23 Feb

I just got back from my first TED experience: TEDxUF 2013.

I knew generally the idea behind TED Talks before the event, but this morning as I got ready for the day, I realized I really had no clue what to expect from the speakers. I’d seen a couple of TED Talks on YouTube, and they’d been very cool; their topics had been geared toward technology and entrepreneurship, two things I have a general interest in but am not particularly passionate about.

I briefly browsed the lineup of today’s local speakers before TEDx started, and their bios didn’t give much away: There was a doctor, a couple of local business leaders and entrepreneurs and a few other people whose occupations were less easy to pinpoint from the few lines provided on the website.

Once it started, TEDx turned out to be everything and nothing that I expected. Cliche as that is, it’s the easiest way I can sum up my feelings after watching today’s 12 talks (nine from live speakers and three from YouTube videos shown to the crowd).

Though I’d never grasped it in so many words, TED is basically an event that connects people — not necessarily people of note; just people — and their ideas with a captive audience ready to listen and learn. I saw how thrilled each speaker was to watch the audience catch on to their talk as they gave it. If we didn’t fully understand the idea, at least we could tell that they were passionate about it.

My favorite talks were those by Rebecca Brown, Phoebe Miles and Ken Staab. What struck me most about each of them was that they were physical proof that “show, don’t tell” — an adage often drilled into writers’ heads — is the most effective way of communicating an idea. None of them had to say, “I really like this thing that I’m talking about!!! It’s really cool!!!” It was clear from how passionately they spoke that they were serious about their love for their subjects.

The subjects themselves surprised me. I had assumed that TED was more technology-focused, and that most of the talks would center on some way-cool science discovery or ideas to improve the planet with complicated algorithms and processes that needed several more years and millions of dollars in funding before they could be put into action.

What I found was that the ideas discussed included technology, yes, but they were also geared toward bettering yourself and your life by examining others’ anecdotes and personal epiphanies. Many of the speakers started their talks by looking back into their own lives and extracting an example of an incident that changed them somehow and made them reexamine life in such a profound way that they wanted to share that change with us.

Rebecca Brown founded an organization that I would never have imagined existed. It’s called Streetlight, and it connects college students who plan to work in the medical field (and some who don’t) with terminally ill adolescent hospital patients who will most likely die before they reach their 20s. The first thing she said about her job (though she never called it a “job;” it’s something she’s devoted to without question that happens to take up a lot of her life) is that she does not find it morbid. And she’s not a saint, she said. She’s not a doctor or psychologist; the only training she has is as a death counselor, which is something else I didn’t realize existed.

Rebecca’s talk came with its share of sadness, as you can imagine, but the overwhelming message of her talk was that death is not something that should be glamorized or spotlighted to the point of overshadowing a person’s footprint on the world. She said the students who befriend dying teenagers end up as better physicians, nurses, etc., later in life, but she hasn’t figured out exactly why. She guesses, though, that it has something to do with the vulnerability shared by both parties and how intimacy is naturally born of the relationships by virtue of knowing that one person’s life will soon end very abruptly.

It was a lot to take in in a 20-minute talk. She brought us through with humor and quick wit and showed us with a few short stories why she doesn’t think death should be as scary as it’s made out to be. People at the end of their lives just want friendship, she said. If you can be a friend to them and remember them on their terms, that’s all they really want.

Another talk I really enjoyed was that of Phoebe Miles, who is the daughter of the inventor of Gatorade. Her talk centered on the relationship of the arts and human genius and how one informs the other. Almost every scientist who’s made a major breakthrough, she said, could also add “accomplished musician” to their credentials. Examples include Albert Einstein, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras and her own father. She said music is math made into sound, and to demonstrate the point, she had a cellist on stage play certain notes and musical passages that confirmed the theory.

The takeaway point from her talk was that the arts should be taught alongside the “harder” subjects like science and math because they all intersect. Our brains will see patterns and solve problems more quickly and easily if we’re familiar with music and its patterns. And, she said, it’s never too late to teach yourself: People who pick up an instrument or any other form of art in their later years live longer, happier lives.

The third talk I really enjoyed was Ken Staab’s. Ken is the uncle of a boy named Tyler who was diagnosed with a genetic condition called dystonia, which basically prevents muscles from working together properly, causing extreme pain and irregularity in movement. Ken is an economist who watched his brother and sister-in-law’s struggle with their son’s (and daughter’s; both children have been diagnosed with dystonia) disease and saw their anger at the fact that the health care system, the way it’s set up now, is preventing the best researchers and doctors from finding a cure to this terrible disease. The pieces were there, he said, but the money that could be put toward finding a cure was being funneled elsewhere because of a broken system that is centered on benefiting the medical industry’s bottom line.

Ken and his family’s solution was to found Tyler’s Hope, an organization with the one very specific goal of curing dystonia as fast as possible. With enough people fired up about the cause and countless charitable 5Ks, bake sales, etc., Tyler’s Hope raised $1 million to put toward research. They found the best, most dedicated doctor in the field and connected him with the best researchers, and because of that initial boost, the doctors have since turned that original million-dollar investment into $6 million in grants and other funding. The money donated to Tyler’s Hope gets to the doctors and researchers as cash, eliminating the usual delay that occurs when charitable funds are put into a trust.

Ken’s hope is that Tyler’s Hope will start a domino effect of efforts like this that funnel money directly to specific problems so that they are solved with as little delay as possible.

There was one YouTube’d TED talk’s message that I loved, and it boils down to thinking about leadership as a way to profoundly impact and/or change someone’s life. The smallest interaction can affect someone else’s life in a stupidly huge way, and you have no way of knowing what that might be. So make sure every interaction you have with strangers (or even people you know and love) is positive, and don’t be afraid to help a stranger out if you think you could benefit them, even if you think it’s only in a small way.

I didn’t expect to learn about any of these things at TEDx. I was ready to be wowed by cool technology or especially awesome scientific research (which I was), but I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by life lessons and encouragement. This session of talks made me realize not only how many cool people live in this community, but also that people still understand the value of sharing ideas. And they not only understand but are really, really excited to spread those ideas even further, as evidenced by the prevalence of TED Talks on YouTube.

What I’m taking away from today’s talks are not the platitudes about passion and finding your niche and all that, but how excited these people were to share what they feel are the ideas that are going to help change the world. And none of them tackled major issues like climate change or world hunger: They focused on tiny steps in the right direction to prove that these ideas are already changing the world.

The talks that resonated with me were the ones that proved the meaning of passion without saying it outright: Show, don’t tell. They gave examples of the kinds of stories I want to be able to tell one day so that I can reflect on my own epiphanies that I think will change the world. TED is about people connecting with people on one of the most basic levels: communication. Talking to each other and sharing ideas is the only way humanity will ever begin to understand itself.


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