GRAVITY: HOW BREAKING MY BACK CHANGED MY LIFE

It’s been ten years since the cataclysmic event that changed everything. They’ve flown by in a blink, much like the incident itself (for me, anyway; my mother holds a different opinion). To commemorate this anniversary, I’m reposting an edited version of my tale from an old MySpace post.

This was me circa 2002. The smile is a tad strained; the eyes with a hint of sadness, possibly boredom.

This was me circa 2002. The smile is a tad strained; the eyes with a hint of sadness, possibly boredom.

I had just started my junior year of college at Ball State. I was working 25+ hours a week at the local gas station. My boyfriend and I had just passed our two year anniversary (which he had said, “If we make it past two years, I’m going to ask you to marry me.”), and I was a bit freaked out. We were talking about moving to Muncie together, but something felt off. I was a bit feistier than I am now. It was easy (and “fun” some people said) to get a rise out of me. I really should have had red hair. I spent most of my time going to class, going to work, and doing homework. My boyfriend would drive up from IU Bloomington to see me on the weekends when we could manage it. Though many people didn’t know it, I was relatively unhappy… and if you had asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on why.

A tiny picture of the old barn before it was torn down.

A tiny picture of the old barn before it was torn down. Clearly, I should have known better than to go in there.

I broke my back in late September 2003. When my mom started seeing my (now) step-dad, he had this really old barn. It should have been torn down years before they started seeing each other. The roof leaked, it was falling apart, had holes everywhere, etc. So they built a new one. Around the same time, someone dropped off a calico cat that had the bad habit of getting pregnant and not taking care of her babies. She had a litter in August ’03. She moved them to the old barn. I, being the insane cat lover that I am, wanted to make sure she was taking care of them and that they were safe.

It was a Sunday. I had gotten up around noon. I think my boyfriend (Chuck) had left either the night before or early in the morning. I woke up with some time to kill before work, so I thought I’d go check on those kittens. As I walked to the old barn, I waved to my mom, who was working in the new barn. I found the kittens in the hay loft. Now, this loft had scared the shit out of my mother for years. Because the roof leaked, the floor in it was horrible. It had holes and rotten places galore. The trick was to “test” the floor before you put your weight on it and walk on the support beams as much as possible. I was an expert at this.

I was up there for a good half an hour, making a home for these kittens. I used an old sink turned upside down as a roof, packed in some straw so they’d be warm in the colder nights, and gave them some lovin’. I was attempting to come down out of the loft when I fell through the floor. I find it ironic that I spent a half hour up there and only when I was leaving did I fall.

I don’t remember the actual fall. I remember “testing” a board with my left foot, and then I was suddenly on the floor of the barn, looking up at the hole I had just fallen through. I felt like I’d been tackled by a professional linebacker. I thought, “What the hell?? How did I get down here?” I was covered in dirt, old straw, and bits of wood. (I had fallen about 10 feet and landed on cement. My step-dad said I was just inches from a bale of straw.) I tried to get up. Then I realized that I couldn’t feel my legs.

“Oh shit. I’m paralyzed. I’m paralyzed! I can’t live my life like this!” A million thoughts raced through my mind, and I started to cry. It felt like everything was for nothing. I couldn’t finish at Ball State. I couldn’t work a normal job. Who’s gonna date the girl in the wheelchair? How am I going to live normally? I actually resolved to kill myself in those few minutes… simply because I honestly didn’t know how I could live like that.

Fortunately, I started to calm myself down, thinking, “This is accomplishing nothing. You have to get help.” And as I started to try to pull myself with the absolute zero upper-body strength that I had, I felt it: pain. I would describe it as the pins-and-needles feeling of your limb waking up when it’s asleep, but it was fucking excruciating. But it was also good. Pain was good. No feeling in the legs meant I was probably paralyzed. Pain meant there was hope. This hope fueled me.

I tried desperately to pull myself on the rough concrete with only my elbows. I knew I had to get out in the open for anyone to hear my screams. I think I got maybe 3 or 4 feet before I just couldn’t do it anymore. So I started yelling helplessly. It had begun to rain, and the roof on the new barn was a tin-like material, making it rather noisy when it rained. I yelled and yelled; my parents couldn’t hear me. It was very painful to yell because it elevated my blood pressure. As soon as I finished a yell, it felt like all my blood rushed into my burning legs. I had to take breaks.

