Your number-one mission as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and to rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners. We’ll call that something an idea.
― Chris J. Anderson
Every September my wife and I attend the local TeDx event here in Albuquerque. It is a marvelous way to spend the day, and leaves a lasting impression on us. We immerse ourselves in inspiring, fresh ideas surrounded by like-minded people. It is empowering and wonderful to see the local community of progressive people together at once listening, interacting and absorbing a selection of some of the best ideas in our community. This year’s event was great and as always several talks stood out particularly including Jannell MacAulay (Lt.Col USAF) talking about applying mindfulness to work and life, or Olivia Gatwood inspiring poetry about the seeming mundane aspects of life that speaks to far deeper issues in society. The smallest details are illustrative of the biggest concerns. Both of these talks made me want to think deeply about applying these lessons in some fashion to myself and improving my life consequentially.
That’s part of the point of TeD, the talks are part of the gospel of progress, part marketing of great ideas and part performance art. All of these things have a great use to society in lifting up and celebrating a drive to be better and progress toward a better future. Humanity has immense power to change the world around them for the better. We can look across the globe and witness the collective power of humanity to change their environment. A great deal of this change is harmful or thoughtless, but much of it is a source of wonder. Our understanding of the World around us and the worlds within us has changed our biological destiny.
We have transitioned from an animal fighting for survival during brief violent lives, to beings capable of higher thought and aspiration during unnaturally long and productive lives. We can think and invent new things instead of simply fighting to feed us and reproduce a new generation of humans to struggle in an identical manner. We also can produce work whose only value is beauty and wonder. TeD provides a beacon for human’s best characteristics along with a hopeful forward-looking community committed to positive common values. It is a powerful message that I’d like to take with me every day. I’d like to live out this promise with my actions, but the reality of work and life comes up short.
There was a speaker from my employer this year, and there always is. There wasn’t anyone from my former employer, the other major scientific Lab in our state (what was once one of the premier scientific institutions in the World, but that’s a thing of the past). Also noticeable is the lack of support for the local TeD organization by either employer. I’ll grant you that Los Alamos has supported it in the past, but no longer. There’s probably some petty and idiotic reason for the withdrawal of support. My employer, Sandia, doesn’t support it, and hasn’t ever. It looks like our local University doesn’t support it either. I know that Los Alamos did their own local TeD conference and perhaps they thought that was enough TeD for them. That’s the sad best-case scenario, and I don’t know what the full story is.
For Sandia it’s not particularly surprising as it’s not exactly a progressive, idea-centered place, and these days no place is anyway. The University should be, but the lack of financial support from the state could explain it (its a common characteristic of GOP governance to eviscerate universities). It is quite hard for me to express my level of disappointment in these institutions’ lack of civic support for progressive thought. It is stark testimony on the current state of affairs where two National Laboratories and a University cannot be supportive of a major source of progressive thought in the community they are embedded within. An active progressive and intellectual community in the areas where these institutions are located should be beneficial for recruiting and retention of progressive and intellectual staff. It is one sign that this sort of long view isn’t at work. It is a sign of the times.
TeD talks are often the focus of criticism for their approach and general marketing nature strongly associated with the performance art nature. These critiques are valid and worth considering including the often-superficial nature of how difficult topics are covered. In many ways where research papers can be criticized increasingly as merely being the marketing of the actual work, TeD talks are simply the 30-second mass market advertisement of big ideas for big problems. Still the talks provide a deeply inspiring pitch for big ideas that one can follow up on and provide the entry to something much better. I find the talk is a perfect opening to learning or thinking more about a topic, or merely being exposed to something new.
Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.
– Daniel H. Pink
One prime example is one of my favorite talks of all time by Daniel Pink (https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation). This talk is basically a pitch for the book “Drive” and touches only superficially on the topic. The book itself is a distillation of very complex topics. All of this is true, but none of this undermines the value in the ideas. TeD provides a platform to inspire people to do more and get closer to the actual application of the ideas to their lives (not just buy Pink’s book, the true cynics take on the purpose). Interestingly, the managers at work were also reading Pink’s book and discussing the ideas therein. The rub was the observation that I could not identify a single thing recommended in Pink’s book that made it to the workplace. It seemed to me that the book simply inspired the management to a set of ideals that could not be realized. The managers aren’t really in charge; they are simply managing the corporate compliance instead of managing in a way that maximizes the performance of its people. The Lab isn’t about progress any more; it is about everything, but progress. Compliance and subservience has become the raison d’etre.
