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.

TEDTalks Live: The Education Revolution

Last night the Empire State Building was red in honor of the first sessions of TEDTalks Live on Broadway.

I was sitting in the balcony in the Town Hall theatre, surrounded by teachers, students, and TED staff who were there to celebrate some of the brave thinkers taking on the “Education Revolution” head on. Speakers included principal Nadia Lopez, who became an important figure in education reform when one of her students was profiled by Humans of New York and the student cited his high school principal as the most influential person in his life, Former White House Chef and food policy advisor Sam Kass, and Andrew Mangino from The Future Project.

Perhaps my favorite moment from the evening was when principal Lopez was introduced by host Baratunde Thurston and everyone around me stood up and cheered. It was the warmth of reception that celebrities usually receive… and it was amazing to be part of a community that is this excited about a principal committed to making change in the lives of her students. She spoke without jargon or false promises, it was purely focused on her students and the community she was building in Brownsville. How she showed up for them every day, and therefore expected them to do the same.

I think the commitment the TEDTalks Live team made to including students and teachers at this event was what helped create such a magical experience for the rest of the audience. My section of the audience positively glowed with warmth for many of the figures on the stage last night, and their love and enthusiasm was infectious.

I left optimistic for the future of education reform… and seeking new places to be useful in my own corner of the world.

Love of the Fact Check

People who know me well are not surprised when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

People who don’t know me very well look some combination of shocked, horrified, or judgmental when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

What they are missing is that fact checking is not about proving people wrong — I don’t like having to flag notes or facts and then follow up for a “can I see your data set” conversation. It’s not about making anyone look bad or asking them to do more work and more research… it’s about ensuring that what is produced is the best piece we can build together.

For me, the fact check is like being a sleuth. I need to figure out what kinds of questions the initial data collectors were asking and whether or not the data is being interpreted accurately when it’s allowed to roam free and be interpreted by other people outside the initial collection team. This is sort of like sniffing out the initial environment of the “scene of the crime” where the data was collected.

Then I get to check out the arguments the opponents or other groups are making and see where there are interpretation issues. Sometimes data sets are very consistent.. sometimes it’s an entirely different story.

I get to look up conversations between brilliant thinkers and try to track down the initial inception point of a thought or idea that became a major piece of intellectual capital.

I get to have really cool conversations about strengthening arguments and narratives with facts. I LOVE this part. I want to make my speakers be the best they can be, because the talk should be able to stand on its own at the point that it’s given… and years later or when its viewed online by people in other contexts.

I hope next time people wont be so horrified when I tell them that I love fact checking. I know I always appreciate the feedback on my own work.

July: Favorite TED Talks

When people find out what I do now, I am always asked what my favorite talks are from our site. These are my current favorites, though the last one is almost always in my top 3.

This one always fills me with wonder and makes me smile.

This one reminds me that the world is beautiful and worth exploring.
This one reminds me to make time to reflect.