Over 1000 people gathered at the Power Center on Friday evening for the sold-out tenth annual TedxUofM conference Absolute Zero. Eight University of Michigan faculty, alumni and students spoke at the event, reflecting on their personal experiences to share on what “absolute zero” meant to them. The event was also live streamed on TEDxUofM’s website.
Clara Munkarah, LSA junior and co-director of the event, discussed the conference’s central mission of celebrating members of the Ann Arbor community who inspire innovation.
“Ted is all about ideas worth spreading,” she said. “For us, TedxUofM is about finding those people who spread cool ideas in the Ann Arbor and University of Michigan community. We’re trying to foster a community of intellect and inspiration.”
She went on to reflect on the conference’s theme, “Absolute Zero,” which she expressed was intentionally ambiguous to allow for highly personal speaker reflections.
“We don’t have one interpretation (of absolute zero) in mind, that’s what we love about it — it’s so multifaceted,” she said. “It’s more holistic for our speakers to all be able to connect to it in different ways, it leads to a broad mix of ideologies.”
Engineering freshman Paul Lellouche told The Daily after the event that TEdxUofM’s diversity of ideas allowed him to gain a broader worldview.
“It’s interesting to see what different people dedicate their lives to–which are not necessarily domains I am exposed to in my classes,” Lellouche said. “They are incredibly interesting, and they enrich my life by giving me different perspectives, which I appreciate a lot.”
David Kobrosky — LSA sophomore, Founder of Skatify and Co-Founder of Michigan Blockchain
Skateboarding onto the stage, LSA sophomore David Kobrosky, founder of Skatify, an organization committed to building skate parks for emerging skate communities, discussed his love of skateboarding. In particular, he expressed it helps him see the world from a “ground zero” perspective, teaching him to constantly challenge prior assumptions.
“(Skateboarding) taught me to see the world as a jungle gym,” Kobrosky said. “Skateboarders see stairs and don’t think about what they are or why they exist. They simply think about how they want to interact with them… Seeing these stairs from an angle of curiosity and asking myself ‘What can I do with these cement stairs?’ really taught me to see the world without prior assumptions or limitations.”
In his talk, Kobrosky discussed how he had to come up with non-traditional designs for his skate parks in order to make them affordable and accessible in areas such as Ethiopia.
“This action of breaking assumptions is the only way change is possible,” Kobrosky said. “Seeing these other skaters around me breaking them inspired me to do the same… I’ve tried to look at the world from a skater mindset, a place where assumptions don’t exist, but rationality does.”
Aaron Dworkin — School of Music, Theatre & Dance Professor of Arts Leadership, Business Professor of Entrepreneur Studies
Using stories from his life, Prof. Aaron Dworkin reflected on his multi-racial, multi-spiritual background and the importance of giving throughout his talk. Dworkin is the founder of Sphinx Organization, an organization dedicated to building diversity and entrepreneurship in the arts, and was President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts.
In his talk, he noted how the generosity of others forged him into the man he is today, both in his personal and professional life. He said the ethos of generosity should be founded on the joy giving brings.
“There is something unique about the human condition when we give,” Dworkin said. “I encourage you to give something of yourself every single day, beginning today. When you give, give an amount that gives meaning to you. The greater the value of what you give, the greater the impact will be on you.”
Dworkin told the Daily after the event how transformative giving to others can be in in the larger community.
“I wanted to be able to connect my own background and my life trajectory and convey the types of things we can do when we do it collectively and bring about change at a scale,” Dworkin said. “And this idea that if everyone in the audience can think about intentionally giving something every single day – Will Ann Arbor change for the better? Will the University of Michigan change?”
Natalie Tronson — Assistant Professor of Psychology
Assistant professor of psychology Natalie Tronson discussed memory and its role in changing behavior. In particular, she highlighted memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Speaking to The Daily, Tronson reflected on her conception of “absolute zero” as a loss of memory.
“When I was starting to think about what I was going to talk about, I kept coming coming back to this idea of memory loss,” Tronson said. “This idea of, it’s not just absolute zero in terms of what you know, it’s in terms of function, in terms of how we construct our internal worlds.”
However, most instances of memory and memory loss serve functional value, Tronson said in her talk.
“Perhaps instead of thinking about memory as a vault where items get placed in and removed as needed, a concept that makes us all sound a little like robots, maybe we should think about memory as a flexible and functional map of the world,” Tronson said. “Perhaps if we think of memory not as information to be spat out, the grocery list we need to remember or information on the exam… but instead as this map that allows us to have conversations, find our way around the world… What is there to improve?”
Greg Harden — Former University Director of Athletic Counseling, Life Coach
Known as the “secret weapon” of Michigan Athletics, Greg Harden is a motivational speaker and life coach, training athletes from Tom Brady to Michael Phelps. His talk focused on the merits of optimism, and how individuals must practice maintaining positivity as they would any other skill.
“Practice, train, and rehearse: believe in yourself,” he said. “Understand you are no different from Desmond Howard, Tom Brady, Michael Phelps — they simply had a skill set. But they all had to believe, without question or pause, that they could have the world.”
In an interview with The Daily, Harden reflected further on a 15-year-old girl he cared for as a clinical therapist, sharing the possibility of either going up or down when at an “absolute zero” point in life.
“The theme became clear to me just before I went on, when I was talking about that young woman who had hit absolute zero in her life and could not see any other option other than taking her own life,” Harden said. “That’s what it made me think about, and how important it is sometimes to start all over. Absolute zero can be positive or negative… a spot in life where you’re standing at a crossroads.
