Thanks to the TED conference last week, the internet has been effervescent with reports by attendees declaring one presentation or another life-changing, or game-changing, or world-changing. Of course, that’s the point. TED is an intellectual orgy, where the big ideas go to procreate and catch fire, and where industry and thought leaders go to network and be re-energized. Videos of the best speakers are passed around for months afterward, allowing anyone to get a hit of the potential that’s shared there. It’s voyeuristically clear, however, that nothing compares to the immersive experience of seeing it live.
Those who attend are already at the top of their game. They leave charged up to do more, taking with them an ever more expanded sense of what’s possible. And while I’d love to be a fly on the wall there someday (which is about the only way I’d get in), I can’t help but wonder if we ought not also enable such experiences a bit lower on the food chain. What if that conviction of “possible” were instilled in those who’ve never had it to begin with?
Far away from the rarefied air of TED, the most significant speaking “event” I have ever done was also the smallest. In the summer of 2007, a high school teacher in Alexandria, VA wrote to tell me that she’d shown Who Killed the Electric Car? in her class, then assigned her students to design a plan to improve the world in some small way. They’d been fired up after the movie, but were immediately daunted by the assignment, their enthusiasm deflated by the belief that one teenager can’t make a difference. Recalling that I was their age when I started working for General Motors, she’d wanted to know if I had any words of encouragement she could pass along.
Needing to go to Washington, DC the following week for a conference, I offered to stop in Alexandria and visit the school with a colleague. Meanwhile, I learned the rest of the story: the class was comprised entirely of kids who’d flunked during the spring, and was already slated to be cancelled because only a small handful were enrolled this time. Now they likely wouldn’t graduate at all. Sadly, some at the school were amazed that we were willing to come talk to “kids like them”, but they decided to keep the class going until we did.
We spent the afternoon there, answering questions from the film, showing them the RAV4 EV that we’d brought and letting them tool around the parking lot in it. A simple presentation that we’d done dozens of times. Only after we left did my colleague share the brief but passionate monologue a student named Phillip delivered to him on the side:
You know, I used to just sit at home, watch television and clench my fists. I’d watch the people in our government lie and cheat and do whatever they wanted just because no one would stop them. They think that they’re above the rules. I’d just sit and get madder and madder. But mostly I was sad because I knew that I could never do anything to stop them. I used to believe that no one can….
Then I watched your movie and I said to myself – Hey, wait a minute! If that little white girl can stand up to a huge company like GM and win, then man, I can do the same. If she can do it, then I can too! Now I’m full of energy. I am going down to that hill [referring to Capitol Hill], and I’m going to take my country back. People vote. I vote. That’s how we’re going to do it. I’m going to make everyone see what’s going on just like she did and then they’ll vote for a better way. You watch and see.
Wow. At that point we didn’t care if Phillip ever wanted an electric car. But what could happen if just one kid (or one teacher) in every high school was that passionate about any issue? Where might we be as a country? If our little movie could help, we wanted to get it into any school that wanted it. When Sony responded to our request that they donate DVDs with their own suggestion that we pound sand, we started a small foundation so that along with the nuts and bolts work of getting cars on the road and teaching consumers about them, we could do projects like this as we saw fit. Nearly four years later, we’re still sending copies of the film to teachers hoping lightning strikes elsewhere.
I don’t know what happened to Phillip, though I imagine he rather enjoyed the last election. That day in Virginia was meaningful not only for what he may have gone on to do, but for how he has inspired me. His story moves me as much today as it did back then.
I’m motivated by something else too, darker and rarely shared at all. Coincidentally, TED week culminated with the tenth anniversary of the day a kid named Andy decided that the best way to stop being picked on was to bring a gun to his high school. Using a bathroom for cover, he randomly shot fifteen people in the courtyard as they passed between classes, killing two. One of those killed was my oldest stepson- a quiet, intensely thoughtful young man and his littlest brother’s idol. The same age as Phillip, he’d already plotted a career with the FBI and enlisted in the Navy. I still ache bone-deep for the life he missed out on and for how he left this one, and I suspect I always will. That shooting wasn’t the first, or the last, or the highest-profile event of its kind- but it’s the devil I know.
Many things went wrong in the lead-up, red flags that were unobserved or outright ignored by dozens of people who later admitted they either suspected or were told directly by Andy that it was coming. There is plenty of pain and anger and blame to go around, and I have at times indulged in each as I’ve watched loved ones struggle in the aftermath. Mostly I am shocked that in one generation, incidents like these have ceased to surprise us- a fact that in my more judgmental moments I find as repulsive as the original crime.
Even after a decade to process, I an certain of little more than that we must somehow convince our kids and each other that such actions are not acceptable or effective paths to attention, help, and relevance. That not all press is good press, and public self-destruction is not entertainment. That it gets better. That being marginalized is not the same as being marginal, and that “regular” people can indeed take their country back. We need more Wael Ghonims and fewer Charlie Sheens. A deeper sense of both personal potential and responsibility, and less entitlement to a particular experience. A broader definition of “possible”- yes, for the current group of leaders and innovators, but even more so for those who come next. More Phillips, and fewer Andys.
Because we have an unfathomable amount of work to do. Economically. Geopolitically. Environmentally. Pick your issue, and there is more work to be done than there are people lining up to do it. Even in my comparatively tiny industry, this is true.
There’s a lot of talk about “legacy”- mostly in reference to the condition of the planet we’ll leave to future generations, environmentally and otherwise. But for all of our good intentions, we are deluding ourselves if we think we’re going to solve the world’s biggest problems before our kids inherit them from us. Yes, we should do what we can, but the most important legacy we can leave our children is the ability, compassion, and compulsion to continue what we’ve started- or, frankly, to start where we have failed to do so. To teach them that it’s both possible and worth the work, because it’s going to take a tremendous amount of it.
I’ll settle for reaching one at a time at a random high school if I have to- but it’s not nearly enough. We need hundreds, and thousands of kids (and adults) to feel as inspired and empowered as Phillip, to believe without doubt that they can move their world, and to go forth and try. Our legacy – and their future – is riding on it.
And the consequences if we don’t are hell.