I woke up at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday. And, as crazy as that sounds, I wasn’t the only one. To be more specific, over 300 people from Ann Arbor and across the country woke up early enough to see the sun rise. And it was all in the spirit of a somewhat abstract goal: to share ideas and inspire one another. We were all going to attend the 2010 TEDxUofM conference.
On that morning, I thought back to a conversation I had five months ago. It was then that my good friend Alex O’Dell first pitched his idea to hold a TEDx conference. I was skeptical at best. To start, TEDx events are as ambitious as they are unstructured. At the core, they are self-organized conferences focused on promoting “ideas worth spreading.” This didn’t give Alex much to work with. And while I didn’t question Alex’s creativity and vision, I doubted his ability to turn such grandiose goals into reality. And so it was that five months later on Saturday morning, I was awoken by my alarm clock with only one thought in my mind: I was wrong.
TEDxUofM, which was located in the Biomedical Research Building, was a celebration of ideas and visions. It featured a diverse set of curious individuals being brought together by their shared interest in innovation. 600 applied to attend and approximately half were selected. Unsurprisingly, these selectees were giddy and energetic (sometimes troublingly so, given that it was a Saturday morning). The atmosphere was electric.
I was grumpier than most. I had no caffeine in my system and was nervous about botching the TED talk I was scheduled to present later that morning. But most of all, I saw success everywhere around me: the sold-out auditorium, the flawless design of the conference programs and the hundreds of red Xs lining the windows of the Biomedical Research Building. It was a reminder of how my skepticism had condemned me to think small, whereas Alex’s aspirations had pushed him to think big, take a risk, and reap the rewards.
As the conference proceeded (and I, thankfully, did not botch my TED talk), I began to finally experience the TED spirit. People around me were laughing, crying, scratching their heads and interacting with one another as our brains and hearts were subjected to a stimulated workout. But what really lifted my spirits was how proud I was of Alex.
You have to realize that for many months I barely got to see him. While his friends partied on weekends, Alex secluded himself to libraries and classrooms, planning the conference with likeminded hermits. During phone conversations, Alex increasingly only talked about the project. He seemed preoccupied, distracted — even possessed — by his lofty goal. I began to wonder whether it would all be worth it. This made witnessing the validation of Alex’s efforts all the more inspiring.
If there is one lesson I learned from Alex and TEDxUofM, it’s that thinking big does pay off. Where I saw obstacles and risk, Alex saw opportunity and success. But vision was not the only variable which was key to Alex’s success; it was also sweat — and lots of it. Consider the following example. A month or two ago, I was awoken by a 2 a.m. phone call on a Sunday from Alex asking me to tell him more about my proposed talk for the conference. I was about to complain about the timing of the phone call when I realized that, for the entire weekend, the TEDxUofM team had spent dozens of hours, sometimes without sleep, reviewing speaker applications. It was 2 a.m. on a Sunday in the middle of the school year, and yet there they were, slaving to realize their vision.
Here at Michigan, we hear constantly that our creativity is prized, that student initiative is encouraged and that our aspirations will find support in the administration. Like many, I didn’t think much of these statements — until Saturday. Because while the dedication of the TEDxUofM team was central to the realization of the conference, the group benefitted from various University institutions that invested thousands of dollars in the TEDxUofM project. This allowed Alex and his team to implement a successful marketing campaign, heighten everybody’s expectations and hit a home run. It was the epitome of a successful partnership that turned vision into reality.
As spring brings forth warmer temperatures and new beginnings, I urge you to revisit your aspirations. The success of TEDxUofM is a testament to a student’s ability to realize his goals, even when the odds seemed stacked against him. And if Alex could do it during the cold, morose days of winter, you can certainly do it during the warm, sunny days of summer.
Tommaso Pavone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.