Skip to content
Jul 1 / Michael Wright

Freedom: an idea worth spreading

They didn’t hold TED conferences in the 18th century, though they were no strangers to discussing and spreading great ideas. 237 years ago this week, in Philadelphia, they were tossing around a very big idea. A powder keg of an idea. And on July 4, 1776, they put it on a piece of paper and submitted it to a “candid world,” and America was born.

The idea in our Declaration of Independence was both simple and profound: create an independent nation based on the notion of freedom.

This doesn’t sound so big today; we’ve grown so accustomed to it. But it had never been done before — in the history of the world.  It was entirely new territory, and it was very, very dangerous. Because beyond the usual headaches of founding a nation, this also required winning a war against the most powerful country on Earth.

This Thursday we will celebrate America’s independence. Here’s an idea: Let’s read the Declaration of Independence again. All the way through. It can feel tedious when you get to the long list of “abuses and usurpations,” but hang in there. The last line reads: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This may sound quaint, because we don’t talk like that anymore. But make no mistake — these guys weren’t just scratching their names on a document; they were putting their lives on the line.

It’s not as fashionable these days to appreciate the founding of our country, or the men behind it. Turns out they all had flaws, and this seems to get the lion’s share of the attention. It’s too bad. Because through their brilliance and their courage, they bequeathed to us a great gift. One that keeps on giving, provided we don’t squander it.

I hope we think about that as we enjoy the sunshine and barbecue this Thursday. I hope we discuss it, like the founding fathers did, but without the threat of invasion or arrest. This freedom we share is both a blessing and a responsibility. It deserves our appreciation, and our vigilance.

May 12 / Michael Wright

Allowing charities to succeed

Multiple choice: If you gave $100 to charity, what percent of your gift would you like to see go to the people actually in need? (Hint: yes, this is a trick question) A: 100%   B) 75%   C) 50%

If you’re like most people (and me), you would pick “A,” because you want every penny you give to help the cause you support. You would want as little money as possible — and none, if at all possible — to go to the expenses of the charity, aka “overhead.” Because that’s skimming money away from the people who really need it, right?

Of course. But here’s the “trick” part of the trick question above. What if, by allowing a good percentage — let’s say 50 percent — of your gift to pay for overhead support, you could multiply your gift substantially, and help a lot more people. Well that changes things. And that’s the case being made by Dan Pallotta in his TED talk “The way we think about charity is dead wrong.”

I began this TED talk with serious skepticism, having worked for 25 years in the for-profit world before joining Wayne State — a public university and a nonprofit organization. I felt that if an institution was allowed to avoid taxes — especially if it were a philanthropic organization — it had better channel every penny possible to the beneficiaries of the charity.  My skepticism was bettered by Pallotta’s logic — and evidence.

Pallotta maintains that we have a different rulebook for nonprofits — one that discriminates on compensation, marketing, risk, time and capital — and makes it dauntingly difficult for charities to succeed.

Let’s take compensation as an example. We don’t want people running nonprofits to be rich, do we?  Heck no.  We want them working heroic hours in patched clothes, teetering on the edge of their own financial calamity, smiling grimly in the glow of goodness. That feels right. But what does that do for attracting talent? Not much. Why would a young, hotshot MBA want to live like that when he or she can make so much more, so quickly, in the private sector? So, even those with a heart for charity go off and make money — rather than following their heart — until they build up enough security to be able to “give back” without personal hardship.

What if they could earn as much in the nonprofit sector from the start, and all that talent and creativity and energy could help a nonprofit bring in 10 or 20 times the revenue? A bit more “overhead,” way more revenue, and a happy, heart-following hotshot.

Pallotta makes similar sense in describing discrimination in areas like risk and marketing and capital. It bugs us when we see ads for charities, right? “That money should go to the people who need it, not the greedy ad execs!” But if the advertising creates massively more awareness and revenue, isn’t it serving the cause far better than a bake sale that brings in 87 dollars and 43 cents?

I went into this talk ready to call BS; I came out ready to take up the cause.  Charities want to save people, to change the world. That is good.  But it’s hard to do it with bake sales and bingo, as worthy as those activities may be. We want them to succeed — we need them to succeed.  We can always help by writing checks, but we can help even more by changing our paradigm about how charities should operate.

Jan 21 / Michael Wright

Awaken your Michelangelo

Ever heard someone say, “I’m not creative?” Ever said it yourself? You’re not alone. At some point, a lot of people decide that creativity is a gift given to a few, lucky people — just not them. But they are wrong. We’ve all got it, even if we’ve shoved it away for some reason.

So asserts David Kelley in his TED talk, “How to build your creative confidence,” the first talk discussed this year by the Wayne State TEDsters.

So, why do we choose, at some point in our lives, to fold our creative tents and join the legions of people who resign themselves to being practical, analytical people?  (Not that there’s anything wrong with practical, analytical people — we need folks like that to keep the books balanced and the trains running on time.  God bless them.)  But not everyone is wired this way. And too many people, Kelley fears, suppress their creative impulses because of fear.  Fear of what?  Of failure. Of embarrassment.  Of laughter, and derision.  Of having their unique work, and therefore their unique selves, subject to the scrutiny of those ordained as the judges of creativity — and falling short.

Kelley illustrates this with a story of a third grade classmate — Brian — whose clay sculpture was panned by a fellow third grader. Result? The budding Rodin threw in his clay. With a little encouragement, who knows what he might have become.