I was alone maybe 20 minutes after the fall before the rain let up and someone heard me. Mom says the minute she heard my voice, she knew something was wrong. I think she still has nightmares about that sound–the voice of her daughter filled with such anguish and helplessness. They came running, and I started crying. I didn’t cry because I was scared; I cried because I was sorry. For years, they had told me not to go up into the loft. And I thought I was going to be fired from work because that particular day was mandatory; if you didn’t show, you voluntarily quit. It’s funny what affects you in times like that. “I’m sorry…” I was blubbering. “You told me not to go up there. Please don’t be mad.”

My step-dad stayed with me, making a pillow for my dirty head as my mom ran to the house to call 911. If I ever needed a father, it was then… and he came through. He kept telling me everything was fine, they weren’t mad, and help was coming.

My parents had made many friends in our small town during the 10+ years we had lived here. One of them was on the EMT squad. He just happened to have his scanner on when the call came over the radio. He voluntarily came, and he was the one who took care of me. I think they arrived in about 5 minutes. He took one look at my left leg and decided it was broken due to how horribly twisted it looked and the gross angle it was cocked to. He started to cut off my clothes (which embarrassed the hell out of me), and they put me on an inflatable stretcher.

I don’t remember much after that. I remember the sirens as we raced down the highway, thinking of what it must be like to be a car stopping for my ambulance. We got to the local hospital, and they had no idea what they were doing. In fact, my mom expressly said that it was excruciating to touch my legs, and what did the nurse guy do? He tried tickling my feet when the doctor wasn’t in the room. Had I been able, I would have fucking decked him.

The next thing I remember is them loading me up in another ambulance. One of the guys inside was a friend of my step-dad’s, which should have been comforting, but he just yelled at me non-stop. I was in a lot of pain, and they had given me absolutely nothing for it. So, naturally, I cried. He told me to stop being a wimp and shut my mouth. Lovely. I blacked out the entire ride to Fort Wayne.

And then I lost about 3-5 days of my life. I don’t remember getting to Lutheran Hospital. I don’t remember being put in the bed in ICU. I don’t remember the catheter or IVs. The only thing I remember out of that half a week or so was the very nice nurse washing my hair and allowing me to use her cell phone once. I remember that she liked me, and I liked her. I remember reassurance and trust.

Things I was told about these days: Mom came to see me one time, and I told her that someone had been there, touching my legs. She was infuriated. We had made a sign that said, “Please do not bump my bed,” and everyone knew not to touch my painful legs. I said, “No, Momma, it didn’t hurt. It was a man, and I wasn’t afraid because it didn’t hurt.” She thinks it was Jesus. Also, I was very nice to the nurses. I asked for things; I said “please” and “thank you.” Our neighbor had come to visit me and said I shouldn’t act like a guest–they got paid to treat me well. So I guess at some point, I started getting bossy because she said to (that’s what Mom said I said). And just before I went into surgery, I told Mom, “Don’t be afraid. Aunt Lola is looking out for me. I’ll be ok.” My Aunt Lola had died the summer before. We were very close, and I still miss her a lot.

I had hundreds of x-rays/scans done. I’m surprised I didn’t glow in the dark. My leg was not broken, but I had severe hyperthesia, or hypersensitivity to touch. If you even blew softly on my legs, it was painful. The sheets were painful. That hurt worse than anything else.

The x-ray of my back, post-operation. *thunks on spine* Pure titanium badassery!

The x-ray of my back, post-operation. *thunks on spine* Pure titanium badassery!

The x-rays revealed something else: I had shattered my T-12 vertebrae. This is the analogy the doctors gave me: the spine sort of collapsed like an accordion under the weight. My T-12 took the most impact in this collapse, and when the bone shattered, the fragments were lying against my spinal cord, causing the hyperthesia (and the initial numbness) in my legs. So two doctors had to go in, take all of my organs out, get these little fragments cleaned out, put a titanium “cage” in to replace my broken vertebrae, put everything back in, and stitch me up. I say two doctors because one had to be a heart doctor since it involved removing organs and working around my ribs. The other was my orthopedic doctor who did the actual “cage” work. Also, I was told by several nurses that I looked like someone had taken a bat and beaten me on my lower back. When you’re getting ready to sit in a chair, you know that L shape your upper body and thighs make? That’s how I landed–right above my ass. They said I was literally a very dark black and blue. I wish I had pictures of that.

