Five years ago, I left the states with plans to create a home for myself here in Madrid. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one. Back in fall 2009, TEDx also made its way to Spain for the first time, with the first TEDxMadrid conference taking place on October 9th at the IE Business School. During the half of a decade that has passed since then, we’ve both put down roots here in Madrid and grown up through the process. Since 2009, I’ve transitioned from being merely one of thousands of English teachers in Spain’s capital city, to being a psychologist and PhD student. In the case of TEDxMadrid, it has blossomed into an all day event hosting speakers from around the world, and requiring an application process in order to ensure that the five hundred people in attendance come from a variety of backgrounds. This growth has also meant a change of scenery, with TEDxMadrid now taking place in Madrid’s former slaughterhouse turned cultural center, “El Matadero.”
While TEDxMadrid and I arrived on Spanish soil only weeks apart from one another, it wasn’t until this year that we formally met. During my time here in Spain, I’d grown increasingly passionate about sharing inspiring TED Talk videos with family, friends and students, but I had never explored the possibility of attending a TED event. Back in March of this year destiny decided that it was about time to do something about this and it brought someone into my life who had not only attended a TED event, but had organized TEDx events here in Spain. Six months to day following that encounter, I finally had my long overdue introduction to TEDxMadrid.
TED + X = ?
In order to prepare myself for our meeting, I had to learn just what TEDxMadrid was all about. First of all, TED is not the name of some famous person who had an ingenious idea that gave birth to all of those inspiring talks. TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design,” although TED talks encompass a variety of different fields, all sharing in common that they impart “ideas worth spreading.” Twice a year, some of the world’s brightest thinkers and entrepreneurs come together for the TED conferences: the Flagship TED Conference, held on North America’s West Coast, and TED Global held in destinations around the world. According to the TED website, these week long conferences are considered “a spa for the brain.” So, that’s TED. But what exactly is TEDx?
TEDx events are not only smaller in scale, but are events that are independently organized on a community basis. The organizers can choose to share with the audience in attendance either a combination of live TED-like talks and talks pre-recorded at the TED conferences, or merely an assortment of TED Talk videos. TEDx events can take a variety of forms. They have been held on university campuses, in prisons, in companies, and a multitude of other venues, always holding true to the promise of presenting “ideas worth spreading,” which do not have any political, social or religious agenda tied to them. The TED website is also very clear to explain what a TEDx event is not.
True AND False
Last Saturday, September 27, I awoke bright and early to make my way down to Matadero to join the other lucky TEDxMadrid attendees in picking up our registration packets and preparing for a day in which we would be exposed to discussions regarding the undeniable truths and un-truths that we are surrounded with in this day and age. According to the TEDxMadrid website it would be
“a day to enhance our critical spirit and recognize the fact that all knowledge has an expiration date. We will come into contact with truths and lies that have ceased to be such due to the constant innovation of science and technology, the art that appears to be one thing yet it isn’t, the incalculable value of that which is copied in comparison to the original, the artificial extensions of our minds and bodies, with the detailed documentation of what is false, with the reality of recreation due to supercomputing.”
We live in a world in which we are bombarded by information, where one day we’re told something is true and the next day we’re asked to pledge allegiance to a truth that might be entirely opposite. At TEDxMadrid, we were not asked to label the information we encountered as true OR false. Rather than considering a dichotomous answer, the day’s talks explored the grey area, the possibility that maybe everything is a little true, as well as a little false. Antonella Broglia, the event’s charming, graceful and charismatic organizer and emcee told us time and time again that the purpose of the event was to expose us to “ideas worth spreading,” not necessarily “ideas worth agreeing upon.”
A Call to Action
As the day progressed, not only were we asked to consider the murky area between truths and lies, but we were also asked to move from merely an intellectual contemplation of these issues to taking specific steps towards further exploring this grey area. Marta I. Gonzalez started off the day of talks by inviting us to see science through new eyes after showing us that even this supposedly black and white field may not be as objective as we thought due to the fact that our theories and research are influenced by the ways in which we view the world. French farmer Laetitia Giroud had us all on board with her twenty-first century farming revolution, before she announced what type of animals she raised (insects), but her argument was still convincing enough for the table full of samples of her products to be crowded with people during the coffee break.
