Books & Talks That Made Me Think: 2015

I’ve always loved books, but this year I’ve had the added pleasure of working on some of the talks coming through TED. Here are a few of the moments that I’ve been pushed the most in the last year:

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family: I just finished reading this profile of Marie Curie and her incredibly family. I had not fully appreciated the context of the scientific discoveries that Marie, Pierre, Irene and Frederic made during their research lives… especially with a backdrop like the Great Depression and two World Wars. It is incredible how much of their research is still relevant today and how much bullshit Marie Curie and Irene had to endure due to gender rules in France, barring women from important roles in the science community during this time period. I was inspired by the entire Curie family’s defense of pure research and commitment to continuing with their work, through sickness and war and financial trouble.

Monica Lewinsky talked about the Price of Shame at TED2015: This was one of the first talks I supported with research when I first joined TED. While most of my notes did not end up in the final copy, it kicked off a journey into research on clickbait economies (I jokingly refer to this research as studying “how internet trolls make money”) that I still think about now. She is phenomenally brave and reminds our larger communities that this is the time for kindness. I remember this responsibility when I decide what to consume on the internet.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century: I am still in process of reading this book, but it is so thoughtful and thought-provoking that when I finish each chapter, I have to take a pause to write pages of notes for continued research to dig into later. I’ve long wondered how Capitalism needs to change to adapt to new historical periods and contexts… how it would need to adapt to work outside the “West” (Hernando de Soto has some interesting thoughts about this). Piketty raises some very important questions about the nature of wealth and income, and how those who start with an advantage end with a serious advantage. This all feels particularly important after Larry Lessig’s campaign on Campaign Finance Reform…

Which also leads to Larry Lessig’s talk about Campaign Finance and American Democracy at TEDxMidAtlantic. Nothing is more chilling than sitting in a room and having someone brilliant on the stage present a case of corruption happening right around you… that you’ve grown so accustomed to accepting that you cannot see another way around it. It’s a moment of feeling helpless and restless and broken… but Lessig also makes you ready to rally for change. It was the first time since writing my thesis about corruption in Colombia’s government (and how cartels invest in political campaigns) that I felt ready to jump back into the mix. Let’s see some campaign finance reform, because the Citizens United case CANNOT be the end of American Democracy as we know it.

I saw Spotlight this week with my family, and after the initial deep despair it causes, knowing how long these child abuse cases were buried by the church in the city that I grew up in (among so many other cities) and how deeply this has damaged the lives of so many people (the movie cities 249 abusive priests and 1000+ victims that came forward after the article in the Boston Globe exposing the cover up of abusive priests in Boston in 2002 was published), I went home and subscribed to the Boston Globe, NPR, New York Times, and other papers tackling investigative reporting. It turns out, this phenomenon is not unique to the Catholic Church, but it happens in a handful of other communities, where “speaking against other members” is met with violence and silence. Without a steady support based, they cannot continue this type of research. I am proud to support investigative reporting, we need much more of it and the journalism industry as we know it is in real trouble financially. We cannot lose this quest for the truth as we are pushed further and further towards consumable media in the form of clickbait.

Palak Shah’s talk at the Personal Democracy Forum was about protecting contract laborers and adapting labor structures to meet new demands on the work force this year. It was stirring and offers us a clear opportunities to protect workers in this new age of the Sharing Economy. I know I thought a lot about conditions she described while deciding how and when to use apps like Handy and AirBnb, among others. My roommate and I went so far as to only use Handy to meet workers that we could hire later (except we paid the worker directly instead of waiting for the worker to take only the small percentage offered to them by Handy). I send this to everyone I know who wants to talk about the Labor Question.

The Art of Communication was a book I stumbled across while taking a weekend to wander alone through Soho and collect myself. I had a really tough summer trying to navigate a break up and make sense of my grandfather’s fight with cancer/how my family was reacting to it. I needed to be alone and re-center myself… and when I found this book, I learned to find more space in my heart for compassion towards myself and the people around me. The writing is gentle and kind… perfect when you need the verbal equivalent of a hug.

Esther Perel’s Rethinking Infidelity… a talk for anyone who has ever loved at TED2015 was another moment that helped me find more compassion in my heart… towards myself. She talks about the issues we run into in modern marriage and pressure on relationships, but when I listen to it I also heard about the permission many of us refuse to grant ourselves to accept that we will change and want different things and should explore who we are. It was a moment where I fully committed to writing “my own rules.” It has also made me a better, more communicative and direct partner because I know what I need to protect in myself and where I want to, and need to grow. This was a real gift.