My memory kicks back in right after the surgery. I remember being in the post-op room. One of the nurses gave me a Bic razor to shave my legs, saying the hospital razors were crappy. When they moved me back to my room in ICU, I had an older lady roommate who had like 5 names… Mary Katherine Ellen something or other. She liked to angrily throw things at the wall at all hours of the night. Despite it being against the rules, they let my parents bring me a CD player. I had A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step playing constantly… along with Chuck’s Type O Negative CDs. Real up-lifting music. ;)

And then there were the drugs. I was on a lot of morphine, but Mom was concerned that I’d become addicted, so I was told not to push the button unless I had to. I can remember being in considerable pain and refusing to push the button. That got me in trouble. And then I started hallucinating. One afternoon, I had a wet towel on my forehead (guess I was hot? narcotics will do that). Everyone had just left, and I put the towel on my chest for a minute. Without growing a mouth, the towel said to me, “Eliot is coming. Watch out for Eliot. He is the devil.” And then I heard it–a voice: “I can take all the pain away… all you have to do is give me your soul.” I squeezed my eyes shut, thinking, “I can make you go away. You’re not real. I have the power to stop time, and then I open my eyes, you will be gone.” Thankfully, I never heard from “Eliot” or the wash cloth again.

I remember not wanting to see people who came to visit me. I’d pretend to be asleep. I don’t know if it made me uncomfortable, ashamed, angry, or a mixture of emotions. Some people I just didn’t want to see me like that. Chuck was one of them. I was a strong, young, independent woman, and here I was, helpless and broken in a hospital bed. And I probably looked and smelled nasty. Really, the only people I didn’t mind seeing were my parents and the nurses. I made a lot of friends with the nursing staff. They were sad to see me go.

I think it was the night before I moved to the orthopedics floor, I couldn’t sleep. I have an on/off relationship with sleep anxiety, and the morphine caused me to sleep all funky. I buzzed the nurse, telling her I couldn’t sleep. It was 2 in the morning. She said she’d come back for me, that some man down the hall had ripped out all of his IVs and was bleeding all over the place. 2 hours later, she gave me some Benadryl. If you can’t sleep, folks, take some Benadryl. Seriously.

And that was the catalyst for me moving out of ICU. I just couldn’t rest, which meant I couldn’t heal. Between the insanity, Mary Frances Sabrina throwing shit and yelling at the wall, and my not sleeping, I had to be on a more peaceful floor. And so I was moved. That’s when the real fun began.

I was being weaned off the morphine, but I was still hallucinating. The first day they put me in my room on the O. floor, they put my legs in this machine to prevent blood clots. God, it hurt like hell. I fell asleep with it on, and I remember dreaming that lions were eating my legs. I refused to use it after that.

I was still having sleep anxiety. I was having “dreams while awake”–not hallucinations but not dreams either. One night, I thought that I had an assignment (I was apparently a journalist?) and was working against a deadline… except my bed was the paper, and the letters were assembled on it. Each time I’d move–even the slightest bit, it would muck up the work–jumble the letters and smear the ink. I was freaking out, trying to be very, very still. Another night, I thought that I was a test-tube baby, raised in the hospital. I knew my name was Ashley, but that was it. I remember thinking, “How can they release me when I have no life to go to?” When I told Mom about this, she said, “Why didn’t you call us?” I didn’t even remember my last name, let alone my phone number. I remember the night nurse hated me because I’d cry a lot. Between the not-dreams-nightmares and the back spasms I was having, I freaked out a lot between 11pm and 5am. I used to wish so hard for the sun to come up because that seemed to make it ok.

Going home was like convincing a parole board to let you out of prison. I was admitted to the hospital on September 28th; it was approaching mid-October. I was going through physical therapy with this cute guy named Chris. He was awesome. I really wanted to go home, and he made me a deal: if I could walk around the block of the O. floor on my walker, I was free. I worked so hard for that. When I finally achieved it, they wanted me to go to some home-type thing for continual physical therapy. I remember Chris telling my mom that I’d “learn how to tie [my] shoes again.” Seriously? I knew how to tie my goddamn shoes. I opted out, saying I could do all of that at home instead of being carted to and from Fort Wayne three times a week. And so I was released on October 10th.

