Ideafestival about nothing at all

Struggling to put into words what I’ve learned from attending IdeaFestivals over the years, I have finally come to realization that it's an impossible job. It’s about everything. Good luck with that.

But in one important sense, the IdeaFestival has nothing to do with “things” at all.

Here’s what I mean. In one of the morning mash-ups at the festival last week, Don Stewart talked about leaving the Mayo Clinic and a potentially lucrative career as an MD to pursue his art, despite the prestige that attaches to surgeons and medical practice in general. Azure Antoinette described quitting her corporate job for poetry and the spoken word, and the silence on the other end of the phone when she told her mother, who naturally worried about her daughter’s financial prospects.   

Neuromarketing appeals to to the the decision-making, reptilian part of our brains, according to Patrick Renvoisé, and clever people right now are taking advantage of this knowledge to push your buy button. Displaying a doctor’s stethoscope and describing its importance as an authority symbol, he draped it over his shoulders early in his talk - and left it there for the remaining 20 minutes or so.

I left wondering whether marketers would ever love me for my pre-frontal cortex.

There have been and will always be things about which we should be wary. Cable news comes to mind. Over time I have come to understand that hyperviligent, zero-sum thinking comes at a cost because it can effectively disable our ability to evaluate new ideas on their own merits, to do much of anything at all. Like a wriggling, mewling virus, fear finds its way into our brains only to bore out any sense of hope.  

Using language as only he could, David Foster Wallace made a related point in a 2005 Kenyon College commencement address.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

So here’s my new take on the IdeaFestival. It’s about no-thing at all. It's about losing yourself in a wonderful way, about being eaten alive by hope in our fellow travelers. It's a stand-up-straight, throw-your-shoulders-back affirmation of possibility. The festival has never been about the intellect. Everyone has a mind. Rather, it's about an orientation, of being open to the future, of being aware that the physics of fear are profoundly disabling, and above all, about the deep, and deeply freeing, understanding that we know very little at all. The festival is about this too.