Walking away from it all

Attribution Some rights reserved by woodleywonderworks

"Winners never quit and quitters never win." - Vincent Thomas "Vince" Lombardi

With apologies to the late great coach, it's sometimes better to just walk away. That's what IdeaFestival 2011 participant Don Steward did, leaving behind a surgical internship at the Mayo Clinic to create a different future.

When is it all right to quit? Most would look in his case at what is being given up instead of what might be gained, particularly when it comes to the prestige of being a doctor and all the skill, dedication and sacrifice that entails. But only the person making that decision can know for sure, and like any judgement call, it's hard to know in the moment whether it will be the right one years in the future. There isn't always certainty.

For some it will be the knowledge that it's no longer satisfying, or that a mistake had been made, or, in Don's case, that medicine can't be that future. For others, it will be the realization that this life is their own, and that it's time to get on with things.

So when is it acceptable to quit? It's acceptable to quit when you say it is.

Don will participate in the Friday morning "mash up" available to all-access pass holders, speakers and sponsors. While there will be plenty of discussion about "breakthrough thinking, inspiration and creative ideas," I hope that stories of quitting time will make their way into the discussion. Join us.

If you're reading this on the front page of the web site, my story of quitting can be found after the jump.


Three years ago in a fit of exquisite timing I left a full time job with some pretty sweet benefits to start my own business. The IdeaFestival was my first client. At the time, I had learned from long exposure to information technology professionals that we were all publishers. One constant complaint in the rather large networks they managed revolved around the unauthorized use of those resources - given the means and opportunity, people did a lot of talking, and some of it not at all welcome. Well, that was just perfect. I had some things to say.

About that time, I had the good fortune to meet Kris Kimel, who founded the festival, and I explained that it might also want to talk out loud about ideas and their importance, its core purpose. And even though I'm sure he didn't quite understand this blogging business, to his credit he agreed.

In truth, there are people who understand social media far better than me, who know how to search-engine optimize digital nits down to the last file and meta-ID, who can program a web site to reach out and grab people by their Google-ad loving throat. I'm not one of them.

Nebbish and nerdy, and irony of ironies, not someone known to talk much at all - what I wanted more than anything was to be involved with an event where all kinds of people celebrated all kinds of things interesting and new. We introverts stoke internal fires.

And as the son of a pastor who has lived in quite a few different places from Louisiana to Minnesota, Kentucky is my home now. It's a place that I've come to appreciate over the years. It once was the first frontier, known for an expansiveness of thought, the belief that over mountains and in fog-shrouded valleys on the Cumberland plateau, there was a new beginning. Descending the gap and buoyed on the Ohio, these visionaries and technologists built kilns and furnaces, they stacked trees, one over the other, to build walls to keep the cold at bay. The wrote letters to the public in Boston and Philadelphia.

Today, I often wonder whether its descendants know that engineers are inspired by birds to design flocks of machines, or really believe that the next step will not be the last - never mind whether that belief calls on the extra-natural or not - or that our self-aware biology is still one gaping, breath-taking mystery to philosophers and biologists alike, or that 500 other worlds and counting orbit stars far distant the yellow dwarf we know so well. Do they know that golden ages lie ahead? Do they know that doughty robots have sighted fountains near Saturn, or that oceans may spread across the deep below Enceladus or Europa, and that life clings to sulfur vents in the crushing depths of our own oceans, or that lately, some think that life may loiter in the thick orange atmosphere of Titan?

Similarly, do people outside Kentucky know about the contentment found in fitting seashell-printed limestone wedged from soil inches deep? Do they know that these sturdy mortarless walls still line fields in the bluegrass with nought but gravity for an assist, the same implacable force studied by physicists? Do they understand that story and music runs thick as a washed July night in the highlands, because, far from the conventions of Boston and Philadelphia and safe in their redoubts, of course the explorers would send up sound and story? It's the normal respiration of any society able to recognize its good fortune.

Sadly, for many people the future lately has been one epistolary punch to the gut after another. Science makes its best always-subject-to-revision effort to describe reality, and much too often ordinary people will lodge their complaints against it before beating a retreat in this wired, wired world to whatever and whomever will offer solace. And the art! Can't the meaning be clear? It's all just so much to digest, these changes.

I've learned from many people at the IdeaFestival. From Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I learned history will occasionally deliver overwhelming news from the clear blue. It just happens. I learned from Jane McGonigal that games can be used to make a better reality rather than as a means of escape. I learned from Teller that knowing secrets behind the curtain didn't diminish the joy of staring slack jawed at dancing golden spheres. I learned from Burt Rutan that with supreme imagination and damn-the-critics determination, we can trip to space in safety and return in comfort. Someday, I'll do that. The elfin and poised Daniel Tammet argued during the most recent IdeaFestival that when we think in similes and puns, we're thinking not unlike a savant. I learned that his prodigious mathematical and language abilities are not so far removed from yours or mine.

I learned that there isn't a mind to waste, that when these discontented, these explorers, these westward movers describe new truths, their language and song never reference a single unchanging reality. It's not because I think what's real is unknowable. On the contrary: it's because what's real is pretty friggin' big. We ought to be humbled. I've learned, most importantly, that it's not an "either, or" after all. It's a "this too."