Just prior to attending my second TEDx event (this one in Waterloo), I got a lot of questions form friends and family:
- What is the conference about?
- What are you going to get out of it?
- Who is going to be there?
I would just smile, and say “I’ll tell you when I get back.” I could have told them about TED’s tagline of ‘Ideas worth Spreading’, pointed them to the TED.com website, or have said ‘I am going to spend some time amongst other people –like me– that just love ideas’, but somehow those didn’t do a good job of explaining why I go. People are conditioned to want to know ‘what’s in it for me’ (WIIFM) or ‘what’s in it for you’ (WIIFY). I couldn’t explain TEDx in their ‘immediate payback’ terms.
Not being able to answer WIIFM would never stop me from doing something that I know is intuitively right, but for those that need to understand, I think I have figured it out: It helps ignite your brain and create ideas.
After two events –TEDx Ottawa and TEDx Waterloo– I have noticed that there is one thing I consistently get out of attending: The days after a TEDx event are filled with the relentless churning of my brain giving me ideas, so fast that I have trouble keeping track of them.
In brain science, there is an adage that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. New neural pathways are created a lot in your youth during your brain’s hyper-plastic phases, but as people get older they –and their brain’s wiring– tend to get set in their ways. Your brain is designed to find the path of least resistance, so as you get older you try harder and harder to use those existing neural pathways to solve problems, relate to the world, and to other people, because it required less energy (literally!). You may start to surround yourself with like-minded people because it is less effort than to try and relate to those that have very different views than yours. Group-think ensues.
When you are at a TEDx conference (and I would venture to guess, a TED conference) you are presented such a plethora of big ideas, that come from all directions, it forces your brain to start creating new pathways between parts of your brain that perhaps never talked to each other before. In the following short summaries of each presenter, I will talk about the new ‘Oh Snap!’ moment that each presenter gave me; that moment where my brain found two previously unrelated concepts and slammed them together.
Disclaimer for other TEDx Waterloo participants: your brains are different than mine, your results will vary. I would be very happy to hear your own epiphanies in the comments field below!!
Terry O’Reilly on Friction
My friend Gary kept asking me I had yet listened to ‘Age of Persuasion‘, and two days before TEDx I got around to listening. I was happily impressed with the quality and content of the show, took some notes, and filed it away. I hadn’t paid much attention to who was presenting at TEDx Waterloo, since I knew one of the key organizers, and his reputation told me it was going to be some great content. Then Terry O’Reilly walks up on stage… I look down at my notebook and see that I am still writing on the same pages as my notes from his radio show?! Find this hard to believe? Have a look at the dates and content of my notebook:
For those cynical bastards that choose to think that I had just looked up Terry because I was going to see him at TEDx: You are a cynical bastard.
So what was the O’Snap moment? FRICTION can create CREDIBILITY
Terry gave several examples in his talk about how people were not willing to believe in products that seemed too miraculous: antiseptics like Bactine that wouldn’t sell because they no longer caused pain, and hair products that were marketed as working in 30 minutes (instead of the actual 2) because it was more consistent with the salon experience. Because the new product was so far from the customer’s previous experience, it lacked credibility. That credibility was only created by adding some friction (alcohol back into the antiseptic to create pain, or a 30-minute wait before rinsing in the conditioner) to allow the customers to believe in the product. For those of you who have seen my presentation on ‘Made to Stick‘ and/or read the book by Chip and Dan Heath you will remember how important credibility is to make a message sticky!
A quick chat with Terry after the presentation (another great perk of TEDx) also allowed me to conclude two things: 1) I like the guy and 2) I am now a Terry O’Reilly fan.
Philip Beesley on the Hylozoic Ground
If I were putting on an event like this, I would start and finish with ‘sure things’; that is, presentations that will appeal and be understood by the whole audience (Terry and Amy were good choices!). Speaker #2 allows you to take risks with topics that might really challenge the audience to relate and understand.
Well, it was a challenge for me anyway. Philip’s current project is beautiful, shows great imagination, and I am really glad there are places in the world that nurture this kind of creativity. I hope some day to see his work in person, and that would allow me to have a greater link to the work he clearly has so much passion for. While I found it hard to grasp, there were a couple of Oh Snaps! that got my brain churning:
In cities we stand on fragile ground, which is not a natural state for human beings. When you think about it, if you are standing in nature: on a beach, or on a mountain top, you are standing on solid earth that is (in human terms) immovable, solid and permanent. In cities, we stand on paved streets above the voids of sewers, subways or in buildings comprised of many layers of poured concrete hanging precariously in space. Does the human mind perceive this? Are we impacted buy it? I don’t know, but it certainly made me go hmmmm…
Almost contradictory to his previous point (but this assumes I understand it), using materials that are pushed to their structural limits, on the verge of collapse, leads to more sensitivity and a state of calm. This made me think of asian architecture where rooms are separated by paper walls and materials that seem engineered to be ‘just strong enough’ to fulfill their designed purpose. Does this actually have an impact on culture? Again, I don’t know… but it made me go hmmm…
Aimee Mullins on Dis-abled vs. En-Abled
TEDx organizers choose TED videos to be presented during the event that are consistent with the chosed TEDx theme. Being an avid TED video fan, I had seen Aimee’s (2nd) TED talk before, but TED videos are always best experienced in groups, so I was happy to see it again!
