The devil I know…

Thanks to the TED conference last week, the internet has been effervescent with reports declaring one presentation or another life changing, or game changing, or world changing. That’s the mission; TED is an intellectual orgy, where the big ideas go to procreate, and where industry and thought leaders go to connect 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 immersion of seeing it live.

Those who attend are already at the top of their game. They leave charged up and wanting to do more, taking with them an ever more expanded sense of what’s possible. I’d love to be a fly on that wall someday, yet 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 2007, a Virginia high school teacher wrote to tell me that she’d shown Who Killed the Electric Car? in her summer 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. I was their age when I started working for General Motors, so she’d wanted to know if I had any words of encouragement to pass along.

I had to be in Washington, DC the following week for a conference, so I visited the school with a colleague. Meanwhile, I learned the rest: the class was comprised entirely of kids who’d flunked during the spring, and it was already slated to be cancelled because only a small handful were enrolled this time. The few who remained likely wouldn’t graduate at all. More painfully, administrators 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 thoughts a student named Phillip quietly shared with him:

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 [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 became 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 darker too, and rarely shared. This year, TED week coincided with the tenth anniversary of the day a kid named Andy decided that the best way to retaliate for 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 students. One of them 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 his dream 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 last, or highest-profile 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 knew what 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 so quickly, incidents like these have ceased to surprise us- which in my more judgmental moments I find as repulsive as the original crime.

Even after a decade to process, I am 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 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. But for all of our good intentions, it’s delusional to 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 more of it than we or they can imagine.

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 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.

30 thoughts on “The devil I know…

  1. Chels, thanks for our own little “mini-TED” inspirational. You took us from high on the mountain of what we can do, to the low depths of what we sometimes unfortunately do.

    I was a 21 year old Texan newly moved to Eugene when I met and befriended an elderly woman who inspired me to become an environmentalist. I worked on the local level, then the state level. Now that I’m in the heart of the movement to transition from oil to renewable electricity, I get to help on a global level. Had I not met her, I’m not so sure all that I would have done any of that. You never know how you might spark another human to take action.

    To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, each of us gets but one shot at life, it’s a shame not to make the best of it.

  2. Thanks. Crying.

    I try not to get frustrated. But I do. But I keep moving forward and hope I’m making a difference. I’m blessed with a Son that gives me perspective.

    I still think that all humans are basically good and want good for the world. I find that’s right most of the time.

    I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet the most amazing people in my life. Many super famous and creative geniuses of our time.

    But a certain EV1 specialist is way up at the top of that list. 🙂

    I hope you write a book. I love reading your skilled writing.


    1. You are so kind, Jeff! The “making a difference” part is hard to see sometimes- I too end many days not able to tell if what I’m doing is, and all of them thinking I’ve not done enough. It’s just how I’m wired. But I try to find the small victories where I can, and think we’re really lucky to be in such a community-oriented space where we can nudge each other along.

  3. Wow, Chelsea, you’re an amazing person. I’m speechless, sickened, and sorrowed by the dark part of your story.

    I’m glad to now understand what the Lightening Rod Foundation is, never quite understood that.

    You haven’t done a TED talk yet? I’ll see if i can help remedy that oversight.

    On the environmental note, a 1789 letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison comes to mind where Jefferson wrote: “I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society….For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be reverse of our principle. ”

    What Jefferson was wrestling with in his letter, much to the chagrin of today’s Tea Partiers I’d guess, was the redistribution of wealth, realizing that wealth tends to accumulate in the hands of the few.

    But what is more important about the letter is the nearly forgotten concept of “usufruct,” which is an old Roman law concept that people have a natural right to enjoy and profit from the use of property so long as it remains undiminished for future generations to enjoy, use, and profit from.

    So, indeed, we should be teaching our kids about the concept of planetary usufruct. Besides, they’d likely also get a kick out of simply saying the word, don’t you think? 🙂

  4. Wow. That blog has to be your most inspirational. I am short of words but incredibly impressed. I hope this gets the huge number of views it clearly deserves.

  5. This was an amazing post Chelsea. Very inspirational indeed! I get inspiration, from you, Mr. Scott and Mr.Tregilus too.

