[by Kendra Hovey]
Birth. Death. Sex. These are three grand motifs. But plot them on a bar chart or in a spreadsheet and they will tell stories “a little bit better, a little bit sexier than Hollywood.” Or so says Priyank Shah, a demographer and the kickoff speaker at this year’s TEDxColumbus.
As an opener, Shah was the logical choice. Demographers use statistics (on birth, death, sex, etc.) to make statistical projections. That’s a handy thing to have at an event titled “The Future Revealed.” (Ours, by the way, will likely include “super-centenarians” in a statistically relevant number, a big jump in multiethnic identities, and “vertical families”—adult children and parents simultaneously elderly).
But Shah’s talk set two other important plot points for the day. As he shared his statistics and their macro- and micro-level implications, he elicited the passion and relevancy of his life’s work, while entertaining and edifying. It’s the “TEDTask.” Fourteen speakers in one day and none veered too far from this mark.
As for plot point #2, while Shah’s data pointed to trouble ahead, trouble is not where he lingered. Throughout the day other speakers piled on more trouble, much of it in the “too many” department—too many people, too many carbon bonds, too many greenhouse gases, perhaps, even, too many photographs—but after taking a good look at that accumulated heap, speakers, for the most part, got straight to tackling the question of what to do about it.
Elsewhere, I’ve said that the push-pull of What the hell have we done! and Wow! Look at what we can do! is built into TED. Last year’s TEDxColumbus, “A Moment in Time,” ended in a draw. This year, hope pulled out the win. But seeing as maybe we humans can’t help but be bright-eyed about the future, the theme gets at least an assist. Hope was helped along, too, by the number of speakers who came to the stage with solutions. Whether we like them, agree with them, or don’t, the attempt itself can be a boost.
And, it has to be said: it’s not too hard to be optimistic when the day’s talks, taken collectively and literally, offer a rather palatable, even indulgent, prescription for living. Crave a donut in the morning? Go ahead! Drink lots of coffee while you’re at it, and have a puff of marijuana—but ONLY one. And, Kids, to build your job skills, don’t bother with that homework; play Minecraft instead.
Or . . . maybe wait a bit on that Minecraft thing. The others are backed by data; this one is more of an inference. Though one that Naomi Stanford is not about to back away from, no matter the ruffled feathers. And while it is certainly conjecture, it is conjecture drawn from Stanford’s decades of studying, interviewing, data-collecting, reading, writing, observing and thinking long and hard about workers and the world of work in the past, present and future. Generally, we call this mix of time, effort and output “expertise,” and at this TEDxColumbus, more so than any other, expertise was on display—sometimes even color-coded and nicely organized into pies, graphs and charts. Here’s a brief rundown from the day:
Why when we think of the future is it all flying cars and jetpacks? Why not demographics? After Priyank Shah and his data asked us to ponder this question, other speakers and their data challenged us with more questions, including unpopular ones, such as Why not nuclear power? This one came care of physicist Gordon Aubrecht, whose tables and maps argued, quite powerfully, that our fear of nuclear energy is outdated and overstated, while, when it comes to fossil fuels, we are not nearly fearful enough.
Jan Allen’s question, What is My Next?, seeks to rethink and redefine “the construct of the leisure industry,” more commonly known as “retirement.” Gary Wenk is also out to shift our perspective on something both accepted and ubiquitous. In this case, the storefront sign FOOD & DRUGS. It contains a typo, says the neuroscientist. It should read FOOD = DRUGS, which, by the way, also = CHEMICALS. With help from some gems of early advertising (“THEY’RE HAPPY because they eat LARD!”) Wenk shared his research on chemical components in foods (donuts and coffee) and other ingestibles (the one puff) and offered a plan for anyone wanting to up their odds of a longer life. Take in fewer carbon bonds and more antioxidants, he said, and do it earlier in the day, i.e., eat less, eat berries, eat early.
Laura Hill so upended my thinking I was the one with the question: “Really?!” I know it’s simple and not really a question at all, but it is what came to mind when Hill said that the anorexia patient who insists “eating is bad for me” has been right all along. According to Hill’s 33 years of expertise, recently deepened by findings from functional MRIs, in those with anorexia, food sets in motion a psychological storm both painful and noisy. You can track it on an fMRI. This is extraordinary. It flips accepted thinking and accepted treatment, and, as dire as it may sound, the result of this turnaround, Hill says, is better outcomes for the patient.
Safety pharmacologist Brian Roche is also working towards better outcomes—this time for cancer survivors. The problem he wants to solve is one you may not even want to know about: most cancer drugs are not good for the heart. The good news is that for a vast majority the damage is temporary. For a small percentage it is not, and for an even smaller percentage it is dangerously dormant. The other good news about this problem: Brian Roche is on it.
Though Catherine Evans’ talk was not nearly as data-heavy as some others, she had one statistic that got the audience murmuring. According to Evans, 10% of all photographs were taken in the last year alone. It’s an instagram world. But, in her talk, Evans looked back to when it was a Kodak world, back to the Polaroid, even the tintype to consider how photos function (as art, news, storyteller and more) then, now and in the future.
If we were to use the measure of stats per hour, this TEDxColumbus would beat out all previous—combined. But there was plenty of expertise and insight not so easily codified. There was the kind expressed in humor, dance, and music, or that you’d more likely find under a Big Top, as well as the kind that comes from following what takes hold of you and simply paying attention to it, as Michael Bongiorno does. Drawn to spaces of urban residue from a young age, the architect, in his talk, will make you see a cloverleaf interchange in a whole new light.
Expertise and insight also comes from listening—to others as well as to oneself. Interested in the higher education experiences of African Americans (which completion rates suggest can be all too brief for all too many) social scientist Terrell Strayhorn has found that a sense of belonging is connected with success. He also shares a few things we should know about belonging: It is not about being the same. It is about difference not being a deficit. And, the need for it is in us all. “Anyone who doesn’t want to belong,” Strayhorn asks, “will you stand with me now?”
A guest from TEDxYouth, Dan Stover, and the last speaker of the day, Doug Smith, both shared life lessons drawn from personal difficulties. Stover is a living example (thank goodness) of why when given the choice to fake it or to come clean, vulnerability is the best way to go. For Smith to get wise about life, it took a double dose of epiphany. The first enabled him to talk about how to be happy. The second enabled him to practice how to be happy. “Misery is easy,” he counsels, “happiness is a set of skills.”
What Frederick Ndabaramiye experienced in his life is ungodly. It pushed him to the point of wanting to leave life altogether. Yet, a few Fridays ago, he was in Columbus, Ohio, very much present and free of bitterness, generously sharing his story. If we were to be serious about deriving a prescription for future living from this year’s TEDxColumbus, the most potent piece would be the forgiveness exemplified by Ndabaramiye.