Oh Snap! moment: “That’s not fair!” With advances in science, people who in the past would have been viewed as ‘disabled’ could instead be viewed as almost super-human. For Star Trek TNG fans, you can think of Geordi La Forge, the blind officer who’s visual prosthetic allows him super-human vision. For a more recent example, you can look to the career of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee ‘blade runner’, who’s gets banned from races because people think his carbon-fibre legs give him an unfair advantage! Aimee uses the example of how she can vary her height by 6″ depending on the pair of prosthetics she chooses. Imagine using this to your advantage in a business meeting where (unfortunately) height still translates into higher salaries and promotions!
Ray Laflamme on Quantum Computing
I have a degree in Engineering Physics, which required me to take courses in quantum mechanics. If I had a professor like Ray, I might still be passionate about that field instead of afraid of it!
Oh Snap!: I have been trying to understand the concepts behind the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment for years, and Ray explained it for me in 10 seconds… If a bullet can be in two places at once (quantum superposition theory), and cat is shot, the cat can be both alive and dead. While it begs the question of ‘What do physicists have against cats?’ it finally cemented this concept for me after 14 years of trying. Thanks Ray!
<BREAK where I got to chat with some cool participants and speakers>
Paul Saltzman on The Beatles
You ever met a person who is funny without even having to try? That’s Paul.
He tells a story about how he bumps into The Beatles while trying to learn how to meditate in India. The Beatles had secluded themselves from the world, and their meditations led to 48 songs being written during a 7 week period. Paul S. has a picture of The Beatles whilst composing their hit ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, and speaks of profound conversations with George Harrison in particular (for the pic, see David’s great summary of the event HERE).
Oh Snap!: Nothing Changes Until You Do. Much of our focus is placed on how we change OTHERs’ attitudes or behaviours. How much time and energy to we spend thinking about how we change ourselves? If life isn’t about the fans, the money, the ‘success’ but love, health and peace inside, (as George Harrison said to Paul) isn’t the time best spent trying to understand how you can change yourself to meet these objectives? That said…I am off to the gym.
Caroline Disler on the ‘Western Civilization’ Misnomer
Caroline explains how the term ‘Western Civilization’ is a very polarizing term that down-plays the significant –if not dominant– influences of the whole world (and the middle east in particular) in the development of what is now called ‘Western Civilization’. For example, we often credit the Greek philosophers as the origin of many of our concepts, including scientific thought. Caroline illustrated that the Greeks credit much of their thought to the Egyptians and Indians, and their knowledge was only allowed to be passed on by the patronage of Persians (Iran) when they were persecuted by the Christians. Ironic huh? Also notable was how the very influential ‘western’ philosophy of Thomas Aquinas was in turn influenced by works of arab philosophers like Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali who he cited 31 times.
Oh Snap!: I am going to wait until the next summary. Caroline’s talk was like a perfect setup and complement to the next presentation, a TED video of Wade Davis.
Wade Davis on Endangered Cultures
This guy should get a short film Oscar for colourful use of hyperbole! Lines like “to have that powder blown up your nose is rather like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with Baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity” brought uproarious laughter from the crowd.
Oh Snap!: Different cultures create different realities. Wether it is an Inuit hunter fashioning a shiv out of his frozen feces to kill food, or a tribe from NE Ecuador where 54% of their mortality rate is from spearing each other to death (but could track specific animals from the smell of their urine), or a culture where the children see their first sunrise at the age of 18, they see the world in very importantly different ways than our own culture. I used to think that the increasing hegemony of cultures was actually a good thing… perhaps a side-effect of my own colonialist culture that actually celebrates Ethnocide as a form of developing civilization. I thought that the more we understand each other, or even become like each other, the less conflict there will be in the world. But wait, remember that ‘group think’ comment form earlier? You avoid this and increase the richness in the world by ensuring that cultures are not eradicated. This was the first time that I really understood the Canadian perspective of ‘multiculturalism’ vs. the American ‘melting pot’ concept.
A very tangible example of different cultural realities creating great contributions to the world is the work of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. VS is a neurologist who devised a means to alleviate phantom limb pain and fix limbs previously ‘locked in’ (paralyzed) by pain. In the book The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, he asserts that this cultural influence was key to Ramachandran’s discoveries:
In India, Ramachandran grew up in a world where many things that seem fantastic to Westerners were commonplace… the idea that living things change their forms was widely accepted; the power of the mind to influence the body was taken for granted, and illusion was seen as so fundamental a force that it was represented in the deity Maya, the goddess of illusion. He has transposed a sense of wonder from the streets of India to Western neurology, and his work inspires questions that mingle the two.
For me, the Davis/Disler double-whammy was the biggest Oh Shap! moment of TEDx Waterloo.
Madhur Anand on Restoration Ecology
This was a presentation that didn’t go clunk for me. I got the importance of Restoration Ecology, putting mined or logged environments back to their original state, not just ‘replanting’ or ‘filling in the hole’ but the link to poetry was lost.