    Your passions have inspired me to go back to school as a mature student, taking a renewable energy college diploma program here in Alberta.

    Later today I am to get a confirmation of booking my Prius to get converted into a plug-in hybrid later this month. The certified installer is a 14 hour drive away and is one of the closest to me. How important is it to me – enough to drive 28 hours anyways! For the time being my car will be one of the most fuel efficient in Canada. A lone PHEV in a sea of gas guzzlers. Do I plan to get the word about my car? Hell yeah!! Tired of waiting for the government to ‘do something’ so I am putting my money where my mouth is….

    Thanks again for the inspiration and keep up the good fight. 🙂

    Cheers, Andrew

  6. Wow- that must have been hard to bear, for both of you. As a parent, you start to worry almost the minute they are born, and it never really stops- and I am by no means a worrier by nature- quite the opposite. I hope and pray to never know what it is like to lose a child. But you seem to have dealt with it in a healthy manner, and have used your energies to pursue something very positive. I almost felt bad reading it, like I was intruding (hey- I’m a guy- we don’t like to intrude on our own feelings!)- but thanks for this glipse into your most personal sanctum- sad, yes- yet encouraging for the direction you have taken.

    And who needs TED- they are just full of speakers- it’s easy to be a speaker- even a dynamic speaker- but you, my dear Chelsea, are very much a doer- and I’ll take one doer over a dozen speakers any day! (not that you are not a good speaker in your own right- but you do walk the talk better than most).

    When I was in college (several times, yet managed no degree;-), I participated in a campus group called the Navigators- one the principles used was that of multiplication- that you don’t have to be a Billy Graham or a TED speaker to impact a large amount of people- but if you take the Phillips of the world one at a time, as just one person, you can be more effective over time than even a great speaker- thanks for that story as well, and I hope that memory helps to ballance, even if just a little, your other memory.

    1. No worries, Paul- some of us girls aren’t so big on that icky emotional stuff either! And you’re absolutely right about the doing- public speaking’s not really one of my talents anyhow; I’ll take one on one any day. It feels frustratingly slow sometimes compared to all that we need to get done, but it’s most important that we do it at all.

  7. Thank you all for such an amazing reception! I wrestled a lot with this post- both writing it and publishing it, but I couldn’t be more glad I did. And so much wisdom in return! I really am fortunate to get to do work I love, and with people I enjoy and learn from every day.

    (That would be you guys 🙂

  8. I agree, there is a larger sense of futility to do the right thing anymore. When the media glorifies Charley Sheen and the Jersy Shore it influences alot of people, a distraction from what really matters.

  9. Wow. FWIW the BIL conference is kind of an everyman’s antidote to the TED conference. Supposedly. Nowadays TEDx is more approachable along the same lines than TED. But I think a conference doesn’t have to be TED to be significant. And, there are those whose best place is talking in front of an audience, and those whose best place is out there working on solutions.

    That aside…

    That bit about sitting and listening to NPR (I don’t do TV) clenching my fist over the lies and deceit – that strikes home with why I’m now working in EV-related journalism. I too can’t stand the lies being told to us, and I totally enjoy the role of providing a different point of view.

    1. Hey, David- Yup, totally agree that there are many other conferences that are as interesting and meaningful as TED (and let’s be clear- my particular place will always be the one doing the work, not on the stage.) TED struck my radar because of the timing, because it seems to captivate our corner of the world, but mostly because of its focus on those at the top. I have great respect for what it the TED folks do, even with the controversy of the conference itself- but it served as a useful contrast to the other people we need to focus on as well.

      We’re in for a lot more negative media this year, some earned, some not. It is frustrating, yes, but we’ll take it as it comes. And all the more important to have people out there with the right information and their own personal, real-world experiences. Thank you for that.

