Inspiration (a life changing day)

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?


  • By Jason Stewart, October 27, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    Great piece Kevin, I especially enjoyed your realization to focus on the positive things in life: “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”.
    On the topic of inspiration… for those working in usability, we tend to focus on “best practices” as a basis for making recommendations. However, like Dan Saffer said at Interaction ’09, I believe “Best practices should be a place to begin, not to end”. For usability and interaction design inspiration, I turn to children and their interactions with various types of games and puzzles. It is amazing to see the creative solutions with which 2-6 yr. olds come up given some simple objects and a goal. For us post-adolescents, I’m willing to bet a majority of us wish the website and applications we use were so simple a child could figure it out; unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

  • By Charlie Wollborg, October 27, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    Well done, Kevin. I love that you shared how each TEDtalk had personal implications. I’m still finding inspiration from TEDxDetroit and looking forward to the next.

  • By Megan Burns, October 27, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    Sounds like a truly moving event. I’ll have to try to get to a TED conference myself one of these days. Thanks for sharing.

  • By Brett Kopf, October 27, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

    Great stuff Kevin. I too did a post on TEDxDetroit, though not as specific. You can check it out here:

  • By Catherine Hilker, October 28, 2009 @ 6:11 am

    Great post.
    TEDxDetroit was a great experience for me as well. I especially loved the mix of technology, live music, performance art and inspiration all the way around. I walked away with a deeper commitment to be the change I want to see in Detroit. That is, stay focused on the positive, walk my talk, and encourage others to do the same.

  • By Laura Wagner, October 28, 2009 @ 6:14 am

    Kevin, I was particularly moved by those three presenters as well. So much passion and love for the city of Detroit is a nice change from what we usually see in the paper…I also was charmed by the idea of gathering wind energy with inexpensive panels rather than giant turbines.
    Looking forward to the next TedxDetroit!

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 28, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    Thanks for your comment, Jason. As a father of a six-year-old and almost five-year-old, I share your amazement at the creativity of young children. I tell you, though, my son can pretty quickly figure our just about anything computer (or video game) related unbelievably quickly. It might be better to have websites and applications that are so simple that the opposite spectrum to could figure them out — like say 86-year-olds. 🙂

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 28, 2009 @ 7:58 am

    Thanks for your comment, Charlie. Even more, thanks for all your hard work pulling together TEDxDetroit. I’m not sure I can ever thank you enough for that. I can’t wait for the next one.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 28, 2009 @ 7:58 am

    You’ll love it, Megan. In the meantime, check out the videos on Great stuff there.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 28, 2009 @ 8:04 am

    Hi Brett, thanks for posting your notes from the even on your blog. I had some of the same points in my notes, but yours are more comprehensive. I’m glad I now have yours as a reference, too!

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 28, 2009 @ 8:07 am

    Thanks for your comments, Catherine. I loved the mix, too. It’s interesting how the inclusion of artistic creativity really complements the power of the messages in the talks and the community. It’s one of those non-intuitive things that really makes a difference in the emotional impact of the event.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 28, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    Thanks for your comment, Laura. I also thought the talk on innovative new ways to gather wind energy. Fascinating stuff.

  • By Matt Dibble, October 28, 2009 @ 8:46 am

    Interesting, since the event, these are the same 3 people I’ve been talking about to… well… basically anyone and everyone I come across.
    I was lucky enough to be able to interview each of them immediately after they came off stage and the one consistent message was gratitude. And this goes to everyone who spoke at the conference… they were so full of gratitude for the people at the conference, the city of Detroit and the ability to speak at this great event.
    I took so much from TEDx, but the 2 big ideas at the conference were: today and gratitude.
    SO! Thanks for writing this 🙂

  • By Cathy DeLucia, October 28, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    This was a great post and a great example of how each of us must find inspiration every day and how we must find the things in our lives for which we are grateful. As you know, I’ve been unemployed for awhile now and I’ve had my ups and downs. About six weeks ago I got some Buddhist prayer flags and put them on my front porch. Every day I find at least one thing, and most days I find several things, for which I’m grateful and I send my gratitude off to the universe via these flags. Doing this has brought a peacefulness to my day and while I know that great job is right around the corner, I also know that I have a LOT of gratitude for all of the other parts of my life! Thanks for the additional inspiration!

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 29, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    Thanks for your insight on the speakers, Matt. I think your point about gratitude is really interesting. I think it’s a testament to the speakers that as impressive as they were, they were also truly humble people who are just trying to do their part to make the world around them a better place. I take it you were the person doing the video interviews after the presentation. Will those be available on the TEDxDetroit site soon?

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 29, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    Thanks for your comment and story, Cathy. Finding the positives in life sure makes the day go a lot better. Hang in there. I’m sure you’ll land a gig soon.

  • By Sandy Heng, November 3, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    Great post… read it to catch up on what I missed by not being there. Used to love TED in Monterey and glad to see the idea spreading here with worthy participants.
    kudos to all the organizers… give us plenty of lead time when you schedule the next event, so more of us can make sure we are there!

  • By blair, November 3, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    It was so great to perform at TEDx. I love this city and it inspires me all the time. Thanks for putting into other words what I was trying to get at. Yes, it is important to realize the ways we are moving forward that provide us with hope. The TED community and the positive press that Detroit is getting because of it is also inspiring. It’s a pleasure to be able to pass a bit of that inspiration on. Thanks again. I also thank you for the opportunity to pass on some other work that is meant to inspire as well. Please, if you’re interested, I invite readers to check out some other work and my tour dates at Peace, Blair

  • By Kevin Ertell, November 4, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    Thanks for your comment, Sandy. It was truly a remarkable event. I can’t wait for the next one!

  • By Kevin Ertell, November 4, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Blair, I’m truly honored that would take the time to read and comment on my blog. By all means, I hope anyone reading this will check out tour dates and get out to see him. You won’t be disappointed.

  • By Suzanne Dalton, November 5, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Thank you for giving us your impressions and the links so we could share.

  • By D. Blair, November 20, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    Thanks Kevin, of course. I’m honored that you would share my work. Sorry it took me so long to get back here. I’m touring right now on the west coast trying to spread the word about our fair (and unfair) city. Thanks so much. People will also be able to find my work soon in Moonwalking my new manuscript soon out on Penmanship Books out of New York.

  • By buy fioricet online, November 23, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

    inspiration gives positive motivation in our daily activity. thanks for the article.

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