying you unlocked something in me that I didn’t know I had buried deep down. I was bullied when I was younger and I didn’t realize how much of an effect I was still letting it have on me. And then I was having other people saying, “You completely changed the way that I’m going to see my kids.” And then others saying, “I no longer want to kill myself anymore because of your story and your perspective.”
Brandon Farbstein (22:59):
And the more that I started doing it, whether it was to fellow teenagers or it was to rotary clubs is where I started and doing a lot of local groups in Richmond where I grew up and just trying to get obviously as much experience but learning as much as I possibly could when I was starting out and seeing just how monumental it can be when you allow the truth to come out and you’re yourself. And people really resonate with that in a very enormous way.
Jay Ruderman (23:36):
It’d amazing how one talk and then everything else that you’ve done so far can really impact people. And for anyone who hasn’t seen it I urge them to google it and to check out your TEDx Talk before COVID-19 and how that’s really changed our world, we had probably the lowest unemployment rate in the United States in quite a long time, I think it was under 4%. Yet people with disabilities routinely pulled at being unemployed over 70%, and there’s a great disparity there. And you’re talking about a big segment of our population that essentially is frozen out of the employment sector. And I’m wondering, because you speak to corporations and you speak to heads of businesses, and how do you make the case for a more inclusive workplace and community?
Brandon Farbstein (24:43):
I think so many business leaders especially are nervous to even start that movement and go in the right direction because they’ve never dealt with somebody with different abilities on their team, or they’ve ever had somebody that needs physical accommodations or something to help them read on their computer, whatever the thing is. And unfortunately that fear and just the overall ignorance of not dealing with it prevents a lot of action in a positive direction to be even had in the first place.
Brandon Farbstein (25:20):
MY challenge is, think about who can perform at the best ability with what you’re looking to do. And for so many of these things, I’ll use the creative field, for example. I know such a plethora of disabled artists and graphic designers and writers and people that are literally some of the most talented individuals that I know that just like you said have been really finding it difficult to get work and have people look beyond their disabilities, beyond their walker, or the wheelchair, or for somebody like me being short stature. And it has to be radically changed.
Brandon Farbstein (26:09):
With my own two eyes I’ve seen how incredible individuals with disabilities specifically are in so many of these roles that have never been filled by somebody with a disability, because obviously we have a different way of seeing the world through the experiences and the adversity and the hardships and also the innovation that I believe every single person with a disability has naturally, that we’re born with. Because most of us are living in a world that wasn’t built for us to accommodate us so we have to make sure we can accommodate ourselves.
Brandon Farbstein (26:50):
And I really would encourage leadership from the top down to do a deep look into who is on their team and where they could expand the trajectory of what they’re trying to do by including folks like us who have so much value to bring to the table that, yes, have disabilities. I’m 3’9″, I can’t reach certain things. Other than that I’m Brandon, I’m somebody that has a bright mind and a big heart. And with anybody I just think it’s so vital to not get lost in what accommodations they might need or how they’re going to need to retrain their team while all of the minutia that gets in the way of productive action being taken.
Jay Ruderman (27:50):
I would just say for all those friends of yours who are talented, please send them my way because I’m always looking to engage with people like that that have ideas that are out of the box. I wanted to talk to you about a book you wrote called Ten Feet Tall: Step Into Your Truth and Change Your Freaking World. Tell us a little bit about the book, what it’s about, how you went about writing it, and what impact it’s had.
Brandon Farbstein (28:23):
Yeah, absolutely. When I was 18 I decided to release this book, Ten Feet Tall, and I didn’t want it to just be about my story and the experiences that I’ve had and the lessons that I’ve learned, I absolutely wanted that to be an integral part of the book. But like I keep saying, the mission that I’m on is so much bigger than just me or just my story and I wanted to share so many of these powerful tools and really anecdotes that I’ve learned to dealing with life and dealing with adversity as a whole and negative experiences that we all suffer from.
Brandon Farbstein (29:03):
And it’s through learning new things and strengthening our mindset as much as possible that we can not only overcome those things but turn something great out of them, not just for ourselves but for the world around us. And that’s really why I think it’s so vital to share your truth and to step into the realest version of who you are, not putting on a facade, not acting like everything is perfect, or you don’t deal with any negativity. That’s not who we are, we’re human beings and I really believe if we can strip down all these complicated layers of what divide us, whether it’s politics or different ways of thinking or just whatever it is.
Brandon Farbstein (29:49):
And it’s a universal message in the book of living life on your own terms and elevating your mindset to become 10 feet tall and really be in the driver’s seat of this life and the journey that you’re going to have to not let autopilot take over when you’re in a dark place, when you are depressed, or anxious, or fearful, but really recognizing the fact that we can’t control what other people are doing. We can’t control what’s going on around us but we can always control what’s going on in our own inner world.