  10. Hi Chelsea,
    Than k you for this ‘food for thought’. Trully inspirational.
    I’m an optimist so my reaction to this Blog would be:
    1.YES to Start a Search for ‘Phillip’s Passion’ that can be found in ALL of us, in search of ‘Phillip alike’
    To me TED looks more and more like a Golden Globe Awards minus the “Thank you addresses”
    I would’n’t want to go there. Why? High level of stress/judgements, boost to my ego (no need), vanity (no good results come out of it)
    It’s rewarding to paticipate behind the scenes in the making of WHAT made THEM become TED in /and having the feeling of ‘doing good’ of being a humble element in the great scheme of things.
    The humbl-iest the better for one’s (soul). That’s what makes the real human (at the core) feel really good.
    Maybe if more would have this inner Desire to PARTICIPATE, to be a PART of, to BELONG, we would take out of the dictionary the expression “one person can’t make a difference”
    If ONE person CAN make a difference this analogy comes to mind: one Letter can change a Word* – a phrase – a text – a relationship – a decision – a sentence (trial)
    Word*= One reserve I have – on using those 2 words in the title ‘ev..’ and the last word ‘he..’ – my preference would be of an ending on a Positive note more uplifting and victorious sound.

    2.And to prove that ‘ONE person CAN ideed make a difference’ (Eg. you posting this blog) it would be for me to embark on this Quest that your blog sparked in my mind: “The Quest for Attention, Help, and Relevance and Discovery of one’s Interest, Passion & Potential”

    3.As far as “an unfathomable amount of work to do” – through my Lense I see Passion applied through skills that fires up and generates enthousiasm and optimism and possibility and more and more of the same …
    and ‘work’ is just a 4 letter word, a friend-ly tool welcomed and enjoyable and not a “have to” in this wonderful wide world we’re creating one hand at a time.

    2.Thank you for this inspiration.
    So What’s Possible : to be kind, to generate a good attitude, to try to become just, wise, to cultivate the desire to fulfill one’s heart with joy, to show integrity, to make the best out of everything comes one’s way, to speak sensible words, to aim[ ], to be[ ], to create[ ], to cultivate[ ], to forgive[ ],to generate[ ], to make[ ], to show[ ], to strive[ ], to understand[ ]
    What’s Impossible: Nothing
    What’s Interesting: What satisfies one’s Curiosity
    What’s Joyful: What gives Confidence
    What’s Pleasant (we want more of): What gives Courage/ Encouragement
    What’s Possible: What you have Faith in
    What’s Responsible: to invest time for younger minds
    My 2 cents on it. Thank you for reading.

  11. Ouch this hit me hard. It’s the antithesis of the lucky circumstance i was given. I would like to show everyone here a Design Project done by Year 10 Australian High School students did in 2006. I have been holding onto this file for years and truly astounds me how forward thikning these kids around 15-16 years old were. They did their reserach on all possible technology then designed a car for Real World possibility. The Voltus was the result. I have lost contact with this group and have no idea where they are now. But i guess they have a much brighter future then the ones in this story.
    Please open this PDF

  12. Thank you sharing; both the awesome story and your inspirational writing. Kind of speechless as still taking it all in.

    The comments are also inspirational and thought provoking. Some truly amazing people here. (smiling with a tear in my eye)

  13. Therapeutic & inspirational – thank you Dee & Chelsea.

    Planning to take this message of hope to my 5 children & 1 wife ASAC.

  14. Chels,

    If possible, it would be fantastic to learn whatever happened to Phillip. Any chance you still have the teacher’s name/address?

  15. I have an old client who starts her birth works training next month… I remember the moment I decided to become a midwife, as I realised the impact mine had on me, which ended up far greater than I thought at the time, and I’m super happy to hand the reigns on to my old friend in her new dream inspired, in part, by her positive experiences with me. I don’t feel inspirational, but I’ll take it if it brings passion and care into my field. Keep doing what ya doing, lady.

  16. Sorry to hear its come so close to you again Chelsea. It is not normal despite what the headlines might read. I hope your fb post inspires those empowered to lead the transformation needed now.

  17. Hey Chelsea, I read an excerpt from this blog regularly as I printed some sentences about giving our children the compulsion and compassion to know they can and should make a difference.

    I have it as a book mark in my bible as both are important to share with and inspire our 5 children.

    Your post about Thousand Oaks this week prompted me to challenge some key influencers I have interacted with in USA. I don’t know yet whether that will make a difference, but your blog here has. Thanks again.

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