When I came home, my cats no longer knew me. I must have smelled like hospital. Adrienne hissed at me. Once they figured out it was me, they never left my side–especially her. The weird non-dreams continued for a while. I had to sleep with a light on. But eventually, the drugs were out of my system. We had to administer blood thinner shots. Originally, the nursing staff tried to teach me how to do it. I’m deathly afraid of needles, so my step-dad had to do it twice a day. It was like a horrible bee sting for two times a day for 20 days.

My mom took a lot of time off work to stay home with me. I know it was very trying for her. On one hand, the nursing aspect comes naturally to a mother. On the other, there was only so much she could do for me. We had to set up a plastic lawn chair in their shower because I didn’t have the strength to stand (atrophy set in when I was in the hospital bed). She’d have to clean me and brush and dry my hair. But the real test was putting the anti-blood-clot leggings on my legs. Even though the bone was off of my spine, I still had a bit of hyperthesia. Oh God, how I’d wail when she’d put those things on me. But it had to be done. Eventually, other people started staying with me, as Mom had to go back to work. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I remember throwing my walker because it didn’t fit through our doorways. I hated that thing anyway because it made me feel like an old lady. I couldn’t sit for long periods because of my 10-inch scar down my left side. We’d have dinner, and it hurt to sit down at the table but it was even worse getting up. I’d have crying fits because of the pain. It felt like someone put forceps in my scar and was ripping it open again. Adrienne the cat would come running every time this happened, thinking I needed defended.

But, obviously, it got better. And because I never dropped out of college, I had some schoolwork to keep me occupied. 2 out of 5 professors agreed to work with me in a way that was acceptable. And people would send care packages with coloring books, magazines, videos, etc. Cards poured in from everywhere–even people I didn’t know. And some people gave me money/gift cards. It was like Christmas and my birthday at the same time.

The hardest part was October-January, which turned out to be more about emotional and mental healing than the physical variety. I had decided to end it with Chuck. It’s hard to explain why… Something in me clicked when I was in the hospital, and I just knew I had to let him go. I had somewhat been wrestling with it before the fall, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. That was hard on him, making it hard on me. He was my best friend, so I had few people to lean on once I returned home. My life had been turned upside down, and I started spiraling into depression. Winter does that to me anyway, but that season was the worst I’d been through. I seriously thought about ending my life, and I stopped caring about a lot of things. I still wonder if the “personality changes” from that drugs were temporary or if it might have played a part in what I was going through. We never found out for sure.

I felt ugly because of my scar. I remember Mom yelling at me that I had to eat. I had lost about 30+ pounds in the hospital, and she was worried that I thought I couldn’t eat in order to keep it off. I was supposed to wear this obvious back brace thing anytime I wasn’t in bed. It was ugly and made me feel like I had a disability. So I had some understandable self-esteem issues I went through.

And because I spent a lot of my time driving to class, work, and to see friends, I felt trapped since I couldn’t even drive around the block. Driving was my way of working out my life in my head. It was alone time to think or sing at the top of my lungs to release whatever emotion I had at the time. I couldn’t leave the house unless someone else was behind the wheel.

My whole life, I’ve had two extremely rock-bottom low points. This was the worst, by far. Everything felt wrong. Me, my life, the choices I had made, my plans, my relationships… I’m not a very good swimmer, but once I tried to do an underwater flip in my neighbor’s pool. I got stuck mid-way into the flip and started panicking, thinking I was going to drown. That’s sort of what this felt like, except it seemed perpetual.

My depression started to fade when I got back to normal things. I physically went back to school in January. I no longer had to wear the back brace. And Shannon (my best friend at the time) and I were driving all over the state, looking for trouble to get into. Strangers didn’t know a thing unless I wanted to tell them about it. I was “normal” again.

