TEDxColumbus (Part 1)
We should all be living differently. We should be turning down the lights, turning up mindfulness and gratitude, and turning off all the nonsense that is making humans depressed, fat, uneducated, un-partnered and uninspired.
Unless you are Claudia Kirsch.
Claudia Kirsch can live however the hell she wants as long as she keeps saving lives. Bart Overly gets a pass too, as does Alex Bandar, Theresa Flores and others who took the stage on 11.11.11 for the 3rd TEDxColumbus, which—in typical TED fashion—offered a glimpse of both what’s wrong in our world and what a bit of passion and innovation can do to make things right.
This push-pull between What the hell have we done! and Wow! Look at what we can do! is built-in to TED. After all, it is a forum for “ideas worth spreading” and ideas, quite often, are sparked by problems and problems quite often are created by: Us.
TED, then, has a way of exposing our ills, inequalities, cruelties and dunderheaded conventions but also our genius, sense of service, depth of kindness, irrepressible passion, not to mention our likable personalities and life-saving ability to craft a decent joke.
Usually, for me, the list of stuff between “genius” and “joke” wins out and my TED experiences leave me inspired, motivated and entertained. But at this TEDx there was no getting comfortable—and not just because of the harsh lighting. The push-pull never let up and I think this is appropriate for “A Moment in Time” (to echo this year’s theme) when there is just too much about our world that is not working for far too many.
So, according to the 2011 presenters, What the hell have we done!?Messed up our circadian rhythms for one. Neuroscientist Randy Nelson “argues based on some mouse data” (I love that line) that too much light at night confuses our body’s chemical triggers. The result: fatter bellies and sadder spirits. We’ve also made a mess of education, effectively pricing most of our kids out of a college degree. But that’s not all that’s wrong, says David Burns, an educator grappling with how to advise his own kids, for some crazy reason we teach to a child’s weaknesses, not her strengths. Then there is Dirk Knemeyer, a software developer and serial entrepreneur, who is really pissed off. To him, our lives make no sense. He asks why we starve what gives us joy, meaning and fulfillment (human connection) and feed that which gives us little or none (technology).
As for the Wow! Look at what we can do! side of TED: Certainly there is a bit of it just in our ability to identify and parse what we did wrong, but much more of it—a big happy boost of it—in the stories of what we have done right. Which brings us to Claudia Kirsch, a multi-titled MD and radiologist who changed how we look for certain tumors to find the (on average) 56% that were getting overlooked. She’s smart, she’s dedicated and she’s saved lives. She’ll save more and she (and her team) made it possible for others to save lives too.
And then there’s architect Bart Overly, who, as it must be said, gave a brilliant presentation. His model of symbio-habitats built for interdependence and sustainability are fun and a bit ingenious. [Imagine, an animal shelter where dogs live on a horizontal plane and cats on a vertical and where cats can see the fish, but the fish can’t see the cats.] They are also an alternative to our current habitats, which, strained by changing demographics, are on schedule to collapse in 40 or so years from now.
Both Kirsch and Overly, presenting back-to-back, were innovative, passionate, creative, articulate and, in that TED-like way, they showed us the unlimited possibilities of what humans can do. Yet, their work also exposed the limits we are putting on our possibilities. Am I under the influence of current events? No doubt. But it really doesn’t matter if you are occupied, occupier, or otherwise preoccupied, the facts are clear on this: the path that Kirsch took to get where she is has since narrowed, all but shut off—limited—for many.
Speaking personally, with the going rate for an advanced degree at $291,800 (source: David Burns) I’m thinking hard about where the path Kirsch took might now lead. To a life of learning and productivity, I still hope, even though it’s looking a lot like indentured servitude. Also, with any talk of a life-saving medical advancement, there is the issue of who benefits and who doesn’t.
And Overly’s habitats: they are a useful and imaginative solution, but to a problem that is damn scary. It seems that if we don’t start rethinking some of our basic systems, in 3 or 4 decades a massively overburdened working population will have less fertile ground to innovate (unless, we decide to just kick that burden to the curb).
That will be me kicked to the curb—elderly and increasingly dependent. It will also be Bart Overly and many TEDxers. So, maybe you can see how it was a day of unsettling Oh Hells and inspiring Oh Wows and never really settling on one or the other.
Clearly, it was also a day of ideas and many more still need sharing. Theresa Flores. Alex Bandar. And more. With 18 taking the stage, it was also a day of many themes, sometimes shared (spiders and ethics, for instance) in unexpected ways. More on all this and other TEDxCbus-inspired musings are on the way. Soon. In Part II.
photo courtesy of Time Tank Labs