Lessons from TEDxCalgary

TED.com has exploded in popularity as an online place to hear and see ideas from really interesting people from the around the world. Now that TED.com has licensed their name to encourage independent TED-like conferences, us locals can also participate in person.

Last Thursday April 26th, a group of distinguished speakers and over one hundred attendees participated in TEDxCalgary to think about Humanity 3.0. It was a superbly organized event, and I was inspired to meet so many people concerned about the biggest issues facing humanity today.

If you missed it, not to worry. I was assured by Rahim Sajan, the curator, that the presentations will be made available online eventually.

In the meantime, I’m reflecting on what I responded to, what I didn’t, and what if anything has shifted in me.

This was a day of story-telling, a tradition that no doubt reaches back millions of years to people sitting around the campfire and sharing stories. In an institutionalized civilization like ours, it can seem like a deeply magical and moving experience.

But just telling stories by itself doesn’t make it meaningful. It might be moving, but not necessarily meaningful. It might also be very meaningful, but we aren’t yet ready to be moved by it. How are we to tell the difference?

Nick Nissley of the Banff Centre spoke about narrative competence, the ability to elicit stories from others. Implied is that those stories actually help people make sense of both our internal and external world. Steinback’s stories, although fiction, tell us deep truths about ourselves that illuminate what Greg Hunter highlighted about cognitive dissonance. While good journalists like Bill Moyers can bring to our attention the undercurrents of current events.

What struck me was that the while the personal stories were tremendously moving – Nick Nissley’s childhood in an orphanage and Jay Baydala’s turbulent upbringing – it was the larger life story that made them meaningful. When Nick connected with the history of Hersheys and their contribution to the orphanage and when Jay made the link between extreme poverty and his lack of voice, their lives found expression.

I’m more convinced that focusing on understanding just yourself will get you stuck. Like the students in Freedom Writers who discover the Holocaust, people find meaning when the vast stories of human achievement and failure become “personal”.

Artist and poet Sheri-D Wilson exemplifies this. Despite my discomfort with “new age-ness”, I was warmed by Sheri-D’s wandering and sometimes irreverent story about her life journey. Perhaps it was because she highlighted how much more you can learn from life than from formal education. From experiencing her own mortality to seeing apartheid to stumbling upon great teachers, she has had a far richer education than me.

Of course, when most people (and I include myself in that group) are factory-farmed human beings as Ken Low put it, it’s hard for society to learn “in the wild” so-to-speak. 12 years of compulsory schooling does some damage by teaching us how to conform, how to accept learning from authority, and how to get good at narrow disintegrated fields of study.

Luckily, human beings are resilient, and they can learn to become free-range human beings. To see Grant Neufeld dedicate his life to social activism and Gena Rotstein embark on an adventure to change people’s ideas of philanthropy, I felt a deeper commitment to be bold in my own efforts to be free-range, organic, and fair trade!

With all this diversity of human experience, it was almost jarring to see a TEDx talk by Daniel Pink attempting to convince us that money doesn’t work as an incentive for any work that requires a modicum of creativity. His talk was entertaining, well-reasoned, and worth sharing, but seriously, when did we arrive at this stage in society where we have to be talked out of thinking that we are motivated by money? People will do a lot for status, for love, for fear, and people will also do a lot to fight injustice or to make a difference. However, in a material world driven by economics thinking, it’s easy to get everyone to believe that success is determined by money alone. I hope that we will find a new way of thinking beyond economics.

The day was enjoyable and I was sad to have to leave it early. My opinion is that TEDx makes for tasty snacks, but 10 – 18 minutes is a short window of time into a speaker’s thoughts and ideas. It forces the speakers to contort their message to fit into a nice-looking box. In the end, it is kind of like eating pre-processed food. It tastes great, but it’s not as good for you as preparing your own dishes from scratch.

Nevertheless, inspiration can sometimes call upon our best voice to speak up more frequently and more passionately.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business
uventure.net