First, Ride: Debbie Millman Finds Her Cowgirl

Why do we stop experimenting early on?

Why do we walk away from the passions and the possibilities that might provide us meaning and income later in life?

Those thoughts from Jonathan Fields form the subtext of this fantastic video with IdeaFestival 2014 speaker Debbie Millman, who talks at length about her life choices and struggle with fear and self-doubt.

She says she "experimented all through childhood," trying on various characters like cowgirls. She loved "doing lots of different things," and it was in college that she realized that design could be a career. She graduated college with skills in design layout "and paste-up," and goes on to describe her post-college years as a decade-long time of decision. But, she says, she was "afraid to write, to paint," to create "things that didn't have a commercial value," and consciously chose a path that would provide her with security.

The first summer post-college, "I made every choice... based on fear."

Listening to Millman and Fields discuss the hold that fear can have on creative expression and meaningful work, I was reminded that creative, accomplished people, whether they work as entrepreneurs or in the arts, never eliminate fear. They just cultivate a skepticism about their own insecurities, the better to get on with it.

Jonathan Fields, coincidentally, is the author of the "Uncertainty," a book about how self doubt can cripple, so the conversation he and Millman hold is full of hard won wisdom.

Catch Debbie Millman and the other terrific people at IdeaFestival 2014 - many more speaker announcements are coming very soon! Festival passes are on sale now.

Stay curious


Full Video: Ariel Waldman's Hacker's Guide to the Galaxy

At the heart of something good there should be a kernel of something undefinable. And if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then in a sense you have missed the point. John Peel

This is perhaps my favorite quote from IdeaFestival 2013 because it goes to the beating heart of discovery: it will always be the work of amateurs, individuals for whom the "something good" is never complete.

While Ariel Waldman spoke at length of her love of space, the loosely drawn inner connections from her work with Science Hack Day also resonated with me because every discovery springs from an openness to experience, a willingness and capacity to feel things anew. It's what the IdeaFestival is all about. This is what I wrote last year, live-blogging her talk:

Segueing into Science Hack Day, an event for which she is probably more well known, she says that its mission is to regain a bit of the old excitement, of sheer possibility. The people who show up at one of those events are amateurs. They don't HAVE to know where their idea or project is going. She describes several hacks - building a wind tunnel to test a series of letters that will make a new typeface; or a lamp that lights up each time an asteroid passes the Earth; or a mask that would simulate synesthesia, aptly named, given the creepy image she display, 'syneseizure;' or a cocktail made with DNA. On the latter she issues a warning - 'it tastes disgusting.'

What if, she continues, one could listen to mapped sounds of high energy particle collisions? And in fact, she points out, one such instrument has been created, 'particle wind chimes.' There's more: given license to roam freely, to make new and maybe unorthodox connections, the creator of the particle wind chimes may have created something with real diagnostic potential in the hands of physicists. Formerly abstract concepts have been made available to the senses of researchers.

Find some time today to watch the video, which includes a terrific Q&A with MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin. You won't be disappointed.

Stay curious.


The IdeaFestival's One and Only Rule

This is a lightly edited version of an earlier blog post. Please remember, discounted Early Bird Festival Passes for IdeaFestival 2014 are available only through Sunday, April 27!

I love meeting people who discover the IdeaFestival and decide then and there that they just HAVE to be a part of it.

I was once that guy. Over the years, I've learned that the most common question those of us who work with the festival get when talking with other people about it is this one:

What is the IdeaFestival?

Here's my answer to that question. The IdeaFestival is a celebration of the central fact of early 21st century life, which, paraphrasing Daniel Pink, is that it's become a whole-brain world. Reason and logic will take you a long way, but whether you're an artist, businesswoman or scientist, an ability to envision an alternate path, to imagine, to connect the factual dots as it were, will get you where you want to be. In this world, the meaning makers win.

The biggest struggle most of us have in our day to day lives is the struggle to refocus, to escape the routine and the rote answers the routine brings. It's work to just look up from whatever and whoever might be on our minds at the moment.

With lives emulsified with more and more data, with demands on our attention and with old businesses being replaced with new ones - anyone remember Kodak? - being curious is the difference between the ordinary and extraordinary. For people like me the frontiers are internal. The hard problem of consciousness, for example, is endlessly interesting. For others they horizons are external. True, a restless mind guarantees nothing. But without a desire to walk toward the unknown and a certain tolerance for uncertainty, nothing of value ever happens.

