How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the shake at TEDActive 2013

TEDActive 2013 wasn’t a strange fitness-related event, which some people assumed it was from following my social media activity. The ‘Active’ refers to more cerebral kinds of activities. “It’s like nerd camp”, one guy said to me, and that’s closer to the mark. Yet saying that doesn’t quite capture what it’s actually like. The conference took place at a five-star resort in La Quinta, near Palm Springs, and there was talking, eating, drinking, mingling, rambling, exchanging, drinking, listening, sharing, singing…and repeat. And did I mention drinking? A full-on talk and ideas fest from the moment I arrived on the Saturday night to the following Friday afternoon. It was a humbling, intoxicating, challenging and emotional rollercoaster of a week for me. There’s nothing like being on my own in the middle of 700+ people to test my intellectual and social limits. By the end of it all I felt emotionally drained and was happy to leave for LA to spend time with friends…and yet, TEDActive is easily one of the best things I’ve ever been to.

Three of my TEDxSydney friends
Three of my TEDxSydney friends (Photo courtesy of TED Conference Flickr)

Even after a week back in Sydney, it’s been difficult for me to find headspace to write about the whole thing. As it is, this blog post will be awfully reductionist. I rather liked two long articles published on The Verge that capture certain aspects of the experience that I won’t write about here. One described TED – the main conference held in Long Beach – as a temporary utopia, and the other described TEDActive – the satellite conference – as a church/new religion. And TEDActive did feel a lot like church at times, though I didn’t think of it like that while I was there. Although the writer of the article had a negative spin on this idea, I don’t mean this in a perjorative way at all. I’m an athiest but still go to church from time to time and even enjoy it.

Late night at TEDActive
Late night at TEDActive (Photo courtesy of TED Conference Flickr)

My belief in the idea of community motivates so much of what I do, and yet I’m always skating on the edges of different communities and never feel like a core member of any. It’s interesting that many people wholeheartedly expressed that TEDActive was their tribe, their people – and maybe I’m envious they felt that so easily, because I didn’t get that sense at all. I’ve been wondering if I’ll always be cursed with an outsider’s mentality; even though I have a strong desire to belong to groups, I often feel apart as well, and that’s how I learn and observe. For me, TEDActive was mostly a brilliant opportunity to meet interesting new people from around the world.

One thing I kept coming back to during the week was how amazing it was that an organisation and media brand like TED has been able to inspire such devotion and grass-roots action. Back in 2011 I organised my own TEDx event in Chiang Mai, TEDxDoiSuthep, and saw it as a community building activity more than anything else. Since coming back to Sydney I’ve had the privilege of being a curator for TEDxSydney, which is one of the biggest TEDx events in the world. So even though I’m fairly invested in the TEDx movement, I didn’t really think of myself as part of a wider physical community. No wonder it surprised me that the Sunday spent with all the TEDx organisers was the highlight of my week. It was the only day where I did feel like I was part of a particular global community, and many of the people I met that day were those I kept coming back to during the week. I also wanted to have more than one conversation per person, if possible. With so many strangers around me, I actually ended up being quite introverted and found it hard work to constantly interact with new people. It’s far easier for me to be myself one-on-one and in small groups.

Group photo of TEDx organisers
Group photo of TEDx organisers (Photo courtesy of TED Conference Flickr)

TEDActive is all about socialising but of course it hinges on the actual TED 2013 conference itself. Watching the livestream of TED 2013 with other people was so much more enriching than watching a TED talk on my own at home. Before this week, it never occurred to me to bridge the digital world with the physical world by attending an event based on a livestream – but now I can see why it works. It’s far easier to laugh when there are other people around you.

Watching all the talks reminded me that there’s so much I’m ignorant about. And the talks themselves – some were jaw-dropping, some were interesting, while others weren’t actually very good – reignited my desire to make more time for reading, learning and writing. I watched a lot of the conference in a playfully-designed space called The Lab, which had beanbags and break-out areas including screen printing, fully stocked fridges and chalkboard graffiti walls.