In the interview, he clarified his notion of optimism is a method of recovery in a realistically difficult world.
“What people don’t talk about when they talk about fitness is a word I think is crucial, and that’s recovery,” Harden said. “(In regards to) mental fitness, we begin to understand you’re going to get knocked on your butt… (Optimism) is not having a fantasy, a rosy notion of the world. It’s a commitment to understanding that… you’re not going to allow the dominant force of negativity and chaos rule your life.”
Rishi Narayan — College of Engineering Alum, Co-Founder of Underground Printing
College of Engineering alum Rishi Narayan discussed how balancing academics alongside running a business as an undergraduate morphed his perfectionist mindset into one more willing to take risks. To do so, he referenced problem-solving methods he learned in high school to describe how his problem-solving approach went from a “slow A” to a “fast B."
“In class, (my high school physics teacher) Mr. Powers used to teach certain physics concepts in different ways,” Narayan said. “The first way was the slow A, where you would calculate the exact right answer to the question, which usually took a little longer. Then there was the fast B – it wasn’t the exact answer, but it was much quicker.”
Narayan also discussed a new understanding of the phrase “jack of all trades,” challenging the audience to rethink how society defines success.
“This term that I thought for most of my life was a negative was actually written as a positive,” Narayan said. “We’ve been taught to equate success to mastery, but maybe for some of us it’s a limiting factor. If we can just rethink how we look at success, then we can open ourselves up to opportunities and experience that we would’ve not taken before.”
Dr. Anne-Katrin Roesler — Assistant Professor of Economics
Prof. Anne-Katrin Roesler talked about how her love of math has shaped her perspective, reflecting on her tendency to see the world as puzzles meant to be solved. In particular, she described an experiment she performed in her youth to try to like beer, explaining how she used math to analyze the results and realize she was investing her time into the wrong goal.
“Every time I take a sip (of beer), there’s a certain probability alpha that I will have a success, meaning I’ll learn to like beer,” Katrin-Roesler said. “Now if we were to interpret the results of a model like this, it could suggest two possible reasons why the beer experiment failed. One, I stopped too early, or two, I never really had a chance and the probability I will ever learn to like beer is just zero. So, maybe the problem was not the plan, but the goal.”
Roesler’s “absolute zero” moment came when she was hit by truck a while on a routine run. The experience, Roesler shared, has caused her to reflect on the process of rebuilding herself.
“The puzzles we encounter in life are not rigid – but there are various ways to put the pieces together,” Katrin-Roesler said. “The accident destroyed part of what I had built before, but the building blocks are still there… Recovery is about putting the pieces together in the best way I can imagine.”
Aaron James Chow – Engineering senior, Founder of Michigan Neuroprosthetics
Engineering Senior Aaron James Chow father insisted Chow attempt to make his own nerf gun accessories instead of buying them from the store. From there, Chow expressed, he developed a passion for “tinkering”.
This passion took a more serious turn after Chow experience a knee injury from martial arts, leaving him often lying around in much pain. Chow then immersed himself in developing 3D prosthetics. In an interview with The Daily, Chow further elaborated on his original goal of designing a prosthetic leg.
“Can I build an assistive device that maybe goes around my knee and is like a powered exoskeleton thing?” Chow said. “From there, I learned about all the control systems I used in building the arm, but in doing all that research I learned that legs are very, very difficult… So I had completely actually failed that original goal.”
However, Chow persisted, and highlighted in his talk he eventually made a prosthetic arm for a child in need. Chow reflected on how his “failure” to reach his original goal turned into a larger project with impact.
“My concept was the benefit you get without trying things is absolutely zero,” Chow said. “So I took it in a very literal sense of if you don’t give possibility a chance, if you don’t turn possibility into opportunity, then you never see something come out of it.”
Sarah Wood — Business Alum, Founder of Oats and Woes
Business alum Sarah Wood talked about the mental health decline she experienced her sophomore year, during which she experienced a severe eating disorder, stopped going to class and isolated herself from her peers.
In discussing how the brain can be easily primed for negativity, Wood talked about the idea of the positivity ratio, highlighting research suggesting people equate three positive emotions to one negative emotion. According to Wood, her goals in living by societally-influenced, self-imposed metrics of success focused on the wrong half of the equation.
“I became a perfectionist, and I was seeking this unattainable zero in this denominator of the joy ratio,” Wood said. “But there will never be a zero in the denominator of this joy ratio, there will always be things you cannot change. And knowing that, what can we do? The only thing we can do is focus on increasing that numerator.”
During the darkest point of her life, Wood said, she realized she experienced joy when making and sharing a bowl of oatmeal with someone else. This inspired her to start her oatmeal and wellness blog Oats and Woes and to live by the “joy soldier manifesto.”
“So beneath the joy soldier manifesto, it is anchored in connection and reflection,” Wood said. “And connection to others is so important because when you are talking to someone, and you are in one of those magical conversations where you are in flow, you have no idea what time it is, you don’t need this external validator telling you they’re worthy… You know that you are worthy because of the way that you are with them.”
In an interview with The Daily, Wood highlighted the difference between happiness, a form of joy completion, versus genuine joy creation.
“We always think that after this next goal, then we’ll feel happy,” Wood said. “Because happiness is conditional… But joy is situation-agnostic. It’s this internally generated emotion that comes from you creating it.”