Brandon Farbstein (30:26):
And Ten Feet Tall is a guide to how to do that both for anyone that is a teenager up until adults. I’ve had people in their 80s reach out to me saying how much they enjoyed the book and that it inspired them and changed the way that they look at things. And for me, it’s such a gift to be able to give that to people and use what I’ve been given and my story as a whole to serve as a catalyst for strength and inspiration in others.
Jay Ruderman (30:56):
That’s awesome. And I’m just… Really, your positivity has made quite an impact on me during this conversation. You are a role model to so many people out there. I know you have a big following and I’m just curious, do you have any role models? Are there any people that you look up to who are doing similar things or different things in society that you’re like, “I love what they’re doing and I want to follow their example?”
Brandon Farbstein (31:31):
I do, most definitely. When I was pretty early on in the speaking and the advocacy work that I started doing, it really was Tony Robbins that was my biggest hero and not just for what he had achieved but the impact that he’s been able to have with his life on tens of millions of people all around the world. I still would love to emulate that and have that level of influence and inspiration and really just societal change coming from having the conversations that I do through my work.
Brandon Farbstein (32:08):
But now it’s definitely shifted to having a lot more admiration for individuals that are on the front lines actually doing the work. I have so many activist friends that are incredible, really role models in themselves, raging from gun violence to mental health, to bullying prevention, to diversity and inclusion, and really every area of advocacy that is prominent right now. I to surround myself with as many of those folks as possible.
Brandon Farbstein (32:43):
And an example of somebody that is a true hero to me that I was able to spend some time with is Martin Luther King III. MLK’s son is somebody that I’ve been able to develop a friendship with over the last few months. I met him in DC when he was there for MLK Day and I got to spend a couple of days with him and his family and just talk about strength and power. Wow, I am so moved truly by individuals like Martin, who are able to induce so much change that is intergenerational. It’s intersocietal, it’s affecting people not just from his own community but every walk of life is able to become better leaders and really just better people because of the work that these folks are doing.
Jay Ruderman (33:41):
Brandon, what’s next for you? Have you thought about entering into the political sphere? Is there some other road that you’d like to go down? I mean, you’re a young man, you’ve already done a major talk that’s gotten a lot of attention and many other public speaking events, you’ve published a book. Where do you want to go from here?
Brandon Farbstein (34:07):
Really, I am at a point in my life right now where I feel like this is exactly where I need to be and in this role that I’m in it’s also exactly what I need to be doing. But I absolutely want to expand as much as I can on this messaging and the overall presence that I am and the brand that I have as well that is beyond me. And I’m really trying to be a movement leader, not just an influencer and a thought leader, but I want to lead a movement of people, elevating empathy and having it start within themselves so that they’re able to change the world around them.
Brandon Farbstein (34:54):
But truly if we don’t focus on our own self-care and wellbeing, then how can we expect to be of service or of impact to the world as a whole. And so I’m on this mission of trying to make empathy so relevant for every walk of life that I speak to through my online content, my book, and obviously my speaking as well. But really, I think the next chapter for me is trying to go on the front lines with so many of these organizations that I’ve done work with. And whether it’s a social media company or right now I’m working on a campaign with the United Nations and Warner Music around civic engagement and empathy.
Brandon Farbstein (35:40):
And really, it’s just identifying how I can be a change maker. And I can offer a perspective to these companies and organizations that like we talked about in the beginning isn’t just my message, diversity and inclusion, and empathy, and innovation, but it’s also making sure that I’m representing Gen Z. I’m representing people with disabilities, I’m representing folks that may not have a voice that feel invisible, that feel small, whatever it is. And I have a big responsibility that I want to keep up and I want to make sure I’m doing as much as I possibly can.
Brandon Farbstein (36:27):
I’m excited to see where that leads. And in the next few months I am definitely looking forward to aligning with opportunities like that UN one and I’m about to start working on a large scale global campaign with one of the number one social media company’s platforms in the world right now on inclusion that I’m really excited about. I just think that I want to continue on the path that I’m on right now but definitely when things shift and when I want to move in a different direction or I want to try new things I’m always open to that.
Jay Ruderman (37:06):
Well, I have no doubt you’ll continue to go from success to success. I mean, one of the things that during our conversation has really come through is you meet so many people and it’s all about the ego and I think it holds them back from being more powerful. If you look at people throughout history who’ve really changed our world from Martin Luther King, to Gandhi, to so many others, it wasn’t about them it was about a cause. And they were able to obviously have a leadership role but it wasn’t all about them, and I think you get that, you get that more than most people that I speak to. I wish you so much success. It’s been such a pleasure speaking to you. I’m glad we were able to have this time and you gave us the time out of your schedule to speak to us and I really wish you all the best and hope we can keep in touch as things move forward.
Brandon Farbstein (38:12):
Definitely. Well, Jay, I just wanted to express how much adoration and respect I have for you and the Ruderman Family Foundation for the incredible work that you all continue to do, and I’m so excited to see the impact that has continued to be made on a daily basis by you and your team.
Jay Ruderman (38:31):
Thanks so much, I really appreciate it. And be well.
Brandon Farbstein (38:34):
All-Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All-Inclusive on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.