Inside the TEDActive theatre
Inside the TEDActive theatre (Photo courtesy of TED Conference Flickr)

Aside from the wonderful TEDxSydney crew I hung out with at different points – who felt like home and who I felt so much love towards throughout the week – I found myself connecting a lot with people who’d had transnational experiences. People who’d moved to the UK when they were young and returned to their home countries as adults to make their mark – Americans who had spent big chunks of time in Australia – a man who grew up in Los Angeles for the first half of his life before heading down to Bogota – a Mexican-Jew who moved permanently to Israel in his early twenties – a young Indonesian woman who was currently studying in Vancouver. I even buried the hatchet with a German man I’d known in Chiang Mai, and we seemed to re-establish our friendship over the course of the week.

Even as I was walking out the door in the last hours of the conference on Friday, I met an American writer who’d spent most of his life as an expat in Asia, and it turned out that he lived in an out-of-way part of China I’m visiting next year. We only spoke for about 20 minutes but it was an uncanny connection, and a timely last minute reminder that when you’re open to meeting new people, incredible things can happen.

Me with Bret from Reno holding the TED Annual Report
Me with Bret from Reno holding the TED Annual Report (Photo courtesy of TED Conference Flickr)

One of the talks that touched me early on was by an artist named Phil Hansen. It was a pretty simple idea really, summarised by the phrase, “embrace the shake”. After an intense period of artistic activity during art college, Phil developed an untreatable shake in his hands and couldn’t even draw a straight line afterwards. He despaired about it for years until a neurologist told him to “embrace the shake”. And so he did, and he started to incorporate his wobbly hands into his artistic practice. He then extended the concept to embrace the limitations of other mediums to make art – whether it was candles, earth worms or the viscosity of paint. It was all about being creative within the means available to you, about being infinite within the finite. I found his story deeply moving, and it made me reflect on my own limitations. I was determined to act: during this week I would ’embrace the shake’ and be unafraid and not be so hard on myself if I didn’t make deep connections like I normally try and do. So every morning as I walked out of my room, I reminded myself that by stepping out of my comfort zone I would be amply rewarded. As difficult as it was to keep putting myself out there, I would do what was possible for me at any given moment…and just trying ended up being a pay-off in itself. All of these ideas were also reinforced by performer Amanda Palmer, one of my favourite talks from this year’s event, who describes how ‘random closeness’ with her fans and trusting them has served her well over the years:

I’m already seeing TEDActive 2013 as a real ‘a-ha’ experience in my life because it stretched my definition of the possible. Possible in terms of what was happening by the creators and the doers – de-extinction, rockets, giant squids, tests for cancer, saving the American republic, Google glasses, reversing desertification, crowdsourcing a lifestyle etc etc – to meeting different kinds of characters I had no idea existed out there in the world. There were all sorts – from mid-west college students to yoga teachers to immigration lawyers to tech start-up entrepeneurs to an oil company manager (who said over lunch that preventative health was bullshit!). There was even a guy with two tickets to space aboard the Virgin Galactic. I made some interesting connections and I’ve come away wanting to DO STUFF like PLANT SOME SHIT a la speaker Ron Finley, an artist and guerrilla gardener, from South Central LA:

The last time I went to Christmas mass the priest at the pulpit accused us all of of not doing the right thing by our faith, saying it wasn’t good enough to go just once a year. I looked around the over-full church and it struck me that surely everyone didn’t buy into his alienating sermon. I remember tuning him out and watching the faces around me instead, thinking that we were probably all here because this was a community. An imperfect one perhaps, that included nonbelievers like me, but nonetheless we were communing. And that act in itself was a powerful experience.

Would I go again to TEDActive? I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back, but perhaps one day I’d give it a second shot because I wonder if I could experience it all differently and if I’d feel more comfortable the next time. Having been once, I now completely understand why there are people who return to TEDActive each year because there’s something both grounding and invigorating about the whole experience. It’s a once-a-year intellectual and social jolt – a thousand times more than what an annual Christmas mass can offer…as long as you can afford the entry fee, of course.

All photos licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy of the TED Conferences Flickr stream.

13 thoughts on “How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the shake at TEDActive 2013

  1. Really loved this post, Sheila – I’m totally there with you on so many levels – the nerd camp, introversion, the outsider feeling at the same time as the incredible sense of belonging. All so beautifully put!

    1. Thanks Michael, not surprised at all you feel the same way. Btw, CONGRATULATIONS! Just found out the other day. Looking forward to hearing your reflections in future.

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