To be an expert one must take risks. One must be willing to live in the question.

The terrible business truth today is that doing the same old thing may get you the same old result. It could also drive your business or organization into extinction. Apple is the most capitalized company on the planet because it created whole new markets. It broke the rules. And now it gets to make the rules. I've since forgotten the statistic, but more than - probably much more than - half of Apple's revenue is derived from products that didn't even exist as recently as 2007.

Every IdeaFestival fan or organization that makes its way to Louisville for one week in the fall makes a faith statement. As Kris Kimel explained to the afternoon audience recently, "we don't do tracks." There is no business track. There is no arts' track. There is no day set aside just for physicians, accountants or marketing professionals. One presentation on mindfulness will follow another on what nature can teach us about complex systems will follow another on what magic says about belief and everyday life.

No person who goes to the festival knows what she will find. The measurables, the metrics and measurements (gah!), have almost nothing to do any answers supplied by the incredible people who show up year after year to speak. The only measurable is the electrifying connection you will make, let's say three hours and fifteen minutes into the second day of the nerdocalypse when you realize that what speaker A and speaker B were saying has a lot to do with your situation C.

That flash of insight is all yours. But you must do one thing and one thing only to have that moment.

Stay curious.

I hope to see you this fall!


Image of Diavolo at the IdeaFestiva by the incredibly talented Geoff Oliver Bugbee

Creative work is messy work. Embrace the suck.

In a post at Fast Company, Leo Babauta lists a number of ways to stop delaying and get the hard work done. Two of them apply directly to the hard work of creativity and innovation.

First, "Let go of your ideal."

If this fear were gone, you could just do the task easily. So what is causing the fear? Some ideal you have, some fantasy about life being free of discomfort, confusion, embarrassment, imperfection. That’s not reality, just fantasy, and it’s getting in your way by causing fear. So let go of the fantasy, the ideal, the expectation. And just embrace reality: this task before you, nothing else.

There's a reason why we don't call the IdeaFestival the "IdealFestival." Because creative work is new work, there will be times when fear threatens to shut done the whole creative process. Don't let it. If you're not making any mistakes, you're not trying hard enough. And if your idea is truly an original, no one can tell you NOW whether it will work or not. The key is work toward your idea by making little bets, which brings me to the second point.

"Embrace the suck."

Doing something hard sucks. It’s not easy, and often you’re confused about how to do it because you haven’t done it much before. So what? Hard things suck, but life isn’t always peaches with roses on top (and a sprinkle of cinnamon). It sucks sometimes, and that’s perfectly fine. Embrace all of life, thorns and pits and all. Life would be boring without the suck. So smile, embrace the suck, and get moving.

This is key. As Oliver Burkeman said so well last year, the idea that our default state ought to be a happy state gets in the way of actually being happy because it makes us suspicious of all the other emotions we will eventually feel. There are few things as harmful to creative work as an unwillingness to live in the moment. One can find meaning in the hard work by simply reminding oneself that if it were easy, anyone could do it.

Stay curious.


Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Alexandre Dulaunoy

Research: Intelligence an "Openness to Experience"

New research demonstrates that one of the key attributes of intelligence is "an openness to experience," one of the so-called Big Five personality traits, the others being conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Scott Barry Kaufman, who has documented his on unorthodox learning style and is skeptical about the ways in which intelligence has been traditionally assessed in his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, is also well placed as a cognitive psychologist to offer new ways to think about the subject.

In his article at Scientific American, he suggests that intelligence can be viewed as an aspect of personality rather than a wholly separate domain of human functioning, and reviews the data from a group of individuals who took both personality and intelligence tests. Kaufman:

Given this data, where does IQ fit into the personality puzzle? While this is just a single data set, it is consistent with other studies suggesting that the most relevant personality domain is openness to experience, particularly the dimensions that reflect the ability and drive for conscious exploration of inner mental experience.

Well, far be it from the IdeaFestival to question the benefits of new experiences.

Because of his interest in cognitive working and creative expression, Kaufman's linking of intelligence to "openness to experience" rather than "extroversion," for example, suggests one explanation for creative achievement across the divide between art and science. Individuals who go on to make novel contributions in both domains must first consider the stimuli before engaging it.

I'd be very interested in hearing Kaufman's views of to what extent this openness can be acquired.

Stay curious.

Please remember, discounted Early Bird Festival Passes are on sale now through April 27 only!


Image of Daniel Roth: Geoff Oliver Bugbee

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