My hectic schedule has made it tough to post recently. But, I wanted to be sure to share my latest experience and reflections from TED 2010. It's a rather long entry, so grab a coffee or a glass of wine...whatever suits you!
Having experienced 3 ½ days of mind-blowing content, note-taking, networking and yes, a bit of stargazing, I wanted to share some themes that emerged for me. Many are things we all know, and some are simply good reminders of things to think about, since the routine course of business can easily cloud our perspective.
Here are my 10 takeaways (in no particular order):
1. Passion is contagious. There’s nothing more invigorating than talking with or listening to someone who absolutely loves what they do. Consider Cheryl Hayashi, a spider silk scientist. You got that right…she specializes in spider silk, not just spiders (as if that isn’t specialized enough!). And for 18 minutes, she oozed passion about how silk is created, how different spiders create different types of silk with varying measures of tensile strength. She convinced us why we should care, why she cares so deeply and why we should really think twice before mindlessly batting away a web that crosses our path as it has been so artfully created.
2. Be the CEO of something. It would be easy to assume that TED speakers are CEOs of companies. In fact, that’s rarely the case. Rather, they are CEOs of their ideas, of grand visions, and, most important, of themselves. One memorable TED presenter was a 28-year-old who lived out of his van in Maui, but he was armed with a compelling, groundbreaking challenge to string theory. Raghava KK, a once nameless teen artist from India, discovered his cartoon drawings could evoke emotion and political controversy around the world. And while many may have written off Temple Grandin at an early age, she embraced her autism and the unique strengths it provided her to become revered as an expert in animal behavior and a voice for the global autistic community. Perhaps their successes sound unlikely to us, but no doubt they believed in their own abilities and ideas all along, and their leadership started with themselves.
3. Persistence pays. While I was having lunch one day, Marc Koska rolled up on a skateboard and asked if he could join me in the adjacent empty chair. He was a casual middle-aged guy with long, tussled hair. As we spoke, I learned that he had invented a particular type of syringe that would prevent hepatitis and HIV from being spread via dirty needles. He invented it when he was 23—with no college education. He spent the next 17 years tweaking the product and convincing the government and other pharma companies to buy it from him—17 years before he got his first sale! Now, he is credited for saving more than 10 million lives. 10 million!!!
4. Fail forward. I had the chance to sit next to David Byrne during one of the sessions. He was a nervous wreck about his upcoming talk. He said he knew how to sing. He could sing with his eyes closed, in his sleep. But talking to this intelligent crowd intimidated him. When it was time for him to walk onto the stage, the audience cheered – it was David Byrne! But, the next 18 minutes were painful for everyone in the room. He bombed. But, he also stretched…in new ways, he allowed himself to be vulnerable, to get uncomfortable – and as a result, he later he confided this experience helped him to discover both an appreciation for the other presenters and a new path for personal growth. And, then there’s Mark Roth, a biochemist and cell biologist who told of his decade-long series of failed attempts and partial successes doing experiments with “suspended animation.” How can someone fail so many times and continue to keep looking for a solution? He’s simply convinced that one day his work will help critically ill trauma patients get the organs they need in time to save their lives. Mark would say it’s important to fail fast, and then keep on going, because time is the most precious currency we have.
4. Things are rarely as they seem. They are neither black or white or completely wrong or right. Maybe it’s the designer in me, but I’ve always subscribed to that theory. It was refreshing to listen to Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher challenging the audience to think about how we need to come together to define human values that can be shared in all cultures. And then there was a young provocateur who argued that choosing to be a vegetarian or carnivore was too extreme–why do we have to choose? Why not create a new option – “Weekday Veg” – where fruits and veggies are consumed throughout the week and meat options reserved for the weekend. William Li, a cancer researcher, on the cusp of major breakthroughs told the audience, “Discovery is seeing what everyone else has seen but thinking what no one has thought.” These presenters reminded me that there is always another perspective, another way, and many shades of gray.
5. Dare to be bold. By now, you’ve watched Kramer’s video about our commitment to Jamie Oliver’s bold quest to change the food habits of Americans. One might wonder how a young Brit could dare to be so bold in confronting American moms, school administrators, fast food companies, government official among others. Armed with facts, passion and a vision for a better way, Jamie is determined to change our grocery lists, our school lunches, our fast food options, and our relationship with food. His bold vision enraptured the audience, causing everyone including the likes of Google execs and documentarian Morgan Spurlock to lean forward and offer support. We are thrilled to be part of enabling Jamie’s bold dream. Dare you join us? ; )
6. Have a sense of urgency. Kevin Bales can’t sleep. And now that I know that the world has 27 million slaves TODAY, I can’t either. Bales wakes up everyday knowing that time is ticking. What can he do to end this? Not to curtail it but to END it? He’s busy getting the word out, giving speeches, writing books, negotiating with governments, petitioning the UN and other groups that will get involved and take action. Even though our daily agenda isn’t nearly as ambitious as this, it makes me reconsider how I spend time – do the big things get enough time? Do the little things get less time? Probably not often enough. So, here’s my plan – half the meetings, half the time. Maybe this simple gesture will free up more energy for ideas that can impact our clients, our future, and our range of philanthropic efforts. How can you have more urgency for things that matter?
7. Gamers just may change the world. It’s easy to write-off gaming as a consummate time suck – especially knowing that gaming consumes more than 3 BILLION hours each week. Yep, 3 billion. Jane McGonigal argues that we need to be playing MORE games – as much as 21 billion hours per week? Why? She believes that gamers are most equipped to change the world: 1.) they have an urgent sense of optimism; 2.) they have a strong sense of the social fabric; 3.) they are blissfully productive; 4.) they seek epic wins and meaning. Imagine all the gamers in the world helping to figure out how to cool the planet or solve world hunger. Forget work…let’s play!
8. Power of simplicity. It’s easy to make relatively simple things complex. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make the complex simple. Bill Gates showed us how to do just that. He had a total of 18 minutes to frame the implications of global warming and proposed a logical formula for solving the problem. He identified 5 key carbon dioxide-reducing ideas and new energy solutions we need to invest in to “innovate to zero.” He helped us to understand that we have 20 years to test and learn and 20 years to implement the solution in order to save the planet. Simple as that….and everyone was ready to jump onboard. All that brilliance was shared in the amount of time it takes to eat a packed lunch.
9. Execution matters. TED is most known for its provocative content. But perhaps the thing that really makes TED the best conference around is the execution of ….well, everything. With TED, details are essential. From the seamless, speedy registration process to its stunning visual materials to the set décor, to the design-forward meeting spaces throughout the venue, to the healthy food and extraordinary coffee to the breathtaking entertainment to the swag bag – it’s a totally, well-conceived, orchestrated experience. Without the brilliant execution, it might just become an alternative to academia. TED has reminded me that great ideas matter most when they’re executed (with excellence). (Thanks, Bob Baxley for the reminder.)
10. Compassion as a compass. I never saw the direct connection between these two words before – now I do. The spark was initiated for me by a grassroots effort at www.charterforcompassion.org. Then, Sheryl Crow brought this sentiment to life by reminding us all to “get out of our heads and into our hearts.” Natalie Merchant, spent the last 6 years pouring through the works of deceased poets and resurrected their musings in her latest album. She shared a few of these new songs and her sincerity and heartfelt compassion enthralled the audience in a quiet, serene sort of way. Then, unexpectedly, she changed the tempo, closing the session with her infamous and apropos rendition of Thank you - a lovely, spirited reminder that those two little words simply aren’t spoken often enough.