As anyone familiar with my endless supply of analogies and metaphors knows, I’m capable of gaining inspiration from almost anything. But last Wednesday I was lucky enough to attend TEDxDetroit, where inspiration was the order of the day, and the event did not disappoint. Because the TED theme is “ideas worth spreading,” I’m going to use this space to highlight my inspirations and learnings from the day. I hope you’ll find my thoughts worthwhile.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, “TED is an annual event where the top minds in the world share, connect and inspire. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — three subjects that, collectively, shape our future. The event draws CEOs, scientists, creatives, philanthropists and extraordinary speakers.” This year, the TED organizers decided to open up the concept to local organizers through the TEDx concept, and several Detroiters, led by Charlie Wollberg, produced the inaugural TEDxDetroit.
While there was much inspiration to be gained from each of the 15 speakers of the day, three had a particularly strong effect on me.
Chazz Miller is the founder and muralist at Public Art Workz in Detroit, an organization that creates “bold, innovative community redevelopment projects that use the arts, culture, creativity and innovation as a catalyst for reinventing and revitalizing the communities of Old Redford and Northwest Detroit, Michigan, into a multi-discipline, arts, education, entertainment and cultural community.” Chazz described with passion and affection some of the community art he has developed in the form of wall murals, “mood swings” and “poet trees.”
What struck me most during Chazz’s talk was his specific involvement of the community in his art. He actively recruited members of the local community to help complete his park wall murals, and he found that the community then maintained those parks better than ever. As he said, if you truly and honestly involve more people in the effort, they’ll care more about what’s been accomplished.
I realized that there’s strong business value in Chazz’s philosophy. While a top-down command culture may be able to achieve results, a truly participatory culture breeds ownership. And with ownership comes the type of pride and attention to details that enhances the nuances that can make the difference between good and great. How can we as leaders bring an overall vision to our businesses but allow our teams the freedom to actively participate and bring their strengths and ideas to the details we cannot possibly see?
Lee Thomas, anchor and entertainment reporter on FOX Detroit and author of Turning White, discussed his story of living with the skin disorder vitiligo — an affliction that is literally turning him white. He recalled a turning point in his life when the disease affected his face to the point that a young girl screamed in fright at the sight of him. The very thought of scaring young children confined him to his home for weeks. It wasn’t until another young girl saw him the supermarket and, instead of screaming, asked him if he had a boo-boo and if it hurt. He realized the dichotomy of the two reactions were driven by perception. The girl who thought he had a boo-boo offered compassion, while the girl who didn’t know what it was reacted with fear. A subsequent conversation with a 15-year-old boy also afflicted with vitiligo, who prodded him to go public because public knowledge and understanding could help all those afflicted with the disorder, finally prompted Thomas to appear live on TV without make-up covering the affects of the disease.
And his life took on new meaning. He talked of never knowing where your success will come from. You could, as he said, “find your weakness may be your greatest strength.” Although, I personally don’t see vitiligo as a weakness for him. It’s simply skin color. The fact that he perceived it as a weakness sapped his confidence and that lack of confidence was truly the weakness he overcame. And his resulting public awareness campaign is helping turn fear to compassion.
From Lee Thomas I was inspired to find ways to turn my personal shortcomings into opportunities to help myself and to help others.
As powerful and inspiring as Chazz and Lee were, it may be the poetry of Blair that had the most immediate impact on me. Just before Blair’s time slot, I received a call from the editor of a trade publication that was running an opinion piece I’d written. He informed me, minutes before their deadline, that they decided to remove a part of my article that they felt was too controversial for them to print. I was still stewing with outrage, feeling censored and violated, when I returned to my seat as Blair took the stage to perform his poem, “Detroit (While I Was Away).”
Before starting the poem, he briefly described the genesis of the piece. He was traveling in Texas and missed all of Detroit — the good, the bad and the ugly. He then launched into his piece, and he almost instantly quelled my anger and stirred my passions in an entirely different direction. I was blown away by his ability to find beauty in the blight and the good in the bad and ugly.
Not only did he cause me to see Detroit in an entirely different light, but he made me realize the importance of finding the positives in our lives, not dwelling on the disappointments. I instantly became pleased with the two-thirds of my article that did make it to print in the trade magazine rather than angered by the one-third that didn’t. And every day since then I’ve strived to find the positives in all situations. And you know what, finding positives is a lot more fun than stewing on negatives.
While no single speaker at TEDxDetroit instantly changed the whole of my life, I was able to gather a piece of inspiration from just about all of them. For me, that’s living. I’m always in search of personal improvement wherever I can find it, and I’m grateful to the organizers and speakers at TEDxDetroit for bringing so much together in one convenient spot. While I certainly can’t do these extraordinary people justice with my recounting of their tales, I hope I’ve done my small part to help spread the positivity and perseverance they bring to the world on a daily basis.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Where do you find inspiration?