Seven days ago I was sitting in my hotel room getting ready to leave for a dress rehearsal for TEDx Grand Rapids. I sleep horribly in hotel rooms, so I was half awake and nervous, having practiced my talk for the 70th time. This morning I’m sitting at my desk in Palo Alto and as I look back I’m still stunned at the professionalism and the passion of everyone involved in the event. I’d like to share some of the things that stood out for me from the event, the talks, and the people I was honoured to meet.

The Event

Grand Rapids is a city in Michigan that has recently undergone major transformation and has become the poster child for urban revitalization in this US state. In a recent FastCompany article, Rick DeVos talks about the startup culture that has emerged there over the last few years. When I arrived at my hotel I was immediately diverted from the entrance by the sound of swing music emerging from the end of the street. There I found an open plaza with  people arm in arm swing dancing bathed in the incredible summer evening light they get in West Michigan.
TEDxGR was run by an inspired and passionate team of volunteers. What surprised me was how everyone was thanking each other – the organizers were extolling the values of the speakers, who were in tow endlessly appreciative of the work they do behind the scenes; the audience members I interacted with were all so grateful for the talks and the whole experience, and in turn I couldn’t help thanking them for turning up, paying the admission and being part of it. It gave me a wonderful sense for how much of an ecosystem an event like this can be when done right. There’s a feeling that everyone plays their role and their part and that those roles are defined and clear. There’s no imbalance somehow in the value exchange that’s taking place. Everyone gets something from anyone else.

The TEDx Talks

The line-up was typically TED: diverse and inspiring. It ranged from life-changing personal stories to how one man faked an entire religion and became a guru to how gaming is being applied to healthcare. All of the talks were incredible but these were the big take-aways for me:

We have the capacity to turn even the worst ‘failure’ into an opportunity
Linda Ragsdale’s moving tale of how the traumatic experience of losing a friend and being shot during the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008 was powerful not just because of her brilliant storytelling, but it showed how when something so awful happens to some people, they turn that experience into something good. Linda decided to teach the world a simple lesson: to draw peace dragons. The dragon is traditionally a symbol of Peace, not aggression, and in reminding us of this simple fact, and the fact that we can all draw, and not to be inhibited, she aims to help us overcome our blindness to each other’s differences. She recently surpassed her goal of teaching 10,000 children to draw peace dragons around the world.

Creativity = taking multiple perspectives
The format of the TEDx event was refreshing in comparison to other conferences I’d attended, and interspersed between the longer 18 minute lives talks were some relevant talks from other TED events. One that stood out for me was this one from Raghava KK, where he talked about how creativity can be thought of as a process of taking different perspectives and how that’s one of the most important lessons we need to teach the next generation.

We can create change through crafting our own illusion
Vikram Kumaré is a fictitious guru invented by filmmaker Vikram Gandhi. His new documentary film tells the story of how he created a new religion and a cult following in order to understand the nature of religion, faith, and personal transformation. In a hilarious yet poignant talk, Vikram taught us a useful lesson, about the power of illusion. About how we are all of us crafting our own stories through the use of our own ‘avatars’ – our Facebook or Instagram photos are what we choose to share with the world – we are crafting our own identities through these media. Vikram urges us all to control our own experience by writing our own stories and through doing so, begin to change our situation.

Pursue something you love, put your idea out there, and change people’s lives
That’s the message of Edwin Martinez‘ talk about coffee. Edwin’s family grew coffee in Guatemala, and he has developed a process that paved the way for over 10,000 small producers to begin exporting and selling direct in the global marketplace, and in his talk he taught us a thing or two about coffee. For one, it’s a fruit, and Edwin says coffee is actually fruit juice, when you think about it. It turns out that measuring the sustainability of coffee is really hard. There are about 32 links in the coffee chain – 32 links between that person who planted the seed for the plant to grow, and you purchasing your latte in your local cafe. We generally only interact with the last two links in that chain. Edwin also explained how environmentally it’s hard to produce consistency of good coffee year on year, and therefore our traditional ideas about which brand is sustainable may be flawed, because being loyal to any brand may just be the problem. “If you’re pushing yield, you’re probably pushing the environment”. Good coffee is made from ripe berries, the best berries come from hilly places, which are hard to get to, and you never know exactly when the crop will be ripe, so it means multiple trips back and forth to the hillside to reap the best yield. In order to do this though, workers need the right incentives. My takeaway from Edwin’s eye-opening talk was that the pursuit of quality is something we should all strive for, especially when we are following our passion.

“Mismatched Instincts and Supernormal Allurements”
Michael Dowd is an American evolutionary theologian and bestselling author and talked about human nature from an evolutionary biology standpoint. He explained how many of our human flaws can be explained by our evolutionary attraction and difficulty with resisting what he calls supernormal stimuli: sugar, salt, fats, in fact any processed substance – most of the food we eat today wouldn’t have been recognisable to those living 100 years ago. He talks about how these temptations are not our fault, but they are our responsibility both individually and collectively to manage. “We have to tell our kids about supernatural allurements and mismatched instincts”.

We can learn resilience, but it’s not always innate
Joan Borysenko wrapped up the day talking about resilience. She gave a moving personal account of her own traumatic experiences growing up and shared things she has learned through her own research and life about what it takes to become more resilient. It turns out that some of us are born more resilient to change and stress – those born to parents who have been through serious trauma are less resilient. However the good news is we can learn to flex this muscle and here’s her tips for doing that:

  1. Be realistic about the situation you are in and take action immediately
  2. Find a way to see the bigger context e.g. through faith
  3. Use creativity to explore different routes out of your problem
  4. Connect to others (this human social connection calms the limbic system)
  5. Exercise to change the brain’s chemistry (also fights depression)
  6. Be aware of how you are responding each time a stressful experience happens
  7. Find ways to laugh at yourself or the situation

Finally I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been part of this. Thanks to Steelcase, everyone at TEDxGR, Steve Frazee, Jennifer Jurgens, and everyone who made it all happen. I was overwhelmed by how professional the whole event was. If you have any reflections from the event or any questions, please get in touch.

Nathan