Rob Orchard spoke about the necessity of slow journalism in this day and age where being first is more important than being right and social media means that journalists are no longer responsible for breaking the news. He asked us to consider the importance of sending journalists to cover stories when the media frenzy has died down, to tell us the full version of the story, and had us all considering that we might need to read the morning headlines from a new perspective. And Elisa Lopez Varela, a doctor currently studying tuberculosis in Mozambique put her call to action so eloquently when she said, “the history of mankind has always been within our own hands.”
The True Definition of Networking
I’d been told that one of the best things to get out of a TEDx event was the networking opportunities they provide. But at TEDxMadrid this was not networking in the sense of getting someone’s contact information so that they can finance your startup, this was the true essence of networking. Realizing that we each have something incredibly invaluable to offer to each other, acknowledging that in one way or another every person you encounter has something to share with you, teach you, some way in which to help you grow. This was fully showcased in a short black and white video presented during the conference in which various attendees had been asked what they knew about. Answers ranged from knowing how to untie a knot in a plastic bag to knowing how to sing in a voice so angelic that it left the entire room in complete silence. This was not about what makes you the best, but what makes you different and unique from the person sitting next to you.
This conviction that we all have something to offer was further seen during the afternoon when attendees were offered the chance to host an hour long discussion group on a topic they were particularly passionate about. These “Unrooms,” a sort of TED Talk unplugged consisted in a group of people gathering on picnic blankets for an informal discussion of a topic that had caught their eye. I had the privilege of hosting one such room focused on “Unlocking Your Creative Self.” For nearly an hour I facilitated a discussion amongst a group consisting of university students, aspiring writers, singers, photographers, people on the verge of a career change and creativity coaches, on what creativity meant for each one of us and the particular obstacles we encountered on the path towards connecting with our creative selves. Everyone had something to say.
South African Social Rights Activist Desmond Tutu said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together,” a message that was echoed in many of the most moving talks I listened to on Saturday. In a video of a talk from this year’s TED Conference entitled “The World’s Largest Family Reunion,” author AJ Jacobs asks us to consider the fact that we’re all really just cousins and the fact that this is “bad news for bigots, because they’re going to have to realize they are cousins with thousands of people in whatever ethnic group they have issues with.”
And the psychologist in me felt her eyes welling up with tears as conference attendee and TV actor Damian Acolea was invited to take the stage where he shared with the public for the first time ever about his personal struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and asked us all to share with one another our own struggles in order to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. And those tears could not be held back when Gerson Garcia Fluxa, a prisoner from Madrid’s Soto de Real prison who had been granted a 24-hour leave in order to come speak to us, graced us with the opportunity to hear his message about how we are not all so very different, concluding with a reminder that we can’t judge the mistakes of others because tomorrow it could be us in that very same situation.
In a recent article published on “The Creativity Post” entitled “Where Original Ideas Come From,” the author proposed the possibility that “Truly original ideas rarely come from diligently working within one field, but rather from synthesizing across domains.” As we grow up and move further into our careers, we narrow our focus and forget that those living and working in areas different from our own may have an idea to share that can help our personal and professional growth. While I have attended professional conferences in the past that have left me inspired by the research being done in psychology, my own field of expertise, my experience at TEDxMadrid transcended this. Because TED and TEDx transcend our fields of expertise.
It took me five years to find a place where I felt more at home, more myself, than I have during all of my time here in Madrid. And it’s ironic and almost frustrating that this home away from home arrived in this city around the same time I landed back in 2009. But a friend of mine, who was at TEDxMadrid for his fifth time told me that it would be easy to leave the conference feeling disappointed and wondering what you’ve been doing with your life for the past few years when the speakers have been doing so much. However, he said, he chooses to leave feeling inspired and motivated to go out and learn more, do more and share these ideas with others in his community.
My own take-home from Saturday was that “it’s never too late to be who you might have been.” As a psychologist working with expats, I frequently encounter patients who have arrived here in Madrid looking for a sense of belonging and a place to gather with likeminded people. TEDxMadrid offers that sense of community, and that invitation that we all so very much desire, that says “you’re unique and because of that we want to hear what you have to say, so please come join in the conversation.”
Whether you’re living in a place you’ve called home your entire life, or looking to create a new home in a faraway place, I invite you to explore what sort of TEDx events are taking place in your community. And, if in the event you discover that there aren’t any, consider this your very own call to action to host one. In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”