Jeff Yalden recently returned from Vietnam, traveling far afield from his home base in Myrtle Beach last month to participate in youth leadership training in Ho Chi Minh City.
It’s all in a day’s work for Yalden, 45, who has been a sought-after youth motivational and mental health speaker for more than two decades. He has addressed more than 4,000 teen audiences in all 50 states, every province in Canada and 49 countries, including Singapore and now Vietnam.
Over the three-day engagement, he spoke to 65 teenagers.
“I was honored to go. My dad served in Vietnam, and suffers from the work that he had to do. I felt it was a good opportunity to go serve with a different purpose and in a different way,” he said.
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While in Vietnam, Yalden worked closely with a translator.
“It was a challenge because you can’t really get into passion and emotion because you have to stop every couple of sentences so that it can be translated.”
Anyone who has ever seen Yalden speak can vouch for his passion. His style is hard-hitting and heartfelt – made more memorable by the fact that his message is emanating from a 6’1”, 320-pound tattooed frame with 20-inch arms and eliciting emotional responses running the gamut from laughter to tears.
He said he has been invited back for two more dates in Vietnam, and his father was invited as well to give him a better memory of the country.
“The kids were amazing. They are very disciplined and smart,” he said, adding that many of them are keeping in touch with him through Facebook.
Yalden, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., said his work is a good fit for him because his troubles started when he was 16.
“We moved to New Hampshire and I was a junior in high school. I never really opened my eyes to the possibilities of life after high school – and therefore I think my attitude needed to be adjusted.”
He had a learning disability, a facial tic and a stutter – and his self-esteem suffered tremendously.
He took the SATs twice, receiving very low scores – but he applied to 19 colleges and was accepted by three of them. Still, he was too afraid to attend because of a crushing sense of inadequacy. Instead, he joined the Marine Corps, which instilled in him core values like teamwork and self-reliance, as well as confidence and structure – just the tools he needed to start turning things around.
But he spiraled into depression after a relationship went bad and was hospitalized, displaying suicidal tendencies.
When he was honorably discharged from the Marines, Yalden had an epiphany of sorts, realizing once for all that he was solely responsible for his destiny – and he began to make transformative changes that ultimately led to his public speaking.
Yalden is still in therapy, having recently been diagnosed with major depression, bipolar II disorder and PTSD, but thankfully none of this impacts his speaking programs.
“I think I am most healthy when I am with my audience,” he said, adding that the reason he likes working with youth is because he is able to answer the commonly asked questions from high school students – and he still relates to them.
“I think I still go through it,” he said. “I often say that speakers speak about what they most need to learn.”
His work is often a journey of discovery on a very personal level, and Yalden puts it all out there, bringing a very definite authenticity to his messages – and he said he comes from a clinical approach when he is speaking.
“It’s about not reacting, but responding – so you teach people that when something triggers an emotion, you want to give them the tools to be able to respond. Reacting can get them into trouble.”
And this helps him to deal with his bipolar II disorder as well, because he says certain triggers will want to set him off periodically.
“I have to work on that too, and I’m kind of like ‘OK, remember what you talked about. That’s what you’ve got to do.’”
This can be likened to a physician who benefits from his own medicine.
Yalden is also a certified suicide prevention trainer and has authored several books: Your Life Matters, They Call Me Coach, Keep It Simple, 20 Ways to Keep It Simple and Traits of a Leader.
Although he said he does not consider teen suicide to be an epidemic, he thinks it’s greater now than it has ever been and for a number of reasons including bullying and cyber-bullying. But sometimes parents tend to make things way too easy for their children. He calls them “lawnmower parents.”
“These parents want to go and cushion everything for the kids to make them feel like maybe they can live their lives over through their kids,” he said. “They don’t want the kids to suffer and they want to be able to give them what the parents never had – or do everything for them. I think these parents are telling their kids, ‘You can do anything in life. Life is not that hard and I will protect you.”
This perhaps sets up false expectations about adult life, which is loaded with challenges, adversity and many red herrings along the way.
“I also think the expectations are great and that teenage life is not what it is all cracked up to be. There is a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations – all of these test scores and trying to get acceptance and fit in – so it’s a combination of everything.”
