A Wayfinder Heads to TED

Wayfinding Academy student Austin Louis attended TED, the most inspiring and influential conference on the planet! This is his story. 

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I went to TED. Yes, that’s right - the TED. The big TED. Yes, that one, the one in Vancouver, BC, and now I’m faced with the impossible task of trying to summarize this experience in a newsletter for y’all… Wish me luck.

The theme this year was "The Age of Amazement." And it was truly amazing, but amazing isn’t always all good. Amazing can be scary. Amazing can be joyful. Amazing can be lots of things, and TED was certainly lots and lots of things: incredible, exhilarating, invigorating, scary, terrifying, shocking, and overwhelming.

It was A LOT.

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When I first arrived at TED, my excitement dwindled as a wave of insecurity crashed over me. I felt as if they had mistakenly handed me a ticket--like I had snuck into the event and they hadn’t yet discovered their error and would soon yank me out. I felt like I didn’t belong, like I didn’t deserve to be there.

I’m no CEO, I told myself. I’m just a student. What do I have to offer? I’m not interesting. I haven’t done anything yet. I’ll never measure up to any of these people. So many deserving people didn’t get to come to this event because I’m hogging a seat.

Austin and OK Go's Tim Norwind discussing the fun of making music. 

Austin and OK Go's Tim Norwind discussing the fun of making music. 

Well, it turns out this is totally normal for first-time TED attendees, and it even has a name.

"You just have TED imposter syndrome," I was assured by my new friends, all TED veterans. "You'll get over it in no time." They were right.

Most everybody at TED hates the “What do you do?” kinds of questions. So do I. These questions are more about sizing each other up than looking to make a genuine connection. So, luckily, I didn’t have to answer questions like these too often. In fact, I fit right in with my Wayfinding line of questioning. You know, questions like: Who do you want to be when you grow up? What do you most regret during your life? What’s the best part of your day?  What advice would you give yourself at age 22? All the good stuff.

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I made tons of new friends. I connected with people over the things I’m interested in, things like redefining what it means to be a man in today’s world, reclaiming play as essential for adult learning, understanding shame and its role in forming our identities. I also got to talk to neuropsychologists and Grammy-award winning producers and angel investors and AI enthusiasts.

Austin sitting up front for one of his favorite talks by speaker  Emily Levine, a comedian/philosopher who "makes dying funny.'

Austin sitting up front for one of his favorite talks by speaker Emily Levine, a comedian/philosopher who "makes dying funny.'

There were SO MANY talks--so, so many, and summarizing them would make this newsletter much too long, but some of my favorite speakers were Emily Levine, James Bridle, Dylan Marron, Simone Giertz, Emily Nagoski, Oskar Eustis, and Chetna Sinha, all of whom shared engaging and amazing ideas. Look for their talks on TED.com as they’re released. They’re great! (That said, if you’re truly curious, reach out to me and I’ll overwhelm you with a rapid-fire burst of specific TED highlights.)  

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So, what did I learn?  A question at the top of my mind throughout the conference was, what makes us human? What makes us any different than the technology that impersonates us and automates our jobs, our relationships, our conversations, and even our arts?  What makes humans unique? This was a question I kept clinging to because I had to hope that there was something that indeed made us different. I had to believe that I’d find an answer because it was too terrifying not to imagine that there’s still some irreplaceable quality we share as humans.

I’m concerned about the state of the world as it is - with the environment struggling to keep up with the demands of production and consumption, with the human rights violations around the globe, with the systems of oppression in our own country and abroad, and with the profound disconnection that technology has ushered in along with its advancements and promises to make the world a better place.

During one of the final sessions, with these concerns looming, I think I found my answer:

Empathy.  My TED takeaway is that true empathy will never be automated, that being human and connecting with other humans in a real way is essential. People need people. We are social animals. We need each other. And we need purpose--and connection, and love, and community. Empathy contains the power to create change; it’s what makes us human, it can never be truly replaced, and this type of work is needed now more than ever.

At Wayfinding, I’ve been exploring empathy in a multitude of ways. Whether it’s my schoolwork around masculinity, shame, and identity; my independent study on scrappiness as a practice to connect to our physical world and our ancestors; or my passion for play and its effects on adult learning--my TED takeaway reassures me that this work can never truly be replaced.  And this type of work is needed now more than ever before.

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