TEDxSMU Takeaways

10 ideas worth spreading from 'Strangely Familiar' TEDxSMU 2014

Speakers and staff at TEDxSMU 2014
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Dale Carman at TEDxSMU 2014
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Deborah Clegg at TEDxSMU 2014
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Color Condition's Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger at TEDxSMU 2014
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Audience waves Color Condition sticks at TEDxSMU 2014
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Alexander McLean at TEDxSMU 2014
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Cindy Dyer at TEDxSMU 2014
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Howard Goldthwaite at TEDxSMU 2014
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Kevin Judice at TEDxSMU 2014
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Tadd Myers at TEDxSMU 2014
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Allison Graham at TEDxSMU 2014
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Greg Harris at TEDxSMU 2014
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Andrew Sturm at TEDxSMU 2014
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Tomicah Tilleman at TEDxSMU 2014
Photo by Kim Leeson

Hundreds of locals hungry for knowledge headed to the Dallas City Performance Hall on November 1 to experience the sixth annual TEDxSMU. Themed “Strangely Familiar,” the day promised to look at familiar subjects through a different lens and to make strange ideas more relatable.

TEDxSMU is one of thousands of licensed TED events created in the spirit of its mission: “ideas worth spreading.” Not only does it bring TED Fellows — such as African Prison Project’s Alexander McLean — to Dallas, but it also provides a stage for locals to talk about what matters in our community.

Although it’s nearly impossible to distill the day into 10 big takeways — and it’s hard to forget the impassioned dancing of the Unity of Cultures or the T-shirt cannon built by the Jesuit Robotics Team — these are some of the moments that resonated with us most.

“When did ‘or’ get so much power?”

This followed Dale Carman’s advice to “work smart and hard” and “respect the genius of ‘and.’” The founder and executive creative director Dallas-based Reel FX, a pioneer in digital visual effects and animation, presented and assortment of “my ism’s,” as he called them, which led me to nickname him the “sound bite guy” in my notes.

He also had a good lesson for leaders: “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” he said. “I am responsible.”

“Men’s fat cells are like wool. Women’s fat cells are like Spandex.”

Dr. Deborah Clegg, an associate professor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, California, is not only passionate about health and nutrition but also about studying the differences between men and women as it pertains to obesity. Fat cells differ based on gender — as the above quote illustrates — as do our brain’s responses to high-fat foods.

What does that mean? It means obesity has different results for men and women, and we ought to tailor recommendations to combat it accordingly.

“We do this because it makes us feel good.”

Perhaps you read that and don’t think it’s particularly profound, but we contend that there aren’t enough people in the world doing what they love. The Color Condition’s Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger are — and what they do brings joy, albeit temporarily, into the lives of others through installation art.

Perhaps you’ve seen their work at charity events like the Nasher’s Great Create. The duo uses plastic tablecloths cut into streamers and plastic grid — materials sourced at places like Party City and Home Depot — to blanket spaces with color that can be seen, touched , heard and  even smelled.

“Once we complete a space, we have no control,” they said. “The elements and the people give it life.”

The Color Condition gifted the audience with streamer sticks, which they waved for the cameras.

“Change is possible even in the most difficult environments.”

African Prisons Project founder and TED Fellow Alexander McLean was the first to receive a standing ovation on Saturday, due in large part to his overwhelmingly compassionate stance that everyone, no matter what they have done, deserves dignity.

He opened with a quote from Nelson Mandela — “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones” — to introduce his work in African prisons, which has included improving the infrastructure of its healthcare facilities and giving staff and prisoners the tools to positively impact their communities by acting as change agents within them.

He spoke of how improving the conditions at prisons helped the staff feel pride in their work and made the prisoners feel better about themselves. And many of these prisoners were not even guilty or had received sentences much too harsh for the crimes they had committed.

“No one leaves prison unchanged by it,” he said, adding that prisoners don’t have to be broken down but should instead be given education and opportunities in an effort to break the cycle.

One such story involved a woman named Susan, who earned a law degree from the University of London while locked up in a maximum security prison in Uganda.

