Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A first-timer at TEDx Madison by Kelsey Gockenbach

Only a few things are worth giving up a June...before it gets deliriously hot and humid. TEDx Madison is definitely one of those things.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the Bartell Theater was a palpable buzz. Everyone there was excited: for the speakers, and for the opportunity to be a part of TED, a name that has become synonymous with innovation and forward thinking. I was pretty sure I would end the day a better, more enlightened person than I was when I woke up.

There were a little over 100 attendees (TED only allows TEDx events to sell 100 tickets to keep the independently organized events intimate) in the Bartell theater, and unlike what you would usually expect at 9amon a Saturday, everyone tried to sit as close to the front as possible, engaged and ready.  

I won’t bother giving play-by-play recaps of each of the talks- I would never be able to do them justice. However, each talk will soon be up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure. I will say, though, that every.single.presentation was either thought provoking, taught me something new or energized me. Most often they did all three.

Although all of the talks were on vastly different subjects, from bikes as a tool for social change to what it means to be a hipster, there were certain themes that ran through the day. A few speakers even circled back to points made by the previous presenters. A move that showed it wasn’t only paying ticket-holders who were learning something new in that theater.

Both Becky Splitt of Study Blue and Elizabeth Katt-Reinders of the Clean Lakes Alliance made a call for cooperation and connections instead of competition. Becky advocated a “we vs. me” attitude, and the value of sharing knowledge as a tool for success in school. We learned that the one-person study carrels (read: cages) at the UW Madison Memorial Library are not only terrifying, but ineffective for students who should be working together instead of competing against each other.

Elizabeth Katt-Reinders had us re-examine how we define our allies, and that what at first may seem like a competing interest could actually be a connection you didn’t realize was there. Who knew your ice cream had so much in common with Lake Mendota?

Jordan Ellenberg, UW Mathematics Professor and author sang the praises of the phrase “I don't know,” and taught us that not only is uncertainty OK, that it is many times the only correct answer. While David Maraniss, Pulitzer prize winner and associate-editor at The Washington Post taught us how to find truth, and to accept the contradictions and uncertainties in all of us.

The other goal of TEDx is to create a dialogue among the attendees and speakers, to meet someone you wouldn’t have crossed paths with elsewhere, and to learn something new from a fellow audience member. There were plenty of opportunities to meet other attendees, as well as a structured speed networking exercise which consisted of about 25 minutes of 2 minute conversations as you moved down the line of people shaking hands and introducing yourself. It forced me to think of new ways to ask “So what do you do?” I briefly met other TEDx attendees who were involved with everything from psychology research at UW to Improv to the WI Dept. of Agriculture.

At the end of the day, we all came over to 100state for beers (it wouldn’t be a summer day in Wisconsin without a cold beer), cupcakes and a chance to chat with everyone and wind down. At this point, I think everyone was ready to relax in a more casual atmosphere. At one point, a group of nine got stuck in the infamous 100state elevator for an hour, but were greeted by a cheering crowd when they finally made it up to the fourth floor. They are now affectionately known as the E-9 team.

TED and their independently organized events, are not only about hearing brilliant individuals speak about their passions, but also to immerse yourself in an intimate intellectual community where everyone else shares the same motivation as you- an interest in new ideas, a desire to make their community a better place, and an eagerness to broaden their minds.

‘Til next year, TEDx Madison!