For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation the drive do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing is essential for high levels of creativity.
– Daniel H. Pink
Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.
–Daniel H. Pink
This deep frustration isn’t limited to TeD talks; it is almost every source of great advice or inspiration available. Almost every manager I know reads the Harvard Business Review. I read it too. It is full of wonderful ideas and approaches to improving the way we work. It is impossible to see anything ever done with all the great advice or inspiration. My workplace looks like all the “before” cases studies in HBR and more like it every day, not less. Nothing ever recommended happens at work, nothing is tried, nothing changes in the positive direction; its like we are committed to moving backwards. HBR is progressive in terms of the business world. The problem is that the status quo and central organizing principle today is anti-progressive. Progress is something everyone is afraid of, and the future appears to be terrifying and worth putting off for as long as possible. We see genuinely horrible lurch toward an embrace of the past along with all its anger, bigotry, violence and fear. Fear is the driving force for avoiding anything that looks progressive.
Management isn’t about walking around and seeing if people are in their offices, he told me. It’s about creating conditions for people to do their best work.
– Daniel H. Pink
Now that I’ve firmly established the lack of relevance of TeD and progressive thought in my workplace, I can at least appreciate and apply it at a personal level. I’d love for work to reflect a place for genuine progress, but this seems a bridge too far today. Work is a big part of life and these observations are rather dismaying. Ideally, I’d like a workplace that reflects my own values. The truth of the matter is that this is nearly impossible for a progressive-minded person in America today. Even the bastions of progressive thought like Universities are not working well. Society at large seems to be at war with elites and progressive thought far more under siege than whites, or Christians. I can ask the serious question, how many atheists are in Congress? How much well proven and accepted science does our government reject already? Don’t get me started on our judicial system, or the war on drugs both of which focus far more on oppressing minorities than crime or drug abuse. The bottom line is the sense that we are in a societal backlash against change; so more progress seems to be impossible. We will be fighting to hold onto the progress we’ve already made.
Still I can offer a set of TeD talks that have both inspired me and impacted my life for the better. They have either encouraged me to learn more, or make a change, or simply change perspective. I’ll start with a recent one where David Baron gave us an incredibly inspiring call to see the total eclipse in its totality (https://www.ted.com/talks/david_baron_you_owe_it_to_yourself_to_experience_a_total_solar_eclipse). I saw the talk concluding that I simply had to go, and then I showed to my wife to convince her. It did! We hopped into the car at midnight the day of eclipse and drove eight hours to get from Northern Idaho to Eastern Oregon. We got off I-82 atDurkee finding a wonderful community center with a lawn and watched it with 50 people from all over the local area plus a couple from Berlin! The totality of the eclipse lasted only two minutes. It was part of a 22-hour day of driving over 800 miles, and it was totally and completely worth every second! Seeing the totality was one of the greatest experiences I can remember. My life was better for it, and my life was better for watching that TeD talk.
Another recent talk really provoked me to think about my priorities. It is a deep consideration of what your priorities are in terms of your health. Are you better off going to the gym or going to party, or the bar? Conventional wisdom says the gym will extend your life the most, but perhaps not. Susan Pinker provides a compelling case that social connection is the key to longer life (https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life ). This gets at the disparity between men and women since women tend to connect in long life affirming friendships with greater ease than men. The talk is backed up by data, and by visiting places where people live long lives. These people live in communities where they are entangled in each other’s lives almost by design. It gets to the priorities associated with health care and self care along with the benefit of actions. Focusing on your social life is a genuinely beneficial act to prolonging your life.