However, the emotional effects of the accident lasted for at least a year after the fact. I took on a hedonistic attitude. While lying in the hospital bed, I realized that I lived my life by what I was “supposed to” do, not what I wanted to do. I did what other people thought I should. I hardly went out. I didn’t live like a 21/22 year old. I feared that if I didn’t get my “wild oats” out then, I never would. Before the fall, I was an A/B/occasional C student. I was on the Dean’s List. Afterwards, I started blowing off classes and homework. If you look at my transcripts, you can see a marked decline. And while I can use the physical excuse for my first semester back, anything after was just me… trying to adjust and figure out a balance. People who have known me for 5-6 years or more will vouch that I was a different person when I came home. I was trying to figure out who that person was.

I have no physical problems with my back, for the most part. I remember people used to ask if the titanium “felt cold,” which baffled me because it’s IN my back, warmed by my body. I walked away with some nerve damage (mostly on the left side of my body), a gnarly scar, and the occasional backache if I overdo any heavy lifting. But the key words there are “I walked away.” I am so thankful just to have independent mobility; the rest I can deal with.

I had never broken a bone up until September 28th of 2003, and I haven’t broken one since. Mom and I talk about it every year. I remember it more fondly than she does. I can’t imagine being a mother and going through that. People naturally want someone/thing to blame, but really, it was just one of those things that happened. It was an old barn that should have been torn down (their fault); it was a stupid cat that someone dropped off (the cat’s fault; the person who dropped her off’s fault); I shouldn’t have been up there (my fault, though no one has the balls to blame me). Who cares? It happened, and I’m fine. Yes, I still deal with the effects from time to time, but you move on.

In a way, I think I needed this to happen. Like I said in the beginning, I was ineffably unhappy before the fall. After it, I changed. My life changed. The only regret I have is not being more dedicated to my schoolwork. If I had to do it all over again, I’d still go up in the hay loft. I have a slight fear of heights now, but there are plenty of people who have that naturally. And the next time I see you, I’ll happy to show off my kick ass scar. In a way, it’s my proudest accomplishment.

Originally written October 13, 2007; edited September 29, 2013.

I am surrendering to the gravity and the unknown
Catch me heal me lift me back up to the sun
I choose to live, I choose to live

BEYOND ROSES AND BUTTERFLIES: HOW EXECUTION IS CRITICAL TO THE IDEA PROCESS

Preface: This guest post is half of a duo (part one by AJ Motia; part two by Kit Kieser). You can read the first part here. Additionally, neither post is an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, they are personal reflections on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. Kit Kieser’s assertions here do not necessarily represent my beliefs and vice versa.

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

If you ask a group of young, college art students to make work about death, love, time, or change–broad, familiar, and potentially weighty concepts, more than half of the class will, without fail, produce imagery with “blood,” roses, clocks, or butterflies. Most will not have the inclination to make work about the room where Grandma died, the place he stood when he first fell in love, the three generations of her family that live under the same roof, or a handful of coins. (A sense of humor is welcome.)

In the world of fine art, no one really gives a shit about roses or butterflies. There are several reasons why, but primarily we’ve seen that imagery in just about every variation under the sun, over and over again. It has come to have little impact on the viewer. A third generation Ansel Adams-style photograph may be beautifully executed, for example, but it will never and can never have the same cultural impact that Adams’ work did. The man was remarkably influential as a pioneer in landscape photography and environmental activism, after all.

One doesn’t expect every student to come up with brilliantly innovative concepts or new and interesting ways to look at the world. Some students won’t get past roses and butterflies for a few assignments; for some, it may be a couple years. Perhaps the more sophisticated work just hasn’t happened for him or her yet. Perhaps that work is still in the works, because it takes a great deal of rummaging through the small–often terribly bad–ideas to find the big, prodigious ideas floating around in your brain. Sure, there may be a perfectly-formed masterpiece in there, but mostly there are lots of small ideas that need to be strategically piled on top of one another to construct what sort of looks like a big idea. Even then, there’s more grunt work to be done to push the big ideas out into the world. That part takes help.

I show Idea Conference, Inc. style talks–mostly TED or high profile TEDx talks–in my classroom all the time. It’s one of my go-to teaching tools. Specifically, I show talks centering around creativity and the creative process. I can’t say for certain if sharing the talks with my students gets them to make better work. What I do know is that they enjoy the videos a great deal, they gain some new perspectives, and it gets them thinking. Students often leave class feeling uplifted, inspired, and occasionally empowered. It can be very difficult to make art when you’re feeling depressed or even subdued. So, uplifting or inspiring words from me and others is frequently part of what the students need.

