Nineteen-year-old Brandon Farbstein has an old soul. It’s not surprising, then, that while many of his peers are in their first year of college, Farbstein is managing a highly successful career, traveling to a handful of cities each month to give motivational speeches to a range of audiences. On any given day, he could be talking to students close to his own age or professionals at a Fortune 500 company.
“Public speaking is the number one phobia in the world, and literally, it’s my most comfortable place,” Farbstein says when talking about his passion. His comfort with public speaking is likely part of his genetic makeup – his parents are extroverts and community-focused – but it was also developed through his participation in the performing arts group SPARC and the Jewish Family Theatre at the Weinstein JCC, where he wowed audiences with his talents and onstage presence.
Debra Clinton, artistic director of the Jewish Family Theatre, cast Farbstein in several productions because of his strong personality and deep talent. “He has such personal strength and force of personality,” she says. “He is intelligent, motivated, and diligent, and I believe finding acceptance for his talent as a performer opened him up to the possibility of other opportunities.”
Farbstein’s talents and maturity were also recognized by the adults he encountered while in school. “Brandon is incredibly talented vocally, verbally, and intellectually,” says Marcialyn Ellis, who got to know Farbstein when she worked as a librarian at Short Pump Middle School, where Farbstein was a student. Ellis has since retired, but she has remained close friends with Farbstein and his family.
When Farbstein speaks to adult audiences, the tendency might be to assume he won’t have the experience or depth to give a compelling speech. That assumption is never realized. During my conversation with Farbstein, it became clear to me that he has more confidence, depth, and insight than most people – of any age. Ellis agrees. “He has an intuition far beyond his years,” she says. Farbstein’s depth and intuition likely developed out of the many challenges he has faced. “I’ve been through a ton in this first fraction of my life,” says Farbstein.
When Farbstein was just two years old, doctors diagnosed him with metatropic dysplasia, a skeletal disorder that is a form of dwarfism. He currently stands at three feet, nine inches, the height of an average 7-year-old. “When you’re three feet high in a world that isn’t, it’s very difficult,” says Farbstein. “I never want people to feel guilt or sympathy for me, but the challenges I have are a lot more extreme than the average person.” Because of his challenges, Farbstein says, he has to work hard to preserve his health – both physical and mental.
Farbstein is not only responsible for his own health, though. He regularly receives messages from people who have heard him speak and are struggling with their own challenges. Sometimes people tell him, “Because of you, I don’t want to kill myself anymore,” or “You gave me hope.” Given her experiences with Farbstein, Ellis isn’t surprised that he has this kind of impact. “He is going to save lives,” she says.
Although he is not a trained therapist, Farbstein understands what the people who reach out to him are going through. He reached his own low point at age eleven. That’s when Farbstein was severely bullied by classmates and felt overwhelmed by his health challenges. He recalls that at times, he felt like he could not keep going. Thankfully, Farbstein was able to get professional help and had incredible support from his family. Looking back, he can see the value gained from that painful period. “I’m extremely grateful that I had that experience when I was that young,” Farbstein says, “because I saw what being at the lowest point of life feels like and how not to get there again.”
A few years after that low point, Farbstein’s life changed drastically. In 2014, Farbstein was waiting in the airport before going on a family trip. A woman came over to talk to him because she was intrigued by the Segway mobility device he was using. They ended up talking for an hour and a half, and the woman, who was involved with the TEDx movement, recommended that Farbstein give a talk on his experiences. That chance encounter led to Farbstein giving a TEDxRVA talk in 2015 about empowerment and innovation to an audience of 2,000 people.
Although he had been acting since he was eight in local productions, he had never spoken to a crowd about his own life. During the TEDxRVA talk, he encouraged audience members to take charge of their experiences and to not let anyone else dictate how their lives would turn out. While giving that message, Farbstein discovered his own reason for being. “That was the start of the rest of my life,” he says. “I discovered my purpose and my passion, and at fifteen years old, that’s an incredible blessing to be given.”
Though he had discovered his purpose in life, he still struggled. When Farbstein was in his junior year of high school, the bullying intensified, and he began receiving death threats. The situation was not sustainable, so he left school and enrolled online. That decision came out of an intensely painful experience, but it turned out to be life-changing in a very positive way. “That ended up being one of the greatest things that ever happened to me because I was able to become a full-time professional speaker at the age of seventeen,” he says.
Farbstein planned to start college this past year and even enrolled for the semester, but the demand for his motivational speaking talents kept growing. He found he could not fully commit to public speaking while also working toward his college degree. (It didn’t help that the teacher of his required public speaking course penalized him for taking time off for public speaking.) “I left to focus on speaking full-time because I truly believe that I’m never again going to have as much energy and passion as I have at nineteen years old,” says Farbstein. “It would be selfish of me to not commit 100 percent of my energy to fulfilling my mission every single day.”
That decision to focus on motivational speaking has been worthwhile. Requests for his speaking engagements have skyrocketed, and Instagram recently named Farbstein to its list of the nineteen most influential people under nineteen. Appearing on a list with highly influential celebrities was incredible for Farbstein, but he takes it all in stride. “It’s not about the accolades; it’s about the impact,” he says. “Knowing that I can better the world wakes me up every single day and keeps me going.”
