I have often blogged about the importance of hanging out with people a whole lot smarter than you - those who have been there, done that, and can guide you on your journey. For me, this typically means the mentors I find, the contacts I make, and the people who come across my desk from time to time. This past week I had the privilege of attending SXSW Interactive in Austin - an amazing confluence of people and ideas that brings together some of the biggest names in science, technology, the arts, government, and other odds and ends of the world. When having to choose who to hear and listen to, I felt like a kid in a candy store...so many great choices with so little time. My "AHA" was that they "greats" really have a lot to offer...they are "great" for a reason. And it was the most fun when I listened in on conversations about which I knew the least. Here is a quick run down on a few of the "greats" I heard and what I learned...
Neil Degrasse Tyson (astrophysicist and hosts of the FOX show "Cosmos") - Neil was amazing! He was smart, funny, engaging and passionate. I loved his line that scientific literacy is not just knowing a bunch of facts and figures...it is "how much do you still wonder about the world around you?" He reminded me that the more I learn about science, the more skeptical I become (in the best sense of the word), and the more I can engage in learning at that point. His final line was that we need to "take action on the things we are inspired by." I left energized, ready to take on the world, and ready to learn more about the world around me.
Dean Kamen (inventor and thinker - designed the segway) - I was once again reminded (and convinced) that technology, properly used, can indeed solve the world's problems (as it always has). We, in this time and day, have a responsibility to solve the deep issues in society - because we can...and perhaps there needs to be a Bill of Responsibilities along with the Bill of Rights. Because I am a big fan of learning through failure, one of my favorite lines of his was, "Sucking if the first step to doing anything!" He inspired me to get going and "build something great."
Lena Dunham (film maker and creator of the HBO series "Girls") - Okay, this was a little far out there for me, and it was probably the star power that attracted me, but I am so glad I stood in line 45 minutes to hear her (and I got to stand and chat with good friend Roxanne Wilson). She was witty, funny, passionate, and inspiring. I was again reminded that I can learn a lot from a 28-year old who is creative and really good at her craft. Three thoughts stood out for me: 1) because of technology, the lack of money is no longer an excuse (applies to most situations in life); 2) Maya Angelou once said that "when someone tells you who they are, believe them." What a powerful statement that can lead to some great collaborative work; and 3) "tell the story that only you know" - ruminate on that for a while and see where it leads you.
Ralph Steadman (British artist who created the drawings for Hunter Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") - I think I really attended this one to listen to historian Douglas Brinkley do the interview, and was pleasantly surprised by what I learned. Ralph (who has to be in his 80's) talked about the creative spirit and the need to be one's self. Listening to him talk about his role in history and how he has hung around with great writers and politicians was interesting in and of itself. I was reminded that we all need to develop a style and use it to make an impact in whatever we do.
Robert Duvall (actor and director) - again, I was attracted to the star power, as well as the fact that he was being interviewed by Leonard Maltin. I was four rows away from him and got to watch a master talk about his craft. As he told stories of working with John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and James Caan (to name a few) I watched his enthusiasm for acting and making stories come alive. It is so much fun to see how people who are masters of their craft are so comfortable talking about what they do. I was also reminded that no matter how famous one is, they still do their jobs day in and day out - and that doing one's craft well is often times just about showing up and doing a good job.
Rahm Emanuel (Mayor of Chicago and former Chief of Staff for President Obama) - The gist of the Mayor's talk was about how the arts have become an important part of Chicago's strategic plan and how important it is to have the arts present in schools. He talked about how in his short administration he has "gotten a lot of stuff done" - not a bad vision for someone in charge. Having a 10-year plan with the nimbleness to change has been important to him - and to the city. And as he talked about serving the 77 different neighborhoods in the city, he saw his role as "providing the resources that were needed to light the spark that was already there...and I wondered to myself how I might be able to do that with faculty, programs, etc within my purview.
Whew...I'm exhausted just writing about it. The four days at SXSW were once again "a liberal arts education on steroids" for me. Many thanks to my friend Nathan Green for once again asking me to be on a panel that provides a free Gold Badge for me...AND it would also be worth the $1000 if I had to purchase the badge. Only 51 weeks until SXSW 2015!