Sir Ken Robinson’s talks have changed my life, or at least changed the way I think about creativity, teaching, and my identity. Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown have helped me to evolve the way I think about creativity and how I talk to my students about the creative process and what makes compelling art. I go back to these talks time and time again, and I show the videos in my classes. I’m not alone in my reverence for these speakers, their ideas, and the way they deliver their messages, but talks like these have become the gold standard that many seem to want to recreate–so much so that we’ve watched Idea Conference, Inc. balloon into an idea industry as TED has become a giant corporate brand and more localized groups have hastily formed a line to ride its coattails.

Everyone seems to want to have and share their big idea, even if only for the sake of a line on their resumé. But what constitutes an “idea worth spreading?” Furthermore, what happens when we never actually implement our ideas or fail to move outside of our own community of like-minds and mutual admiration that we begin repeating ourselves, run out of ideas, or all begin to deliver the same ideas in slightly different packages? Has the proliferated idea industry reached its post-modern era?

Bear with me here. In visual art, one major idea of Postmodernism can be grossly simplified by the notion that there are no new ideas–that we have exhausted our creative possibilities. The use of collage and appropriated materials–and ideas–is often a hallmark of postmodern art. That is, an artist may borrow existing ideas or materials and piece them with other existing ideas or materials to create new ideas by recontextualizing the old ones. I assure you the full complexity of this topic is far beyond what would be useful here, but the general concept is illustrative.

We’re starting to see similar postmodern-like activity in the idea industry, especially in the smaller, localized conferences. There seem to be few new ideas being presented there. Instead, the same ideas and concepts are being embedded in topics that are seemingly different but ultimately contain the same appropriated messages. That’s not to say that this can’t be useful, but is the appropriation and/or retelling of the same ideas and the way these ideas are presented actually productive? I’m afraid the law of diminishing returns applies.

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

If a single person stands on stage to give a somewhat sage-like sermon to the group of like-minds, the ideas start to look like the same old roses and butterflies that we’ve seen countless times over. Would it not make more sense to have a panel discussion where a problem is solved or a game plan is made to implement these ideas?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as guilty as any other “slacktivist” that likes to contemplate and deliberate over lofty ideas without ever taking consequential action. But how many times do we have to repeat the same idea, concept, or philosophy to give it legitimacy before implementation becomes the main priority? Perhaps we get a little too wrapped up with congratulating ourselves for having smart ideas with which our equally intelligent peers agree?

It’s okay that we started out with roses and butterflies. They’re integral to the process. Making bad art is a necessary step on the path to making good art, but the good art never comes if it remains an idea without execution. Our ideas can’t evolve without putting them into practice. Visual art has, in part, moved past Postmodernism, but it got there by executing the ideas such to facilitate its progression to new ideas.

On the other hand, if your ideas only ever look like roses and butterflies, that’s okay. Most students that go to art school don’t live out their lives as artists. In fact, very few of them practice art after they graduate, but there was still a great deal of value in their experience. Just because a student doesn’t have the most artistically innovative mind in the room doesn’t mean they’re not creative or don’t have something incredibly valuable to offer. And just because we don’t all have an idea we feel worthy of presenting at Idea Conference, Inc. doesn’t mean that we never will, and it doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally–if not more–valuable now for what really needs to happen: the grunt work. In order for there to be new ideas, we need to implement the ones we have, find out what works and what doesn’t, and watch new ideas grow from that process.

I DON’T HAVE A BIG IDEA, AND THAT’S OK

Preface: This post is part one of two. Kit Kieser wrote a guest post on this blog for the second piece of the discussion. She talks about reforming the way we think about, present, and implement ideas. You can read that post here. Additionally, this specific post is not an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, it is a personal reflection on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. My assertions here do not necessarily represent Kit Kieser’s beliefs and vice versa.

