What I Learned from TEDxOttawa

I’m not going to write a post about how great TEDxOttawa was for me. I’m not going to do a synopsis of the day, the amazing speakers, the brilliant teamwork, or the terrific food. All of that is true. The event had a profound impact on me, from many points of view. I’ve already discussed that with many of my friends and family. What I want to do is tell you that I learned. I want to share this because, the essence of TED is not always about getting in the big names. It’s not about flash and fancy effects. It’s about sharing new ideas. What sets TED and the independently run TEDx events apart from other conferences is that they are very personal experiences.

Every single person who attends takes away something different. And the format is not for everyone. Some people will come away changed. Some will come away with new things to think about. Some may not. And that’s okay. But I think if we don’t share what we’ve learned, then we’re not doing the event justice.

My goal here is not to centre out any one person. Again, what I took away from the conference may be entirely different than what someone else gained. I look forward to hearing other perspectives in the comments.

Lesson #1: You are not defined by what happens to you. Bob LeDrew and I have been friends for a couple of years. We met on Twitter. In fact, I don’t even think we met in person until about 6 months after we had become friends. (The Internet is funny that way.) Bob got up on Saturday to do a talk about music, something he is tremendously passionate about. I knew that it was going to be moving. And it was. But what came as a surprise to me was not his passion for music – I already knew about that. Bob, a man I’ve known for 2 years, told us two things in his talk that I didn’t know about him. Two very personal and tragic things. It came as a complete surprise to me. The thing is, the fact that he’d never mentioned these aspects of his life to me before actually wasn’t that surprising to me. Why?

Bob does not define himself by what has happened to him. Yes, it’s part of his story. But Bob is defined by his passion for music, and the way he cares about his community. This is a man who, 2 weeks ago when two local women’s shelters were tragically burned down and destroyed everything the residents had, ran around town collecting donations from anyone he could, so those women could rebuild their lives again. This is a man who opens his home to strangers once a month so he can share his passion for music. He’s got some pretty damn good reasons he could feel sorry for himself. But self pity is not in Bob’s vocabulary, and we can all learn something from this. Bad things happen to good people all the time. We question it. But instead of being defined by the tragedies in our lives, we need to accept, move forward, and replace our sadness with triumph and positivity. Only then, are we truly alive.

Lesson #2: It’s not about things. It’s about people. I had the immense pleasure of spending time this weekend with Jowi Taylor. For those who may not know, Jowi is the creator of the Voyageur guitar, a one-of-a-kind instrument custom built from 64 pieces of Canadian history. You can read the whole story on his web site at www.sixstringnation.com.

The story has a personal side for me, in that the entire front of the guitar is made from wood taken from the Golden Spruce, a sacred tree that existed on Haida Gwaii, a small island on the west coast of Canada, where I spent much of my childhood. The tree is thought to be unique in that it contained no chlorophyll, and yet managed to survive for 300 years. Tragically, the Golden Spruce was cut down by a madman in 1997. The Haida Peoples of the island equated this event to a drive by shooting. I remember my heart being shattered when I learned what this person had done.

But this story is about more than a sacred tree, or any of the other 63 elements that make up this amazing instrument. Voyageur is a symbol of a country. It tells the story of our nation through objects. But what I learned from Jowi this weekend is that it’s not about the things. Yes, they are special. But they represent stories, and stories are made up of people. Each item in Voyageur tells a story of people. Go to the web site, read them. Voyageur is a cultural icon. But it’s not intended to be stowed away in some museum somewhere. It’s meant to be shared. It belongs to us. Thousands of people have held and played that instrument. When I picked up that guitar to play it on Saturday night, I not only felt a connection to all those Canadians whose history lives inside it, but to all those Canadians who have held it and played it before me.

Jowi is a remarkable person, not because he created this thing, but because he so selflessly shares it with us. He taught me that countries are not made of things. They are made of people. Jowi Taylor makes me want to be a better Canadian.

Lesson #3: Limitations are perceptions only. I’m not an athlete/musician/dancer/math whiz, so there’s no way I could ever do that. I tell myself things like that all the time..we all do. All of us except maybe Ray Zahab. This beer swilling, junk food eating, pack a day smoking couch potato got up one morning and decided to change his life. He didn’t just resolve to eat healthier, quit smoking, and exercise. Nope. Ray decided to run. Across the Sahara Desert.

Ray told the story of how he and two friends ran across the Sahara in 111 days. He told us what he learned about the water crisis in the Sahara. He told us also how he and the same two friends trekked to the South Pole, and how youth from around the world encouraged them via the Internet all the way.

But what I learned from Ray was much more than just his remarkable story. His energy is absolutely infectious. This is a man who has NO limitations. Not one. If he sets his mind to it, he does it. Case closed. There’s no room for self doubt, anxiety or fear. He made a decision to eliminate those things from his life. Was it hard to run across the desert? You’re damn right it was. Was it hard to trek to the South Pole? Umm…yah. But just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

People set limitations for themselves continuously. But if you listen to Ray, you’ll soon find out that limitations are only perceptions. They aren’t real. Sure, there are circumstances that may cause you to think you have a limitation. But circumstances are malleable. Everything can and will change, if you only spend some time figuring out how you’re going to change it. It goes back to Lesson #1 – you aren’t defined by what happens to you. Everyone has the power to change their lives, to do something that stretches beyond what they perceive their limits to be. Choose to have no limits, and anything is possible.

Category:about life
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  • December 8, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Let me see – set no limitations on yourself, it’s about the people not the stuff, you are who you say you are — I’d say you had a great experience at TedxOttawa! Even better, you showed me why. Thanks.

  • December 8, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you for expressing so eloquently what I could not after the event. I am still surprised at how moved I found myself at many times during the day. Jowi in particular left me damp eyed for all of his talk. Thank you for the team for choosing to share Dave Eggers’ talk – so much humour and joy in that one. And thanks most of all to you and @isfan for believing in the idea you had in that car journey..

  • December 8, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Great lessons you pulled out from the day. It will be interesting to see the threads that other people have held onto s the weeks unfold after this event. I am pondering now and you have made me think further on how to express it in such a simple format.



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