“We need to be courageous.”

This was Cindy Dyer, a former Dallas prosecutor who is now the vice president of human rights for the Vital Voices Global Partnership, urging everyone in the audience to aid in the fight against domestic violence.

Dyer spoke of the similarities of abusers and their victims no matter where in the world they are located — and the reluctance of most people to get involved because it’s a “private matter.”

“Abusers rely on people not to get involved,” she said. And to men in particular she said, “Being nonviolent yourself is not enough.”

“It’s easy to be outraged” when someone is murdered or “when an NFL star knocks around his future wife in an elevator and he’s caught on video,” she said. But early intervention is critical to stop that something really terrible from happening at all.

Dyer received the second standing ovation of the day.

“Do what you love even if it means being unpopular.”

“Do you think Nelson Mandela ever worried about being unpopular?” Howard Goldthwaite asked — likely in response to Alexander McLean’s reference to Mandela in his talk, which preceded Goldthwaite’s.

Goldthwaite, who spent many years as a senior VP and creative director for Publicis, used a banjo to illustrate his point about popularity, conceding that the banjo had suffered at PR problem since the movie Deliverance came out. His point: It never stopped him from loving it and the bluegrass tunes that came out of it.

Despite all his jokes and his humorous bluegrass “interpretations” of popular songs like “Gangnam Style,” Goldthwaite’s message was a solid one: Be yourself. If people don’t like it, that’s their problem, not yours.

“This country has enough lawyers and bankers. We need more scientists.”

This plea came from Kevin Judice, co-founder of Cidara and the leader in the discovery of the Vigativ (telavancin) anti-MRSA antibiotic. His talk — the scene setter of which put the Dallas Ebola situation into perspective — centered around the persistence of superbugs such as CRE and the unfortunate reality that the number of antibiotics being developed to combat them has gone down, not up.

“Bacteria won’t go away. We need new antibiotics to fight them,” said Judice, who pointed to the work of journalist Maryn McKenna and Pew Charitable Trusts as resources.

“Not everyone has to fit into the mold of what the American Dream has become.”

For his American Craftsman Project, which is now a book with interviews conducted by Eric Celeste, local photographer Tadd Myers documented tradesmen across the country who make everything from hats and boots to stagecoaches and carousels. These are folks who carry on traditions and make a living with their crafts.

For them, life is about more than simply making money. “They know having something tangible at the end of a workday is worth something,” Myers said, adding that we all have choices when we buy and can participate in “consumer patriotism” by purchasing products made in America.

“Teach human interaction as if it were as important as the air we breathe.”

Allison Graham of Alpha Girl Productions, an SMU grad and key business strategist behind the Blair Witch Project franchise marketing campaign, earned her TEDxSMU slot through the auditions process. Her talk poked fun at our obsessions with smart phones and social media — and pointed to its dangers, like teen deaths linked to texting while driving — to make a serious point: Phones and computers are very poor substitutes for face-to-face interactions.

She encouraged the audience to unplug for at least one hour a day and to practice “people activism” not “hashtag activism.” “I think we would all live better if we had hands to hold rather than keys to click,” she said. Schmaltzy but true.

“Context is what makes a song great.”

As the president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Greg Harris’ job is to put music into context. But this statement can also refer to the way music conjures memories for the listeners in addition to the circumstances under which it was written or performed.

To illustrate his point, Harris played “Save the Last Dance for Me,” written by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Doc Pomus and released by The Drifters in 1960, while showing clips from Pomus’ wedding day — which also happens to be the day he wrote the song, as he watched his bride during their reception. No doubt everyone in the audience felt a different connection to the song after that.

In another example, Harris played “Give Peace a Chance” — the guitar John Lennon used to perform that song with Yoko Ono hangs in the Hall of Fame — which Harris suggested wasn’t a truly great piece of music until it became an anti-war anthem.

“Every great movement needs a song,” he said, referencing a quote in a Newsweek article that ran after the Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C., where Pete Seeger led the crowd in singing “Give Peace a Chance.”