I paced back and forth in my head, wearing circular paths in the mush. The pressure was mounting. Our local TEDx had just wrapped up, and a big-deal marketing summit was soliciting submissions for talks. I picked up my brain and shook it fiercely like a child trying to wrestle a shiny piece of change free from a piggy bank. As I throttled it in the hopes that some grand idea might jiggle loose, I wondered to myself, “What if there’s just nothing in there? What does that mean?”

Everywhere we look today, people are presenting on this and talking about that. TED/TEDx talks, conferences, symposiums, ad nauseum (henceforth known as Idea Conference, Inc. in this blog post). We’re lured in by the premise that these ideas will be shiny and new, offering some value we did not have previously. And, often, there’s the rub: the product does not live up to the hype.

I struggle to take away anything more than a confirmation of my own values or beliefs (tinged with a slight air of self congratulation for being “right” in the first place, because, after all, this really smart person on a stage just agreed with me) or a message that gets me high on feelgood vibes for a few hours but fails to make a lasting impact. For me, it’s the equivalent of Pinterest syndrome: people pin things to make themselves feel good, and the very act of pinning produces the same effect as doing/making/buying whatever the pin is (without the effort or investment).

For Idea Conference, Inc., spectating is as good as doing.

Research has shown that it’s even better because idea forums like TED give us a false sense of confidence in ourselves–our understanding of the ideas presented and our ability to execute those ideas. But are the folks sitting in the audience really there to change the world (on a bigger or personal scale) anyway? If you’ve been to an Idea Conference, Inc. event, count on your hands the number of concepts that changed your life for longer than a week. Be honest with yourself: not concepts you enjoyed learning about or agreed with–the ones that truly impacted you and how you interact with the world. I’m betting you have few, if any, fingers extended right now.

What is an idea worth without execution?

What is an idea worth without execution?

Further down the rabbit hole, there’s this expectation that we all have (or should at least want to have) a great idea within us–one that we can neatly package for consumption by the masses. Ideas have become social currency for inclusion/exclusion in a room full of people all saying the same thing and then applauding each other for it. With so much pressure to be labeled an inspiring speaker at Idea Conference Inc., people scramble to present just for the sake of it rather than waiting for that really great idea. Ability supersedes quality. Instead of letting that great idea ferment into something uniquely theirs, they imitate past ideas in a rush to “just get it done.” And so the cycle of lackluster ideas begins anew.

Or, as Nathan Jurgenson said in his essay against TED:

What began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself. What was exceptional and emergent in the realm of ideas has been bottled, packaged, and sold back to us over and over again.

Idea Conference, Inc. has given birth to the “Idea Industry.” The word “industry” implies that we’re manufacturing ideas, churning them out like widgets. This mindset dictates an immediate usefulness of these idea-widgets, which Umair Haque speaks against: “The idea of our age is that Great Ideas can be simplified, reduced, made into convenient, disposable nuggets of infotainment — be they 18-minute talks, 800-word blog posts, or 140 character bursts. But can they — really?” Ideas are to be nurtured over time, to be experienced–not consumed in 10-20 minute talks resulting in a “climactic epiphany,” as Haque calls it.

photo credit: tubagooba via photopin cc

photo credit: tubagooba via photopin cc

If we are, indeed, manufacturing ideas, perhaps this provides insight into why they are so formulaic–so cookie-cutter. This is ironic in that Idea Conference, Inc. typically promotes “outside-the-box” thinking. These forums have become the box. And what is a box but a containment unit–walls that include and exclude, neatly compartmentalizing what’s inside?

Reject the box. Blow up the walls. Don’t fall into the trap that only “ideas worth spreading” are shared via these types of forums. Don’t let these things constrain you, your way of thinking, or the impact you make.

After combing every lobe in my brain for an idea that fits the mold, I realized the system itself is the issue. Am I less intelligent for not having a concept worthy of a TEDx submission? Is my idea less valid if not presented at Idea Conference, Inc.? Is my self-worth compromised if I don’t feel I have any novel topics or lenses through which to view them for the next big idea symposium? Absolutely not. But in a world of “everyone else is doing it,” it’s easy to get sucked into that trap of misplaced self-efficacy.

And this isn’t to say that just because I don’t have that great idea today I’ll never have it. I could be experiencing that idea right now, only to see it for what it really is after the experience is finished. But for today, I don’t have a big idea, and that’s ok.