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TED 2013: 9 Take-Home Themes for Me

Mooney_Headshot Kelly Mooney, CEO Mar. 6, 2013

I have TED Head. Unlike bed head, which generally involves too little sleep and too little time for proper grooming, TED Head is a mind swirl. It’s that feeling when you are simultaneously inspired to change the world and overwhelmed with what that might entail. TED Head makes me say, “Crap! Can I be doing more? Moving faster? Making the world better? C’mon, get going!” Maybe that feeling is just the kick in the pants we all need from time to time.

As you know, it’s easy enough to go and see the latest videos. I highly recommend you make a habit of it. In my home, we’ve instituted “family hour” each Sunday where TED plays a central role. (Okay, geeky, I know…but why not use it as parental juice? It’s fun and YOU don’t have to be the one doing the preaching.)

Here are some themes that resonated with me across the various speakers throughout the week:

Maybe Phil Hansen said it best: “Embrace the shake.” Here’s an artist whose uncontrollable shake prohibited his preferred dot painting technique. Well, after emotional setbacks, his a-ha was to make his jittery hand become an ASSET. Imagine that! He figured out how to paint in bigger strokes, using karate chops and his full body—generating breath-taking results. He shared, “You have to embrace a limitation in order to become limitless.”

Seeing the problem in a new light requires a changed perspective. As Ron Finley, the urban gardener, said, “You have to change the composition of the soil to get a different result.” And linguist John McWhorter reassured us that consumers and youth, in particular, are not losing themselves to an unrefined, far-too-casual writing skill known as texting. Rather, he taught us that texting is a new version of speech. He calls it “fingered speech.” Don’t fret—it’s all good!

It’s no longer simply about aesthetics or messages or cool. Design is bigger, broader and far more strategic than ever before. Leyla Acaroglu, eco-designer and sustainability expert, taught us that we are often solving the wrong environmental problems and that lifecycle thinking is a more meaningful strategy than the mere selection of eco-friendly materials. Inventor Danny Hills advised that the Internet is a vulnerable system because it was never designed for today’s emerging behaviors. He suggests that while someone has to examine the parts of any system, someone else needs to think about the whole. Neil Gershenfeld, physicist and science communicator, declared that the “Internet of Things” has already become an entire industry. His notorious Fab Lab and his fabulous mind, along with fellow co-conspirators, are examining how we can use machines to enable animals to communicate with each other. Just when you thought it was great to own a pet, watch out for an unexpected spike in your phone bill.

Teenagers certainly stole the show, especially on the curiosity front. From creating the first nuclear fusion reactor in a garage to creating an early detection test for pancreatic cancer to discovering new methods for bio-degrading plastics to escaping from North Korea, I’m in awe. Simply asking, “What if?” led each of these curious, brave and resilient teens to journeys that most of us can barely imagine. Despite his middle age(!), Adam Spencer’s curiosity cannot go unmentioned. This radio host exhibited his unbridled curiosity for prime numbers. Yep, that’s his passion and he has been on a search for identifying the largest prime number ever. While he can’t claim that fame (that goes to Curtis Cooper with a digit 17,425,170 long), Spencer takes the prize for infusing the audience with his math enthusiasm. Not intrigued? Watch his video and you’re sure to be bitten by the numbers bug.

To be clear, teens didn’t OWN the stage. Enter Bono. He could have a conference unto himself. His charm, charisma and vision can fill a stadium—oh, they already do(!). He reminded us that no feat, big or small, “can get done until we accept that we can get it done.” Inspiring educator Freeman Hrabowski resurrected a famous Artistotle quote, “Excellence is not an accident.” Perhaps no one exudes positivity and perseverance more than Elon Musk, cofounder of PayPal and Tesla Motors and founder of SpaceX. This is a guy who is dedicating his life to creating a sustainable energy economy! He explained that his approach is simple and grounded in physics—understand fundamental truths (not analogies), use plain old reasoning to solve problems, seek negative feedback. Add a dash of big dreams and a dollop of (massive) risk-taking and you might just reinvent space travel, too!

We used to make things. Remember the Industrial Age? Then came the Information Age and we typed away, staring at screens for seemingly endless hours. Then, it all came full circle and we started to make things again—I mean, digitally produce things. Things of value, of astronomical value. But this age of “making” is just kicking into high gear where every home or office can become a factory. Consider WikiHouse, an open source construction system bringing architectural solutions to the masses. Or 13:30, where we use 3D printing to produce our own, customized headphones, or other providers like Printin3D, which is enabling 3D jewelry printing. Alastair Parvin summed it up this way: “If the 20th century was the democratization of consumption, the 21st century is the democratization of production.”

Imagine the field day copyright lawyers will have with this one.

TED is THE venue for sharing what was once deemed impossible. Consider that Mary Lou Jepsen, screen engineer, is beginning to translate our thoughts DIRECTLY to digital media. Or that Allan Savory, grassland ecosystem researcher, has begun to reverse desertification by restoring the world’s grasslands. Wasn’t that supposed to be impossible? No longer! Did you know that Stewart Brand is trying to bring back extinct animals? Yes, animals that have died decades or centuries ago—Brand is on a mission to “de-extinct” them. Oh, and if you thought buildings constructed from wood needed to be limited to just 4 stories, think again. Architect Michael Green has proven that 10 stories and soon, 20 stories and even 30 stories are possible. On a more emotional note, take time to listen to Joshua Prager talk about his empathy and compassion for the stranger who broke his neck and changed his life forever. Nearly unfathomable.

Amanda “Fucking” (yes, her middle name) Palmer made a scene. Better said, she stole the show with 2 performances and a spontaneous bean bag fight at a late-night party in the Westin lobby. More than that, she has learned to give without expectation and to receive without guilt. What a place she has ascended to! Her bravery, experimentation with the unknown, and willingness to flip a business model on its head make her a standout. She reminded the audience that she didn’t focus on “making” her customers pay for music; she simply “let” them.

Maybe renegade gardener Ron Finley summed it up best. His fast-food-lined south LA neighborhood was starved of fresh food. He didn’t talk or lobby or fundraise. Instead, he picked up a shovel. He planted some gardens. He fed people, then more people. He is focused on doing the right thing for his ‘hood and for humanity, and if you want to help him, he’ll avoid your call, your WebEx and your meetings. He’ll invite you to bring a shove to South Central and “Plant some shit!”

My last callout goes to Meg Jay, encouraging Millennials to “pick their family” by not settling for just any life partner. A special congrats to Sugata Mitra for winning the coveted TED Prize for pioneering Self-Organizing Learning Environments(S.O.L.E.) and reimagining education for the 21st century.

With that, now it’s time to self-organize and go change the world.

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