Limitless! TEDxYouth Comes to Austin

There is a place where the youth reach for the stars and the adults follow along the way. That was the essence of Limitless – an independently organized TED event that was held at Westlake High School on March 30.
Possibly the best way to spend a Saturday where nobody seemed to care how old you were but just that you were there.

Community is LIMITLESS
TEDxYouthAustin is the brain child of Louis Lafair, a junior from St Stephen’s School who felt that it was time to bring TEDx to his generation. He reached out to Nancy Giordano, the champion behind TedxAustin and like all good stories go, the plot thickened, the cast of supporting characters gathered and March 30th was executed with aplomb. Supported by Eanes Independent School District, TASB and a host of mentors, sponsors and partners, it marked the beginning of many others to follow.  Louis explained that it was not about one school against another. The event had students from over 70 schools attending and managed to make it more about “us” over “them”

A wonderful thing happens when adults understand mentoring is about guidance and not about control. About standing behind but letting go. Allowing the youth to take charge of the event design, AV and format resulted in a great blend of content set to context.

Invest in Wonder
With a theme like Limitless, the speakers may have been twelve or forty but their message was young, spirited and filled with the art of the possible. The Westlake Performing Arts Center was full and the organizers wanted to make sure that the students got to sit front and center with the adults filling in the seats on the sides. We were asked to put away our various devices and not get distracted with the social chatter . So I had to scribble furiously in the dark.

Josef Asfouri, the middle school award winning concert pianist kicked off the event followed by Chris Kocek, CEO of Gallant. I met Chris before the event started and asked him why he was excited about the event. He said “Creativity is limitless and there are people who tell me that they are not creative. Everybody is creative.”

His talk was exceptional because he was able to take his message and put it in a format that kids could then remember. Many times we tend to ramble when talking not understanding that what we are talking about makes sense only to us because we have become old friends with our own content. To be an effective speaker, your material needs a structure, just like a house needs its foundation and its beams.

Chris spoke about seeing the world with a fresh set of eyes, learning as many languages as you can, asking questions no one else is asking and the importance of play.

Shree Bose walks on stage, looking a little like Mindy Lahiri but without the dizziness. She talks about WONDER and takes us on a fascinating trip on cancer drug resistance. A Texan native, her world changed when she won the Google Global Science Fair, met President Obama twice and is studying at Harvard. Dreams incubate well in wonder and persistence. “Ignore that you are not smart enough. I got rejected a lot…the best part about being young is that you do not know yet what you are not supposed to do…you will never know unless you try. The world needs your dreams.”

She is followed by Ashley May, a senior at Westlake High School who loves chemistry with a grand passion. She decides to educate us about the four most dangerous elements and you know that she has memorized each and every element on that periodic table. She talks about Mercury, Strontium, Thalium and Arsenic with a fervor that other kids her age would save for a rock star. She finishes her speech by saying “Chemistry is not for everyone but curiosity is.” When she leaves the stage, you are left with a strange urge to look up the periodic table.
Passion is contagious, alive and forever young.

Other speakers include Garrett Weber Gale, Olympic Gold medalist who talks about the importance of showing up, hard work and acknowledging the others who have carried you along your journey. Behind every success story lies many minds, hands and hearts.

Michael McDaniel from Frog Design is passionate about innovative and inexpensive ideas nested in practicality like the urban cable project – The Wire. Of course he makes us smile when he unscrambles “Keep Austin Weird” to “Keep Austin Wired”.

Equally compelling are the Future City middle school planners, Dillon Samara, Everest Maher and Evan Trumeters who  demo their innovative Hydroflap System designed to solve the current environmental problem of water runoff.