Our modern computing world is a marvel, but it also has some rather pronounced downsides. In many ways our cell phones are making us far unhappier people. The phones and their apps are designed to grab, demand our attention. They can become sources of deep and pervasive anxiety. This is exactly what they are designed to do. As Adam Alter explains, an entire industry is set up to get as much of our attention as possible because our attention equals money, big money (https://www.ted.com/talks/adam_alter_why_our_screens_make_us_less_happy). He also explains that it doesn’t have to be like this. The same social engineering that has gone into making the phones so demanding could be harnessed to help us be better. If we balanced the naked profit motive with some measure of social responsibility, we might turn this problem into a benefit. This is a wonderfully inspiring idea; it is also terribly progressive and dangerous to the unfettered capitalism fueling this growing societal crisis.
Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.
– Esther Perel
The power of TeD extends to far deeper personal matters as well. A couple of talks by Esther Perel speak to reframing our love lives (https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_the_secret_to_desire_in_a_long_term_relationship, https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_rethinking_infidelity_a_talk_for_anyone_who_has_ever_loved ). Perel defies conventional thought on love, marriage and infidelity providing a counter theory to all these matters. Her first talk is an accompaniment to her first book and tackles the thorny issue of keeping your long-term relationship hot and steamy. It is a challenge many of us have tackled, and no doubt struggled with. This struggle is for good reasons, and knowing the reasons provides insight to solutions. Perel powerfully explains the problem and speaks to working toward solutions.
The thornier issue of infidelity is the second talk (and her brand new book). Like before, she tackles the topic from a totally different perspective. Her approach is unconventional and utterly refreshing. The new perspectives provide an alternative narrative to handling this all too common human failing. Explaining and understanding the complex root of this all-to-common relationship problem can improve our lives. It is an alternative to the moral perspective that has failed to provide any solutions. Among the threads to concentrate on is the relatively new character of modern marriage in the history of humanity, and the consequences of the deep changes in the institution. One of the beauties of TeD is the exposure to fresh perspective on old ideas along side completely new ideas.
The very ingredients that nurture love mutuality, reciprocity, protection, worry, and responsibility for the other are sometimes the very ingredients that stifle desire.
– Esther Perel
Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.
– Brene Brown
The last talk I’ll highlight today is truly challenging to most of us. Brene Brown is a gifted and utterly approachable speaker presenting a topic that genuinely terrifies most of us, vulnerability (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability). Begin vulnerable is an immensely valuable characteristic that almost everyone struggles with. Vulnerable often equates with being weak, but also open and honest. That openness and honesty is the key to being a better person and developing better relationships. In many cases the weakness and honesty is shared only with yourself. In either case vulnerability provides an avenue to connection and an embrace of humanity that both frees you and allows deeper relationships to flourish. The freedom you give yourself allows you to grow, learn and overcome bad experiences.
What would you be glad you did–even if you failed?
– Brene Brown
I always wish that I could focus on most of what I hear at a local TeD event, but one must make choices, time and effort are limited. While I do plan to more mindfully apply mindfulness to my life, right now I’ll hedge toward the artistic side of things, if for no other reason that I usually don’t. I will close by honoring the inspirational gift of Olivia Gatwood’s talk on poetry about seeking beauty and meaning in the mundane. I’ll write a narrative of a moment in my life that touched me deeply.
The Best Gift
A night of enchanting companionship was drawing to a close,
and I was longing for one last kiss before parting
Those early autumn nights are so welcoming,
the crisp nights promised, but not yet arrived,
summer still alive, but fading
I hadn’t even bothered to fully dress for the goodbye,
Conventions and neighbors be damned
It was a warm evening and my skin wanted to drink it in,
drink her in too, one last time
We slowly made our way out to my driveway
talking, still flirting, our banter unabated
The moon full, bright, and peeking between the gaps in the single cloud
adorning the sky as it illuminates the night
It will light her way home as a warm beacon
“Good,” I think, “you’ll be safe” on your long drive home
We draw close to each other, pressing hard while
savoring the time spent together fun and friendship
with a depth that was unexpected, but welcome
You ask, “What would you like for your birthday?”
My mind goes to my elaborate tattoo to adorn me soon,
“I’m already getting what I want for myself”
“I always ask for more time,” she said longingly
Her words cut me to the core,
of course, what else would she want?
My head spins with the truth revealed by her breathtaking honesty,
with words failing me for a breath or two, … or three
My mind opens with the realization of her precious offering
“I just want good memories”
Realization washes over me, she just gave me the best gift I could have hoped for
We kiss deeply and parted until we next renew making good memories