Oh Snap!: I concluded that I have a really bad view of poetry. As someone who loves how a few words can be very powerful in imparting a rich mental landscape, why do I dislike poetry so much? Did high school make me hate it? Perhaps I was just hung-over from The Davis/Disler Oh Snap!
Micheal Sacco on Horizontal Trade
For those of you who read my review on TEDx Ottawa or participated in the event, this talk reminded me a lot of Tracey Clarke’s talk about coffee. There was a common theme that treating coffee beans or cocoa purely as commodities removes a relationship with the growers and producers that actually is a net loss to consumers.
I spoke to Micheal after his talk, but his discussion continued to give me a crew cut as it went flying over my head. He gave me some great chocolate (thanks!) and I went on my way pondering the ‘so what’ of his message. Perhaps this ‘horizontal trade alternative to pure capitalism’ is something that has to be experienced to be understood. He kept reinforcing that the chocolate was just a symbol to remind us that other worlds were possible.
Oh Snap! Moment: It hasn’t happened yet, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t coming some time down the road.
Darren Werschler on Imaginary Media
He did his talk on several types of ‘Imaginary Media’ and their impact on us:
- Untimely Media like the Babbage Difference Engine, that –while not completed until 153 years after its design(!)– still had a profound impact on our thinking and the emergence of computers.
- Conceptual Media that are not just prototypes, but indicative of major shifts in media (Lolz Schrödinger’s Catz?)
- Impossible Media that expresses our desire for ‘perfect’ communication like the Star Trek transporter.
Oh Snap!: It doesn’t have to actually work to get people’s imaginations going. The Babbage Difference Engine surprised me. I had always heard that Babbage was credited with the world’s first computer, but I had always assumed it actually worked! But then I started to remember how much science fiction was credited for actual inventions and even impact on media and culture. This reinforces Darren’s final point of his presentation: ‘ You must take the risk of trying.’
Matthew Childs on the 9 Life Lessons from Rock Climbing
Since you can go see the 9 life lessons by going to the TED.com website, I will focus on the Oh Snap! moment: Strength does not equal success (lesson #8) – Women often succeed where men fail because men too often focus on strength. Matthew gave the example of women rock climbers who are more consistent than their male counterparts because they have less ego tied to showing how strong they are; they find positions that leverage the natural strength of our legs. This collided with something else in my brain from a book I read called Born to Run where the author talked about how a much larger % of women complete the gruelling Leadville Ultra-marathon than men. Not sure what I am going to do with it, but an interesting observation.
Marty Avery on Nemaste
Westerners, and particularly men, grow up with the concept that strong people never show that they are vulnerable.
Oh Snap! moment: It takes great strength to be vulnerable. Marty gave the example of one of her high school teachers who –instead of being confrontational– appealed to her student (Marty) to help her with her inability to get key ideas across to her class. While a person in a position of authority –like her teacher– is loath to appear vulnerable to her subordinates, this teacher was able to create a bond with a key ally by being strong enough to show her vulnerability.
Amy Krouse Rosenthal on the 7 Notes of Life
Amy is a person that –much like Marty– exudes a large amount of positive energy. Amy loves the little coincidences you see in life, and has turned them into children’s books, books for adults, and viral internet videos. I had a quick look at one of her children’s books Duck! Rabbit! Have a quick look at the cover and see if you can get the theme of the book:
I’d bet that parents reading this book to their children get their own life lesson: how two people can look at the same thing, and see something completely different! You can also see the book performed HERE on Youtube.
Before I get to the ‘Oh Snap!’ moment, I want to summarize Amy’s 7-Notes on Life which I hope you will get as much out of as I did:
- A – Always Trust Magic or ‘ATM’: embrace coincidences in life
- B – Beckon The Lovely: what you look for is what you will see, why not look for the lovely?
- C – Connected: we are all connected
- D – Do: don’t talk about what you are going to do, it drains you… just do it!
- E – Empty: choose to disconnect, get out of reaction mode and create
- F – Figure it Out as You Go: you can’t plan it all out, get started
- G – Go to It: ask not what the world needs, but what makes you come alive
If those are the 7 notes to life, it begs the questions: What key is it sung in, and What are the lyrics? Amy answered those questions as well. The Key to life is ‘You’ and the lyrics for the 7 notes are “MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME HERE”.
The Oh Snap! moment: When I heard notes D, E, F & G I immediately thought of a book I have *almost* completed Linchpinby Seth Godin. These notes resonate with many of the traits that Seth identifies with the indispensable ‘linchpin’. Linchpins ship (D & F), don’t spend time doing busy-work like checking Twitter responses and their page hits (E), and they do what they are passionate about (G). This is more supporting evidence for my endeavour to become a ‘linchpin’!
So for those of you who are struggling with how to generate new ideas in your organization here is an idea: Stop sending your people to ‘group-think’ trade shows, and send them to a TEDx event. You won’t regret it!
I want to express my thanks to the whole TEDx Waterloo team for putting on an amazing show, that make it more than worthwhile for me to make the long trip from Ottawa, and a worthy sequel to TEDx Ottawa!