Patti’s Smith’s The M Train is a journey through time and travel with one of my favorite writers. She inspired some of the structure in the guidebook I built for my boyfriend this christmas. I loved exploring her experiences through her writing, and see what it meant to her to spend time alone. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be truly comfortable and alone. This, for me, linked back to the conversations I was having about defining my own rule book. I have always admired how unapologetically herself she is.

Finally, I learned a lot from the 27 writers who wrote for the Eccentric Guide to New York that I built this fall. It was fun to see how friends had carved out their own spaces in the city and catch glimpses of them finding themselves. I loved seeing the city through other people’s eyes. Sometimes I forget how magical it is to live here, and I had the opportunity to put this together for someone who was just exploring the city for his first year here offered me a new way to explore my environment.

Tell me about your favorite talks.

Something I’ve noticed over time, when I ask people about their favorite TED Talks or they ask me about mine, is that the ones that we remember and love most are often on subjects that we have spent time exploring, even just peripherally.

It’s a magical moment — when a speaker says something and crystalizes an idea or concept you’ve been exploring but had trouble explaining in concrete terms. It’s a moment of camaraderie. That talk becomes more than just a talk — it’s your connect, your tool, to explain a concept you care about. Sometimes it offers you a step into further exploration, sometimes it’s a moment of comfort, the wow I’m not crazy! moment, and other times it’s the push in a direct you needed to take your thinking that lets you take the next big risk in your adventure.

This was clearest to me when I was standing on the sidewalk outside the Town Hall theatre on Monday after TEDTalks Live: The Education Revolution. I was with three friends, none of whom had attended a live TED event before. The format, for them, had been a series of individual talks, rather than the curated sessions that weave content together in ways meant to inspire the audience to weave ideas together with their own analysis and reactions.

One friend, like me, was most deeply moved by Nadia Lopez. Her own work reflected so many of the passionate late night conversations that we had had about education and the teachers who inspired us. Another friend who works in TV for kids was interested in what Sam Kass had to say about nutrition and attention. And my last friend was glowing after Salman Khan’s talk about education by mastery rather than “passing grades.” After Khan’s talk, he promised aloud, I am going to write that essay that’s been in my head about this!  He said this again on the sidewalk and again a few days later, when the talk had stayed with him.

These talks are beautiful to us long after we see them live because we connect to them and a little light inside our minds stays lit, offering a new point of orientation for ideas and further exploration. It’s about so much more than that short introduction to the speaker’s world and work. It’s about giving you a new stepping stone and the courage to keep exploring in your own right.

This is why I love TED Talks.

Song of the Twenty Something

Sometimes I think about my time in New York City and think about my life as a ribbon, like the ones from the elaborate May Day dances around May poles that I watched when I was little. My thread moves around and twists into a whole mix of different colors, sometimes weaving into and weaving out of the fabric created by the dancers.

While I lived in Manhattan, my life was woven into a steady stream of carefully planned dinners and drinks with friends who worked in Capital C for CORPORATE jobs. The timelines were clear, the hours ground them into the ground, the bonuses served as a metric for their success. Time was scarce, time to think freely and ask interesting questions at work… even more scarce. Projects they wouldn’t have dreamed of working on as undergrads were justified with just a handful of words. A tense sort of existence and interaction with time dominated our conversations… and it was hard to tell when we were doing a good/bad job taking care of ourselves.

I moved to Brooklyn in June and soon the colors I was weaving into were more forgiving. They asked questions and explored concepts that didn’t have answers yet. My friends had day jobs, and learned the most from what their did in their own time. The questions they explored over dinner tables and hours in the public library, were more in line with my own thinking and desire to explore.

With this opportunity to reflect and collect myself again, I cracked. Pausing long enough in the doorway one evening after I had fully moved in, I collapsed into the bones and flesh in my body, finally tacking stock of the two years of damage from living in Manhattan. My metrics and expectations for myself were fucked up. I had to come to terms with that. The joy I had derived from exploring new questions and developing tools for difficult academic explorations… were finally acceptable again. Not having an answer was ok. I was free to build, anew.

I started to weave my life back into a world of artists and academics and explorers. People whose day jobs explained far too little about who they were, what they thought about, and what they wanted to do with their time. I was at home, once more. ‘What do you do now?’ meant so little.

University was the last time I found this freedom. A space where my academic pursuits devoured 3/4 of the day, but the last 1/4 was for me to do as I chose… and I chose, frequently, to build things.

