TEDxColumbus (Part 2)
It’s my second round of musings on the 2011 TEDxColumbus: A Moment in Time (the first is here) and, lovely timing, the videos of the talks are now viewable online. You can check if I got my quotes right, or better yet, decide what you think and share it with me.
On the morning of 11.11.11, frustrated while typing on my mobile, I imagined some kind of precision extendo-finger that would allow my S to be an S and not a D or some other neighboring letter on the tiny keyboard. Later that same day, while part of an audience of 600 at TEDxColumbus, I discovered that my idle morning musing was something much more. I was engaging in one of the most ancient of human battles: “the struggle between comfort and discomfort.” We think. We wonder. This is what Alex Bandar tells us. “Our brains,” he says, “are wired to get bored.” The result is ideas. Ideas, though, get lost when we don’t know how to make them. While in some cases (see above) this is okay. In others (see Reade Harpham, among others) it’s not.
But metallurgist and engineer Alex Bandar is on it. He is fixing this problem. At his maker shop and school—The Columbus Idea Foundry—he is “narrowing the chasm between concept and execution” and he wants to take his shop—a portable cargo container (in prototype)—to our youth and into our schools. And with this revival of the lost art of making, just maybe society will be better off. When we know (as we once did) how our tools work, says Bandar, we design better and we think better.
“According to the Dispatch, I’m here to make you cry.” When she said this in reference to a recent newspaper article, TEDx speaker Theresa Flores did not sound so keen on this assessment. From her talk, it is clear why. What Flores wants is not to make us cry but to open our eyes.
Flores was once a suburban kid from an “intact” family. She was not naive, on drugs, or acting out, but still she was vulnerable to human trafficking, because, as her life attests, anyone can be vulnerable to human trafficking. Listening to her story (as I strongly urge you to do) there is a certain cognitive dissonance—the best kind of dissonance—in hearing it from someone who is, to use Flores’ own word, “healed.”
In my first post on TEDxColumbus, I described the day as a constant push-pull between unsettling Oh Hells! and inspiring Oh Wows! Bandar and Flores certainly provided both of these, but they gave us more, as did all the speakers. Throughout the day, we got facts—on wasp nests, for instance, and M&M technology. We got theories, wisdoms and ideas. And from all of it another through-line emerged. Interrupting the volley between the deflating Look what we have done and the inflating Look what we can do was, simply, Look.
Which brings me back to Flores. In being healed and thus able to look deeply and thoughtfully at the horror she experienced, she found a solution, one uniquely visible to her and that now helps others who are victimized by human trafficking.
This theme of “close looking” was set in motion, seemingly serendipitously, by the first speaker of the day, Denny Griffith, CCAD president and ever-approachable local “higher-up.” Speaking about his painterly life, Griffith shared his work—abstract, textured, subtle—and the unexpected sources of inspiration for his imagery: the leukemia cells that killed his father, the tsunami that devastated Japan. The paintings neither flinch, nor celebrate. The feel is more exploratory, almost receptive and, in their lack of judgment, even democratic.
In her talk, public affairs professional Susan Willeke suggested we take a close look at exactly what we are supposed to hide: our prejudice. Bias can be useful—keeps us from “eating tree bark and road kill,” reminds Willeke—and it, as we all know, can be damaging. Her belief: look at our biases, know what they are and only then are we in the position to decide whether or not to act on them.
Researcher and Yogi Maryanna Klatt, sharing a message of mindfulness, suggests relaxation comes, in part, from paying attention to what stresses us out. The key is coming to feel control over those stressors. And Jamie Greene—architect and top dog at 200 Columbus—implies that we needn’t resort to boosterism, bluster, sloganeering, or embellished narratives to promote this city. Take a moment to look and it is clear that everything we need is already here. The task is to reveal it.
Lastly, for energetic entomologist Mark Berman, to not look is utter craziness. Open your eyes, time and attention, he implores, and the rewards come flooding in. You may even get to bear witness to the fascinating and highly entertaining attention-seeking antics of the jumping spider.
So look. Don’t be stingy with your time and attention. As a result, you might be less callous, more mindful, less judgmental and, just maybe, you’ll make friends with a spider.
[While you're at it, look at the TEDx videos, including Trent Tripple & Janet Parrott, whose ideas are so embedded in the story they tell, you might as well just go listen. You can check out the performances too, and don't miss being called a "tool" by poet Rose Smith.]
Now, I’ve made things tricky for myself. By following this positive and non-judgmental request to “look” with my impressions of the event overall, I’ve left little room for criticism. But at the risk of sounding petty, I must say softer lighting would have been a welcome relief, and I’ll take a semi-circle auditorium over a deep rectangle any day of the week. But, in all honesty, there is not much else to harp on when an event is as well-run as this one. Parking and check-in were a breeze. It started and ended on time. The breaks felt like exactly the right length and lunch was planned perfectly. My randomized group of lunch-mates were interesting; involved; had a lot to say and also an eagerness to listen (a perfect combination, in my book). I even get that with the rectangular room also comes COSI, a supportive and friendly host.
But most important to me, while it is impossible to be TED, TEDxColumbus is impressively TED-like. Of course, it is supposed to be. But no one is out policing and I’m pretty sure that many, many TEDx’s fall way short of the mark. Columbus is lucky that organizer Ruth Milligan is, not just an enthusiast, but a sort of speech-junkie. On-board with the TED format—speakers might say an enforcer of the TED format—Milligan, along with Nancy Kramer and Allyson Kuentz, are to thank for our TEDx’s TED-ness.
And what exactly does this mean?: Talks that are no longer than 18 minutes. Speakers who know what they want to say and do so clearly and entertainingly with engagement and passion and without notes or self-promotion. The very best TED talks (rare but wonderful) manage to take the listener along the speaker’s same path of discovery, as if we are all thinking things through together. The demands of the format are a challenge. One TEDx presenter—composed, confident, poised and a veteran public speaker, even—was betrayed by a microphone left on a touch too long: “I’m so glad it’s over,” she exhaled with great relief as she exited the stage. I hope she knows the rigors of the format were worth it, because where else but at a TED event can an 8-hour day of lectures be so much fun?