The Anti-bullying Mission
Beyond motivational speaking, Farbstein has made an impressive impact in a variety of ways. In the past couple of years, he helped pass two anti-bullying bills in Virginia. One of the bills, HB45, requires the Family Life Education curriculum in Virginia schools to include lessons on personal privacy, personal boundaries, and respect. “Unfortunately, we can’t expect every single household to teach what it means to be a great member of society,” says Farbstein. “By providing that in schools,” Farbstein explains, “we’re able to teach that you don’t need to be a superhero to have a positive impact and be a kind person to the people around you.”
Another bill, HB1709, requires school administrators to alert parents within five days of their child’s involvement in a bullying incident. That particular bill was inspired by Farbstein’s own experiences. “Fortunately, I was able to be my own self-advocate,” Farbstein says, “but there are so many kids who can’t and are afraid to speak up, so this is another stepping stone to make families feel supported.”
When Farbstein speaks to audiences across the country, he often tackles the issue of bullying. He recently talked to eighth graders during a career fair at Tuckahoe Middle School. He was invited by teacher Brewster Brown, who had met Farbstein several years before and was impressed with the young man’s determination and maturity. As Brown explains, Farbstein encouraged the students to think about the roles they play as individuals and the reason why people are unkind. “A lot of his message comes from having been bullied by kids saying narrow-minded, stereotypical things,” says Brown. “His presentation helped us understand that bullies are suffering, too.”
Unfortunately, Farbstein still deals with bullies. Along with countless messages of gratitude on social media, he receives hate messages and death threats regularly. “The amount of hate I get every single day is overwhelming,” he says. Instead of letting the hate get to him, he uses it emphasize the power of empathy and love. “I’ve come to realize that hurt people hurt people,” Farbstein says. “I want to help those people. I want them to realize they don’t need to be that miserable and spread that hurt because it’s just going to make everything worse.”
Youth Empowerment, Mental Health, and Social Media
Since his TEDxRVA talk, Farbstein has pursued his passion for empowering individuals to be their best. While he enjoys speaking to all audiences, he feels a special pull toward young people. And they feel drawn to his messages. Many of the students at Tuckahoe talked to Brown afterwards about the impact Farbstein had on them. “When Brandon spoke, his character and inner strength came through in his voice and through his message,” Brown says, adding that Farbstein’s theme of accepting others is a message students of all ages need to hear again and again.
Farbstein’s ability to tap into something deeper and empower youth has also emerged in his involvement with March for Our Lives, the youth-led movement advocating for gun safety and gun-violence prevention measures. “The role I play is empowerment,” Farbstein says. “I teach young people that you can make a stand, that your voice does count, and that you can make a difference.”
Last year, at March for Our Lives, Farbstein got to know the movement’s organizer and co-founder of the student-led advocacy group, Never Again MSD, Cameron Kasky. The two have become friends, bonding over their passion for advocacy and drive to effect positive change. “Brandon is one of the brightest innovators I have been lucky enough to meet,” says Kasky. “His way of looking at the issues life throws at you is very refreshingly optimistic in these abysmal times.”
Farbstein is proud of his generation for taking a stand on important issues as well as for reducing the stigma of mental illness. Like many young people, he has been open about the depression he suffered in middle school because he feels it is important to share those experiences. In his talks and in his own life, Farbstein emphasizes that mental health depends on making fulfilling choices. “I’m surrounding myself with the best people, both professionally and personally,” says Farbstein. “Without an incredible support system, you can’t continue on no matter what age you are.”
Making good mental health choices applies not just to friends, but also to social media. In his talks to youth, Farbstein tries to drill in the importance of being mindful of what they watch and read. “If we’re constantly consuming content that is negative and fueled by hate and anger, how can we expect to be happy?” He encourages his audiences to unfollow people whose content does not uplift them.
Farbstein himself enjoys engaging with people through social media, but he works to deliver content that is relevant, inspiring, and empowering. “If you follow someone like Brandon,” Brown says, “you’re going to feel better.”
Sharing the Message
Last year, Farbstein contributed more inspiring content when he wrote and self-published his first book, Ten Feet Tall: Step Into Your Truth and Change Your Freaking World. He wrote the book to share his message with people who might otherwise not have the chance to hear it. Christina Tinker, a motivational speaker and friend of the Farbsteins, recently read it and bought a copy for her 10-year-old. “This is what our kids need to be hearing,” says Tinker. “They need to hear these messages of hope, courage, and determination.”
While Farbstein used to tell people he dreamed of becoming a journalist, his goals have shifted a bit. “Definitely one goal is becoming a New York Times bestselling author before I turn twenty-one,” Farbstein says. He is already working on another book, but it’s too early in the process for him to reveal the topic. He also hopes to continue impacting more people. “Last year I reached three million,” he says about his social media and public speaking reach. “This year I hope to reach five million, next year ten million, and just keep building from there.”
While Farbstein still has days when he feels frustrated with his physical challenges and angry at the adversity he faces, he realizes there is a greater purpose. “I believe I was put here with the hand of cards I’ve been given for a reason,” Farbstein says. “I see what that reason is and I tap into it every single day.”
feature photo: Scott Schwartzkopf