What I loved about the Liberal Arts program at Yale was that people had these small points of interactions with people who were completely different from them where we built teams and shared thoughtful critique to help each other improve. My natural science requirements brought me in touch with more of the pure science students than my life did normally and I learned as much from them as I did the students who were on a similar technical trajectory in my political science/sociology/latin american studies programs. It meant recognizing my stronger points and weaker points immediately, and asking for help or advice regularly.

Perhaps the best part was that we were pushed to create and innovate. To develop our own projects, learn the practical skill set of executing projects and seeing them through to the end, evaluating our own results, asking for constant feedback, building and changing teams, developing product concepts and testing them… everything that has been so useful to me post college. It was food for the mind and the senses…. and such a necessary contrast to constant work in abstraction and academia.

I think this “side hustle” in extracurricular work prepared me most for the work force. Well, maybe that and experiment design from my academic work. I learned to play by doing and I learned to think by working with my peers in seminars and team based coursework.

For me, the balance I found in college, among the builders and the thinkers, was what kept me sane. I needed to play in both spaces with time to evaluate. I lost that sense of balance in Manhattan, amid the high profile, high focus jobs and culture and regained it in the fluidity of Brooklyn.

It taught me, most importantly, that the concept of “home” is so much more about the people and the pulse of thinking that I wanted to surround myself with. And sometimes that pulse comes in much less obvious forms that I had accepted when I first moved to New York. I am thoroughly enjoying this new exploration process.

Yale Tech Conference: Yale Looks To Boost Entrepreneurial Community

Yesterday, Yale Tech kicked off its first New York City based conference. The first Yale Tech event was a sold out 200 person conference in San Francisco with attendees coming all the way from Shanghai for the event. Yesterday was another nearly sold out event with ~100 people. Not bad for a school known for investing heavily in arts and humanities… and struggling with some of its science programs/attracting students interested in the sciences. [I should add that Yale is making a concentrated effort to reach out to STEM students and improve its programs.]

The content throughout the day was very strong. The morning kicked off with speakers from Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and Yale’s Computer Science Department, urging alumni to be more involved with some of the great projects happening on campus. One of the speakers pointed out that students (and alumni, myself included) frequently complain that Yale does not offer many programs that focus on “real world applications.” I know, at least for me, this was an issue when I was working through proposal for my thesis and looking for faculty support/editors to advise my work.

What started with HackYale‘s efforts to improve access to hard skills for our student body is now happening on a larger university level (we hope). HackYale started in 2012 as an effort by students (Will Gaybrick YLS’12, Bay Gross YC’13 and Miles Grimshaw YC’13) to introduce a programming curriculum into Yale’s offerings. The students working in the program originally taught programming skills to their classmates for free, but as the program grew, Yale started to pay student teachers for their time. Yesterday at Yale Tech, Gaybrick was speaking on a panel about investing (he is now a partner at Thrive Capital) and he added that more students had signed up for HackYale in the first two weeks than had graduated from the Computer Science Department in several years. In 2015, Yale and it’s alumni have decided to step in and make further improvements.

Yale’s Computer Science Department is also underfunded and staffed compared to many of the other schools within our network. Luckily, the university is making some efforts to grow this department and offer more immediately applicable programming courses for students. Alumni support for this move appeared during the conference under #YaleTech.

The conference hosted a series of industry leaders, including Henry Blodget [CEO and Co-Founder of Business Insider], Jennifer Fleiss [CEO, Rent-The-Runway], Kevin Delaney [Editor-in-Chief, Quartz] and Eddie Hartman [Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer, LegalZoom]. I have to applaud the content and conference director, Victor Wong, for getting nearly 50/50 male to female speakers for the event. I know from my own work at TED and formerly at TEDxYale that this is hard to do. [For many reasons, as June Cohen explained at TEDGlobal 2013]. The speakers were all very candid and shared valuable insight from their respective industries. During the course of the day, we covered everything from data driven sizing recommendations for high end women’s fashion to war stories from investing and mergers and acquisitions.

It was good to see the conversations go beyond technology and programming into other fields, like journalism, legal support, and finance. I think the conference staff did a wonderful job presenting many different projects coming out of the Entrepreneurial Community at Yale, which is not an easy task. The audience was equally diverse — I spent time talking to alumni now working in local and city government, architects, engineers, developers, professors, digital designers, teachers, and writers. It is promising to see alumni from so many different backgrounds coming together to support Yale Tech’s efforts. Overall, the conference sends an important message to current students about other options out there beyond the jobs and recruiters that actively chase recent grads. The alumni encouraged students to be creative and look for new opportunities. As we all know, I think this is a really important message to share with students.

I’ll be following Yale Tech’s growth in NYC and abroad… can’t wait for more.