tedx houston: expanding perceptions

It's not much of a secret that I'm a huge fan of TED -- the conferences that feature amazingly inspired talks by some of the greatest minds in technology, entertainment and design.  I've featured several of their talks here on Chookooloonks.  The conference is generally held once a year, and it's very difficult to get in: you have to be a member of TED, pay an insane amount of money, and actually apply -- and that's just to sit in the audience.  But with people like Majora Carter, Isabel Allende, Bono and Bobby McFerrin as prior speakers, it's been a dream of mine to one day attend.

About a year or so ago, the fine folks at TED decided to take their show on the road, and allow specific cities to put on their own local conferences, known as TEDx.  Saturday was Houston's first TEDx conference, under the theme "Expanding Perceptions."  When I first learned of the event, I was really tempted to apply to be in the curated audience; however, once I learned that my friend Brené was going to be speaking at the event, that sealed the deal.  I didn't even hesitate:  I went online and filled out the rather extensive application, then crossed my fingers that I would be accepted.

I was.  And happily, the entrance fee was relatively inexpensive.

So Saturday, my friend Happy Katie (who'd also been accepted) and I drove to the Wortham Theatre at the University of Houston to attend.  As we approached, we noticed a disturbance in front of the theatre.  It looked like an angry protest.


"Who would possibly protest TED?" we wondered to each other.


We made our way through the men and women holding signs, and we were almost on the other side of the protesters before we realized that what they were protesting was "apathy" -- they were actually part of the  TED conference, as an exercise in showing how our perceptions as we walked toward the protesters changed once we realized that they were actually in support of the conference we were about to attend.

Well played, TED.



We finally arrived at the entrance to check in.  When they handed us our nametags, both Happy Katie and I each had a trio of words underneath our names:


I loved this:  instead of putting our titles or organizations or something of equal significance on the badges, they made a sort of "tag cloud" from our words: based on how we answered the question on our applications regarding how we hoped to help Houston in the future, the organizers put the top three most frequently-used words from our responses as our "titles," or identifiers.  It was a great conversation-starter, and a way to identify like-minded attendees.

Again, TED, really well done.

Anyway, we went inside, and soon the conference began.  I have to say, this was possibly the best conference I have EVER attended -- I sort of feel like all future conferences are spoiled for me.  It was different from most conferences -- there wasn't any movement from room to room, or protracted question-and-answer sessions.  It was more like sitting through a series of keynote addresses, peppered with fascinating video and even beautiful music and dance, for God's sake.  Truly stellar. 

Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take photographs of any of the speakers, but I thought I'd share some of my favourite sessions:

Dr. Brené Brown, Researcher-Storyteller, with special emphasis on vulnerability, authenticity and worthiness -- If you've been reading Chookooloonks for any amount of time, you know Brené is a close friend of mine, and I'm always thrilled to hear her speak.  She opened the conference, and I can say objectively and empirically, she blew people away.  My favourite thing she said, relating to being a parent:  "We think that as parents, we're supposed to  hold our babies and look at them and say, 'you're perfect, and I'm going to do everything I can to keep you this way.'  The truth is, we're actually supposed to look at them and say, 'you're imperfect, but nonetheless you are worthy of love and belonging. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you know this.'"

Dan Phillips, Designer and Builder and founder of The Phoenix Commotion -- Okay, this man is CRAZY-amazing.  Dan makes these astounding houses completely out of recycled building materials and building waste.  He only employs unskilled workers to build the houses, and not everyone gets to own one -- the final, astoundingly beautiful results are owned by single parents, artists and families with low incomes (all of whom are required to help build the house they will eventually own). He talked a lot about our habit of creating constant waste, and said of good design, "What we need is to reconnect with who we really are."

Cristal Montañéz Baylor, former Miss Venezuela, and Executive Director of Hashoo Foundation USA -- Cristal spoke about "Plan Bee," an initiative to train the rural women of Pakistan to raise honeybees for the sale of honey.  Their products are sold to five-star hotels in Pakistan, enabling the women to send their children to school for a quality education, as well as change the way women are perceived by their children, their husbands and society in general.  My favourite words of hers:  "In order to empower women, men have to be a part of the transformation."

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum & Dr. Maria Odem, Rice 360: Institute for Global Health Technologies -- This was another really inspiring talk:  Rebecca and Maria told us all of the amazing inexpensive portable medical equipment and technologies that their students -- some of them freshmen -- are creating to help get proper medical care to rural areas in the developing world (my favourite:  an economical centrifuge made out of a salad spinner!).  One of the astonishing statistics Rebecca mentioned:  "Every year, 9 million children under the age of 5 die -- the equivalent of all the children under 5 of New York, California and Texas combined."  She went on to explain that many of these deaths could be avoided with proper medical attention.

Two-Star Symphony -- An amazing classical string ensemble made up entirely of composers -- each musician helps create the music, and since they operate more like a band than a symphony, the entire music-writing process is collaborative -- resulting in the group never actually writing down a single note.  They were beautiful.

Dominic Walsh, dancer/choreographer, The Dominic Walsh Dance Theater -- Dominic is a former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, before forming his own dance theatre.  He let us see a glimpse of his creative process in coming up with the performances his beautiful dancers do (two of whom joined him on stage).  My favourite thing he said:  "There is something about trusting in the abstract, without really knowing why you're doing it, and watching the truth reveal itself."

Dr. David Eagleman, neuroscientist and fiction writer -- David closed the conference, and spoke about uncertainty, and the dichotomy between science and religion.  One of the first things he said was, "What we learn from life and science is the vastness of our ignorance."  I love this.  Also, he quoted Voltaire:  "Doubt is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd position."  I loved that as well.


The conference, as you might expect, earned a standing ovation for all the organizers and volunteers who made such an extraordinary day happen.  And as we left, we were invited to do the following:

Whenever we encounter events in the world that are frustrating or annoying or require change, we should look inward, asking ourselves:

Who am I being, that that is that way?

Food for thought.

Images:  Photographed with Nikon D300, 24-85mm lens.


Song:  The opening video of the conference played a song that I recognized, but at first I couldn't place.  Then I remembered:  the music was actually composed by birds -- or rather, indicated by the positions of birds sitting on electrical wires.  It's rather beautiful, so even though I'm pretty sure I've featured it on Chookooloonks before, I thought I'd share it again, below.

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.