Usually I’m pretty much a home-body, perfectly content putting my pj’s on at 6pm and puttering around the house for the rest of the evening. This Tuesday, Mike and I did something different for a change.
After work, we headed down to the Cadillac Palace Theatre for a Chicago Ideas Week event!
We’ve always loved watching TED Talks and listening to the NPR TED Radio Hour Podcast. While Chicago Ideas Week is not affiliated with TED, the speakers were of the same caliber and topics equally broad, ranging from Entrepreneurship to Health & Longevity to Music & Pop Culture.
My 3 Most Memorable Speakers
Nicholas Kristof @NickKristof
The host of the evening was Nicholas Kristof, New York Times OpEd Columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square movement and the genocide in Darfur.
In addition to introducing each guest, he got the evening off to a powerful start by sharing some of his own stories and experiences. Most memorably, he spoke of a woman he met while reporting. She had been Gang-Raped by a powerful Militia in a small village where being a raped woman is considered to be more shameful than to be a man that rapes. He was hesitant to use her story for fear that printing it would put her in further danger, but she bravely insisted he publish it since it was the only way she could fight back.
Despite encountering so much bad in the world through his reporting, he said he comes across even more people that give him hope, like this woman, bravely trying to make positive change at her own expense.
He also spoke of another modern crisis – The Empathy Gap. I’m unsure of his source, but he stated that the wealthiest 20% of the population donate a smaller percentage of their income than the poorest 20%. He believes it is simply because those in the poorest 20% see more suffering.
In fact, most of us see very little of the world’s issues – as the media chases ratings, coverage of important issues seems to be shrinking. Whenever I watch Vice or even Last Week Tonight, I am always surprised by the major issues they cover that I haven’t heard a peep about in the mass media.
In closing, Nick stated that as media is losing it’s business model, he urges us all to shine a spotlight on global conversations, whether that’s via Twitter, Facebook, or a conversation with a friend.
Robbie (Roberta) Kaplan @KaplanRobbie
Turning Point: Successfully arguing the case (United States v. Windsor) that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling ordering federal recognition of gay marriages.
Edie Windsor, in her 80’s, hired Robbie to represent her suit over the $363,000 in inheritance taxes she was charged after the death of her spouse – taxes that heterosexual couples don’t have to pay.
As a result of the Windsor decision, married same-sex couples—regardless of domicile—now have tax benefits, and the language and reasoning of the case has since been used in numerous state decisions.
For Robbie, this was more than just a legal victory, as she’s an out lesbian herself with a wife and child.
She played for us a few recordings from the court room, and what left the biggest impression on me was how human she was. There were “ums” and pauses in her responses to the Justices. She sounded a little bit nervous. Her delivery wasn’t perfect, yet her message was.
Sam Polk @SamPolk
Turning Point: Leaving his multi-million dollar salary & Hedge Fund career behind. He now is a writer and founder of the non-profit GroceryShips.
His turning point occurred in a meeting at work one day. Shortly after the stock market crashed, upcoming regulations to the Hedge Fund industry were being discussed during a management meeting and the mood was grim. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?”, Sam blurted out. When no one seemed to agree or care, he knew what he had to do, but it still took him some time and a lot of strength to leave.
What made his story most powerful though, was his humility. It was a long road leading up to his turning point. A road riddled with alcohol addiction and drug addiction, which he beat with the help of a spiritual counselor. When he found himself envious of those making more money than him despite having everything he needed and a multi-million dollar salary himself, his counselor suggested he might be using money the same way he’d used drugs and alcohol — to make himself feel powerful. She suggested he stop focusing on accumulating more and instead focus on healing his “inner wound” of feelings of low self-worth and a wealth addiction.
While his life looks so different now from what it used to be, he acknowledged that he still is working to overcome is inner battle, still working to avoid the temptations of money and publicity, and still constantly reminding himself that he is enough.
Another powerful thought he left us with was the question “Is the CEO of JP Morgan any more valuable than the Starbucks Barista?” In non-monetary ways, no, he isn’t.
He has a young daughter and another thing that stuck with me is what he says to her every night: “You are Valuable. You are Safe. You are Enough.”
You can read more about his story here.
The Other (Amazing) Speakers of the Evening
On August 20, 2013, school book-keeper Antoinette Tuff prevented a shooting at an Atlanta elementary school. She found herself alone with the would-be shooter, he dressed all in black with an AK-47.
She pushed past her fear and spoke to him, sharing her own personal struggles, telling him she cared about him, and in the end, convincing him to surrender. No one was harmed.
Ron Suskind @RonSuskind
Ron Suskind, Senior Fellow at the Harvard University Center for Ethics was a great speaker, making us laugh while telling us about his heart wrenching turning points.
When his seemingly normal youngest son Owen was 2.5 years old, he suddenly stopped talking and regressed backwards – soon diagnosed as Regressive Autism. He didn’t speak for years.
In Autism, it is common for every detriment to have an equal and opposite strength. It took years to uncover Owen’s, but eventually Ron and his family did. For years, Owen had been watching Disney Films obsessively. One night, Ron picked up a puppet (Iago the parrot from Aladdin) and suddenly found Owen speaking to him, using lines straight from the movie. Ron quickly realized that Owen had every. single. line. memorized of all of his favorite Disney films. If someone says one line, he’ll say the next, even including the character’s voices.
The highlight of Ron’s presentation was a video of him and his now grown son, reenacting the scene from the Lion King in which Simba’s dead father speaks to him about the powerful bond between father and son. It was so incredibly clear that Owen not only knew the words, but also understood and lived the meaning.
Sean Combs @iamdiddy
Sean Combs (yes, Puff Daddy!), also spoke at the event. I tend to live under a rock when it comes to music, but even I was aware of his Turning Point from Rapper to Entrepreneur, now with a Multi-Media empire under him and over 2,000 employees. He also spoke of his turning point from a kid whose father was killed when he was 3-years old and whose mother worked 4 jobs to the life he is living today
One quote he shared that stuck with me was “Don’t be afraid to close your eyes & dream… then open your eyes and see”. Having a dream kept him from turning back to the streets, but he underscored the importance of understanding the reality of the effort it would take.
Overall, it was an amazing event and true to it’s name, it left me with a lot to think about.
This year’s Ideas Week is almost over but there are still many events this weekend and I’d highly recommend going if you have the time. They also have an online database of videos from all of the talks from prior years and will soon be adding recordings of this year’s event.
I’d love to hear from you!
Have you had any major turning points in your life?
Who would you want to hear Speak at an event like this?