Add the fact that kids are now “on” 24/7 - with a dizzying array of online options, apps and social media – keeping them under the scrutiny of their peers – and many young people have adopted an entitlement mentality.
“When something hard comes along, a lot of kids don’t have coping or problem-solving skills,” he said.
His advice to parents is to allow their children to struggle and find the courage within themselves to find their way through.
“It’s going to be OK, but this is life: Paying your rent, paying your mortgage. Losing a job, finding a job. Life is hard. When you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight.”
If there are mental health issues at play, Yalden encourages young people to open up.
“Never be afraid to ask for help,” he said.
Yalden appeared as a teen life coach on the MTV reality show, “Made,” in a season 12 episode called “The Comedian.”
“I spent six weeks in Minneapolis, Minn., with an amazing young lady [Alyssa Williams] that we had to help graduate from high school and find purpose and direction in her life – and we are still friends today.”
Williams’ episode was about her attempts to break into comedy.
“MTV was probably the biggest impact on my career,” he said.
The fact that Yalden overcame a stutter and became a public speaker speaks volumes about his tenacity – and this should embolden other stutterers to take heart.
“In public speaking, I think you learn to annunciate your words better,” he said. “You are also telling a story - and sometimes when you are telling stories, you put yourself in another character – and I think that helps.”
Yalden is currently recovering from a CrossFit injury that required a spinal cord fusion.
“This year has been the hardest year of my life,” he said. “I am just getting back to feeling healthy again with my body – and I think I am a completely different person today than I have ever been. I am more present as a speaker, more present as a person – and I think I am operating less on ego and more on what my heart is really telling me I love to do.”
This is not lost on his clients, including John Trombetta, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week/Foundation for Free Enterprise Education.
“Jeff and I have known each other for approximately 10 years,” he said. “When another speaker of ours could not make a date he was scheduled for, Jeff very kindly altered his vacation route to Tennessee and stood in for him.”
He said Yalden was so impressed with the students and the weeklong intensive summer program, which teaches young people about the American free enterprise system, that he has continues to speak there each summer, free of charge.
“He believes so much in our mission and, of course, has dedicated his life to young people,” said Trombetta, adding that his organization is blessed to have many speakers who connect extremely well with young people, but Yalden has a unique ability to forge a very special connection with his audience.
“Many youth motivational speakers use entertainment and humor to connect with their audiences and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Jeff himself uses an edgy humor occasionally but it is his ability to communicate how much he genuinely cares about each of their lives individually that I think gives him a unique ability to connect one-on- one with students in an audience of thousands. He is captivating rather than being simply entertaining.
He added that Yalden’s heart is as big as the man himself.
“His devotion to youth is not just about collecting a fee, it is about changing lives and he lives it, not only when he is doing his professional gigs, but also in the quiet moments of his personal life. He is continually reflecting on how he can better serve young people. That is rare.”
Trombetta also cited the fact that Yalden is open about what he called his emotional scars and traumas.
“Rather than allow those to cripple him in any way, he has used and harnessed them to develop a message and style specifically to prevent young people from experiencing some of the things he has. His love for young people and caring about them individually is simply inspiring.”
He watches Yalden after every talk.
“He will sit for literally hours, spending as much time with each young person individually as necessary to hear their story and offer them his advice and often his shoulder. I've never seen any other speaker of the hundreds that I have known so willing to personally invest himself or herself in each and every life they encounter.”
Kevin Gentilcore, supervisor of Pupil Services at Bucks County Technical High School in Pennsylvania said that his school has invited Yalden to speak to its seniors for the past four or five years.
“He’s been outstanding,” he said. “Jeff combines straight talk, personal experience, a great sense of humor and excellent storytelling skills. He speaks to the kids in their own language and they really relate to him. In the students’ parlance, he ‘keeps it real.’”
Gentilcore said that what he likes best about Yalden is that he is an authentically caring human being.
“We had a few tragedies at our school in the past few years and Jeff took it upon himself to reach out to the students involved through [social media], which he didn’t have to do. He has a good heart, and that comes across in his presentation.”
He added that he and his colleagues like to have Yalden speak to their seniors early in the year.
“He motivated them to give their all in the final year and to make good decisions as they prepare for their future after high school.”
For more information, visit www.jeffyalden.com.