TEDx Speakers Address “The Road Not Taken”

By Joe Flaherty


TEDxMiddlebury 2013, the “independently organized TED event,” took place on Saturday March 9, with students gathered in the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts Concert Hall to listen to a diverse group of speakers, including one current Middlebury student.  The theme for the event was “The Road Not Taken,” and many of the speakers organized their 18-minute presentation around ideas of adventure, vocational searching and personal growth.  Although they were all tied to the event’s theme, the speakers’ topics ranged from encouraging savings in developing countries to the importance of selflessness to mountain climbing.  Interspersed with the live speakers were videos from past TED talks.

Josh Swartz ’14.5, a TEDx board member, said the planning required to make TEDxMiddlebury happen had paid off.

“I’m really starting to appreciate all the hard work we put in the last year,” said Swartz. “I think the speakers have tied our theme together in ways I couldn’t even think of.”

Swartz said the theme of TEDxMiddlebury 2013 was central to the planning process and the speakers the board sought to bring to campus. “It was kind of the first thing we set out to do when we started planning the event, and it inform[ed] a lot of our decisions that came afterwards,” he said.  “I think the theme both relates to the speakers’ backgrounds that we sought out and also obviously is very much tied to Vermont and Middlebury.”

Alex Cort ’14.5 was in the audience and appreciated the wide-ranging experiences the speakers brought to the stage.  “I think it’s a diverse group of speakers bringing a lot of new ideas and experiences to the community,” said Cort. “It’s not often that you get people of such diverse backgrounds in one space at one time and I think that is what makes a day like today really special.”

The event had 10 speakers who gave their talks in three sessions.  Reverend Andy Nagy-Benson, pastor at the Congregational Church in Middlebury, opened the event with his talk, “All the Difference.”  Nagy-Benson recited Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and spoke about its relation to finding his calling as a pastor.

TEDx featured several influential people working for social change.  Ai-Jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, spoke about the need for fair labor standards and respect for elderly caregivers.  Dean Karlan, a professor of economics at Yale University and president of the non-profit Innovations for Poverty Action, explained some of his research on the behavioral economics of human motivation to save money in developing countries.  Kate Clopeck, executive director for Community Water Solutions, talked about finding her way to Ghana despite a childhood dream of working for NASA.

Some talks involved audience participation.  Derek Amato, who acquired a gift for the piano after a head injury in the extremely rare “Acquired Savant Syndrome,” played the piano and lead the crowd in a spirited rendition of “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers.

Jamie Laidlaw ’02, a Middlebury alumnus and lead guide for a heli ski company in Nevada, shared photography and stories of “failure in the mountains.” Laidlaw said in an interview that it was surreal to be back.

“I listened to TED talks for years and years and I couldn’t have been more surprised to be invited back to speak here – it’s a huge honor,” said Laidlaw.  “I’ve given talks for industry folks and whatnot but to come back here to Middlebury and speak for the students and a bunch of academics, it means a lot to convey my experiences to a much more intellectual, learned crowd.”

TEDx also featured Ryan Kim ’14, who won TEDxMiddlebury’s first student speaker competition in November.  In his talk titled “Train American,” Kim described encounters with people he had while traveling by train across the country this summer. While Kim was proud to have won the competition, more than anything he was honored to be part of the event.

“It was really a great experience, and it was cool to be able to represent the student contingent on stage,” said Kim.  Kim’s talk on Saturday was different than the one he gave to win the competition.

“The way I think about it is as I write about the trip and as I share stories about the trip, I want each piece to reflect different stories of the trip so that if there were to be, theoretically, a fanatic about my trip, they could see all the different pieces and not hear any repeated material,” said Kim. “I don’t expect anyone to ever do that, but to me, I’m sort of the fanatic about the trip and so I want, at least for myself, all of these to be different.”

The event also had several candid exchanges between speakers and audience members during the breaks between presentations when audience members could offer comments.  In one such exchange, Max Hoffman ’14.5 expressed the urge to “drop out of college and do something” in response to the often entrepreneurial and trailblazing efforts of the speakers.

“It’s sometimes hard to find what you want to do,” said Hoffman, “So if anyone has had an experience like that or has experienced similar frustration, I’m anxious to hear what you have to say, especially in reaction to these people who seem to have found their pathway and their calling.”

Natalie Randolph, the only female head coach of a high school football team in the nation, responded to Hoffman’s comment: “I have an answer, and I don’t think you ever figure it out, so stop trying.”

Another speaker, Polly Young-Eisendrath, clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, added a metaphor that resonated with many students in attendance.

“It can look like we know we are doing because we are up here, but I want you to think about this metaphor of a grassy field,” said Young-Eisendrath. “When you’re walking straight ahead in a grassy field, there’s no path, but then you look behind you, and where you’ve walked there’s a path.”

Swartz, along with many other students in the audience, said the exchange between Hoffman, Randolph and Young-Eisendrath was one of his favorite moments of the day.

“The audience feedback has been really good,” said Swartz. “It’s been great to get not just a one-on-one question-and-answer but to include everyone in the audience in that feedback and self-reflection process.”

Becca Hicks ’15 attended the event and believed everyone in the audience found a different personal meaning from the day’s speakers.

“Something that I find really beautiful about TED is that new ideas are presented … but each audience member takes away their own message,” said Hicks in an email. “Looking around the room, it seemed like many new ideas were germinating, as people tied what they had heard back into their own lives, making it relevant to them.”