November 15th, 2010
What in the world do you do after two days of Speak Out Day and TEDxIBYork? Better yet, what in the world do you do after 10 months of preparing for the most inspiring educational event that you have ever helped plan in your entire life?
Indeed, what in the world?
Taking a step in Ray Zahab’s direction (Ray told us about his run across the Sahara), I tied up my runners, ignored my aches, pains and grumbling stomach, and ran the slightly-less-than-Sahara-desert distance into the school this morning, which was the best decision I’ve made since I agreed to help organize TEDxIBYork. Two days of full-scale engagement with people – their passions and their ideas – requires a marathon of reflection. I’ve only started with five-kilometers worth, but I know that I could handle about 40 days in the wilderness to piece together the myriad thoughts and emotions I have experienced over the past 48 hours.
For those of you who weren’t there, I feel a deep sense of regret that I didn’t do more to get you there. I suddenly know what it feels like to have evangelical fervor. Everyone should have the opportunity to be so inspired. During the two days we heard over 40 passionate speakers share their visions, dreams, innovations, ideas, lessons learned, expertise, talents, and achievements.
We were given a tour of humanity and the world we inhabit. We travelled from the Arctic to Antarctica, from Kenya to Red Lake, from the Amazon jungle to the Sahara Desert, and from board rooms to cyberspace.
We heard from 14 incredible IB Diploma students during the Speak Out Day, the winner of which, Faisal Chaudhry of the International Academy (outside Detroit, Michigan), spoke to almost 500 assembled adults and students at the main TEDxIBYork event. At TEDxIBYork, we were enthralled by designers, doctors and dreamers, teachers, techno-wizards, and thinkers, sages, scientists, and social engineers, a painter, two poets and a ‘pirate’.
What in the world did we learn?
Beyond the simple facts – that the true size of Africa could encompass most of the territories of Europe, the United States, India, Japan and China, that the female species of a peculiar spider is one hundred times the size of its male mate, that over 50% of students at one school modified their science data on science labs, that Canada has the second worst voter turnout of the 17 major developed democratic nations in the world, or that a herniated disc can be treated by an ozone syringe that fits in your hand – we learned that caring, creativity, collaboration, determination, discipline, dreaming, focus, and risk-taking have enormous currency in our modern world. And we were left with nothing but hope and the conviction that whatever the obstacles the world may bring, we are equipped to meet those challenges and forge a better life for all.
But for me, it was the risk-taking that resonated most deeply. Just one of the ten attributes of the IB Learner Profile, risk-taking has always stood as a difficult quality for a school, or parent, to nurture; risk-taking is very much a two-edged sword. Generally, our society abhors risks. In business, risk is defined as the “probability or threat of damage, injury, liability, loss, or other negative occurrence”. For Faisal, our student winner, “risk” translates to “cheating” in the world of a high-school science student. But at the same time, some of the life stories we heard challenged us to consider how we should take risks in our own lives.
The most interesting story came from Ben Gulak, teenage inventor of the Uno motorcycle and Shredder, a motorized skateboard on tracks. At the age of 14, Ben entered a robotic Sumo wrestling competition, where he had to programme a two-wheeled robot to drive its competitor out of the ring. The only thing they were given was the opening code, which sent each of the two robots to opposite edges of the ring. Ben cleverly (?), wrongfully (?), boldly(?) removed the code and re-entered a code that enabled his robot to follow the other robot to the edge of the ring and proceed to push the robot out of the ring before it had an opportunity to turn around. Thus began Ben’s successful career. He then went on to describe how high school had to be pushed to the side to allow more time for working on his prototype for the Uno. Lots of risks taken. Interestingly, Ben quotes Steve Jobs on his website: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.
And then there was Rob McEwen, who, having taken a controlling interest in Goldcorp, proceeded to make all of their mining data available on the web so that other mining experts in the world could come up with a solution to allow them to economically take advantage of the wealth below the surface of their Red Lake property. A fascinating open source risk that literally hit gold.
Which speech is going to have a more lasting impression – Faisal’s plea that we don’t cheat on science labs or the life experiences of Ben and Rob?
Of course, not all business risks turn out so well. Canadians know another life story. It is the story of Conrad Black, who was expelled from UCC for selling stolen exams, became one of Canada’s most successful businessmen, only to be convicted in 2007 of fraud in the United States, where he was sentenced to serve six and a half years in jail. Mr. Black, too, is a risk taker.
Trying to find the line that divides cheating from creative risk-taking in our daily lives is no easy task. As Faisal set out in his speech, it is important that we create serious consequences for those who cheat or take risks that society deems unacceptable; one would have thought that Mr. Black had met with enough of those. But as we know, the ‘rules’ are many-layered and even though you may obey the official rules, you may decide to contravene social conventions, promises, guidelines, or understandings, or take advantage of vagueness, and loop holes. Or like one little girl filmed in a TEDtalk we saw, when faced with the choice of eating one marshmallow right away or waiting and receiving a second marshmallow, we might just decide to suck out the centre of the marshmallow and leave the appearance of having played according to the rules!
One way of distinguishing good risks from bad risks is the measure of global good to come from the risk. Just as Alexandria Chun, a student speaker from Halifax Grammar School, prompted us to carefully evaluate the comparative benefit from putting our resources into solving one world problem over another, so too must we do a cost-benefit analysis of all risks we undertake. And in that analysis, we must attribute a large multiplier to tasks taken on purely for the benefit of others. As Kyle Nimmrichter, from Robert Bateman High School, suggested to us, we must embrace selflessness and “participate in something that is greater than ourselves.”
Decisions to embrace selfless risks frequently carry with them great costs for the person taking the risk. In the TEDtalk of Raghava KK, an Indian artist who re-created himself five times, it was evident that in taking the risk of following artistic truth, you may cause yourself financial ruin and public shame, but in the end, you will have the great satisfaction of having grown into a being a greater artist.
For those of us who made the decision to launch and then plan TEDxIBYork and Speak Out Day, it is now only too apparent that we had decided upon something that was “greater than ourselves”. I have had people since tell me that the TEDxIBYork event was one of the top 10 days of their life, and that the two days formed the best professional development of their life. But for me, the power of the experience and the risks undertaken lasted 10 months, not merely two days. I discovered that risks undertaken for something greater than yourself tend to push you beyond your limits, testing your preconceptions about who you are and what you can accomplish. I also discovered the truth at the heart of Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The costs were great, although mostly in time and sleepless nights. But in the course of taking on a dream such as this, as Ray Zahab would have said, you turn the impossible into the possible. And who can argue with that?!
So what in the world do you do after taking on a risk that is “greater than ourselves”?
Simple – take on another.
I guess I better tie up those running shoes again!