Brandi Clark Burton shows us how much food is wasted. She throws staggering stats at us. “25% of what comes into the US household goes into trash” “40% of our food is wasted from farm to table.” Waste in the middle of hunger. “50 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”

Peter Stone, a professor of Computer Science at UT Austin spoke about nearly a decade spent on RoboCup to his team finally emerging as reigning world cup champions. Truly nothing worthwhile happens overnight. There is no magic bean, or a bean stalk leading to a golden goose. What is consistent through these talks is the theme of persistence.

I am not prepared for Jia Jiang who talks about the power of audacity. He left his job four days before his wife gave birth to their first child and hits a roadblock as many of us have done. But Jia decides to start his own 100 Days of Rejection Therapy. He says that we are always faced with regret when we choose not to take steps because of the fear of rejection.
When you accept rejection, then you are no longer afraid of it. It will no longer dictate your next step.
“Rejection is someone’s opinion of ourselves. Regret is your own opinion of yourself.”

What I loved about the format was the easy mix of serious talk, video clips and energetic art. We are introduced to Premiere and Final Cut, an A Capella group from MacArthur High School in San Antonio. International Champions in 2011, this group performs without instruments, in perfect rhythm and to a thunderous ovation. Forget Glee.

We are treated to the powerful poetry of Jaoquin Zihuatenejo, World Poetry Slam Champion, who conveys through voice and motion how the youth can reverse the stereotype. Care. Share. Dare.
He has the students fired up and standing up clapping furiously because his words of change and revolution, have touched a chord. He is not preaching to them. He has connected.

“So maybe I don’t have to be just warrior
or just poet
maybe I can be both
or maybe all I have to be
is the most beautiful thing that I can be
that which I am”

When some toddlers were vying for tiaras, Ruby Jane fell in love with the fiddle. Seventeen today, this beautiful young lady inspired all of us with her unflinching belief in herself. The youngest fiddler invited on the Grand Ole Opry, she has reinvented herself and forged her own path by pursuing singing and songwriting. She says between playing her music and singing her song,Listen to the voice that says you can have an influence no matter what others say. We all have this voice. Lots of people regard it as the voice of fantasy. I think of it as the voice of potential.”

Closing Class Act
Life can be cruel. Life can be callous. Lizzie Velasquez could easily have stayed with that notion and she talks about a hateful Youtube video with millions of views that could have broken her spirit. She says When I was born with a rare and undiagnosed syndrome, the doctors said I could accomplish nothing in my life. My parents took me home and raised me completely normally.”
“You can choose to be happy or choose to give up”
Though she is 24 years old and weighs only 62 lbs, her impact makes her a giant among us. She has been a motivational speaker for 8 years, has written two books and working on her third. She graduates this year from Texas Tech.
“Every nasty comment made me work even harder.”
Recently another video made the rounds on YouTube. Lizzie said she had one good cry and she said to herself, “Smile Lizzie. What great accomplishment is this video going to lead to.”
“I look at this battle and I realize that the best revenge is through your accomplishments. So yes I have won.”

The Brain Spa
Time to connect was provided during the short break and at the reception held in the Chaps Court. Food for thought was provided by different sponsors. Pizza, ice cream, sushi for the more refined palate.

To get students to give up their Saturday willingly when they could be anywhere else is no mean feat. To bring them to the venue and to have them stay the entire day would equal to “success”.  To have them stand up and applaud the content meant that seeds of possibility were planted.

We don’t always remember everything we learn. We do remember those moments in our life when inspiration takes root and activates the dream.

I caught up with my daughters who enjoyed volunteering and said “So what did you think?” One said, “I need you to look at some of the songs I have written.”  The other one said “I want to become an environmental activist”

I hear ya. I know this was your event but it has triggered off a whole domino of ideas in my own head.  Let’s go change the world.

Final Act. Ruby Jane with Premiere & Final Cut.
Final Act. Ruby Jane with Premiere & Final Cut.

3 thoughts on “Limitless! TEDxYouth Comes to Austin

    1. It was a groundbreaking event, Scott. Kudos to the team for inspiring students and adults alike. Thank you!!

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