I worked in the ad world for a bit — just after the Mad Men era, dang it. In the ad world, they divide people into creatives and non-creatives, i.e., everyone else. Creatives got to grow their hair long and wear jeans and t-shirts. The rest of us had to dress up and take care of business stuff. They got to have attitudes.  We had to stay cool.  But they were cool —cool-cool, that is.  And we were not. At least that’s the reality we accepted.  And, I’ll have to admit, I thought a lot of them were pretty cool — at least cooler than I was — even if they could be jerks sometimes.

But there were times I thought that the “creatives” weren’t that creative.  And there were times that some of the non-cool people came up with good ideas, but the “creatives” laughed at them, and sent them away — just like little Brian and his clay sculpture. And that bothered me (yes, I was one of the guys that was sent away from time to time). But it was interesting to me that the titles given to people — rather than the ideas — determined who was called “creative.”

What is “creative,” anyway? We tend to think of it as artistic, but it is so much more, isn’t it? Doesn’t it just mean finding a new way to do something? A different solution?  A better mousetrap? That’s not constrained to the arts — it can happen in any endeavor.  And if you think about it, it does.

Creativity happens everywhere — just look around.  And it’s open to everyone — whether you wear faded jeans or formal suits. But, you need to work at it.  Just like all the great ones do, or did.  You need to be curious about everything.  You need to think.  You need to tinker, and try new things.  You need to suspend your own inner judge, at least for a time.  And most of all, you have to have courage.  Because you will fail.  And people will judge.  And people will laugh.  But, who cares?  Just keep going. Because maybe, just maybe, you will awaken your Michelangelo, and then you can wear anything you want, and everyone will think it’s cool.

Dec 28 / Michael Wright

Rising from the couch to meet your challenge

When Mallory was asked, “Why climb Mt. Everest?”, he allegedly responded, “Because it is there.” The jury, I believe, is still out on whether the quote is apocryphal, but what we know he did say —  though less pithy — was quite profound.

“What is the use of Climbing Mt. Everest…it is no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever…We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, and not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. So it is no use. If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go…That is what life means, and that is what life is for.”

Sorta makes you feel like strapping on some climbing gear, doesn’t it?

Ben Saunders opened his TED talk, “Why bother leaving the house?” with Mallory’s explanation of why people take on great challenges. It is his burning question, and he answers it mostly by trudging hundreds of miles through the most desolate of Earth’s environments — Antarctica and the Arctic. His lament, however, is that by assuming there are no “Everest’s” left to climb — that all of the great challenges and explorations are gone — we will deprive ourselves of “leaving the house,” and resign ourselves to a life of couch dwelling.

The Wayne State TEDsters roughed up Saunders in his previous talk, concluding (easy for us in the warm comfort of a conference room) that he was just out for the glory. But this time he wasn’t just bragging about little triumphs like walking to the North Pole alone for ten weeks pulling 400 lbs. of provisions in negative 35 degrees.

Now he was talking about an idea. The idea that has driven people throughout history to explore, and climb, and sail; to hunt and compete; to join the army or join the circus; to do what is hard, rather than what is easy. It is the idea that there is more to life than ease and comfort. That inspiration and learning and growth happen in the midst of challenge and adversity.  That life goes on, but living happens at the edges. That, despite the structures of ease and security in which we dwell so comfortably, we should step “away from what’s comfortable and familiar and step into the unknown.” Or, even more pithily, “get outside the house a little more often.”

But, Saunders adds, this is possible “if only we could sum up the courage.”

We may think such ideas are inadequate for our century, except perhaps for a few who live on the fringe, like Saunders. But Henry David Thoreau’s contemporaries thought the same thing when he went to the woods to: “…live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

This idea has been around a long time — since time began — and it will be around long after we are gone. Our only question should be: what is our challenge, and can we summon the courage to meet it?


Nov 11 / Michael Wright

Democracy: still the worst system, except for all the rest

The election is over, thank the Lord above. Half of the country is pleased with the results. The other half grim. But democracy in America has prevailed. No matter what your polititcal beliefs, we should all rejoice in this.

The lines were long on election day. But there was a buoyancy among the citizens waiting with me to vote.

As I looked up and down the lines, I knew many people would disagree with my politics, but I didn’t care at that moment; they didn’t seem to, either. For that one hour, I was pleased to be among involved American citizens. We nodded and smiled at each other. We remarked about the line and the cold weather. Then we cast a ballot. Cast a ballot. Our right, our duty, our privilege. Are we thankful for this? Do we realize people in other parts of the world die for this?

Or do we have an ugly feeling that something is broken in our political system – the one Churchill called the “worst system, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Rory Stewart addresses this in his TED talk “Why democracy matters,” viewed by the Wayne State University TEDsters on election week. Some big questions? Why is it that democracy has, or is perceived to have, such a miserable record and reputation lately? Why is it that good people, well educated and well intentioned, seem to be less than the sum of their parts when they combine to form a democratic government? Why isn’t it easier to implement democracy in other parts of the world that seem to need it so badly? Why don’t we trust politicians? (I had to throw in at least one easy question.) And why do we, beneficiaries of a system that honors and protects the freedom of the individual, perceive more flaws than benefits?

Well, what do you think?

We had an interesting conversation about many things related to our democracy — the election process (bad and long), the electorate (uninformed), the media (biased), the advertising (lies), the system (corrupt). We jumped right in and joined the chorus of negativity. But, after the obligatory bloodletting, we also arrived at the right conclusion, I think. This is our system. We have the responsibility to accept it, ignore it, change it, love it or hate it.

Yes, we’re up against entrenched traditions and big money and incorrigible political machinery. So what? Do something. Inform yourself. Don’t let the fact-checkers do all the work. Do it yourself. Read. Ask. Probe. Vote. Run, if you must.

Because Churchill was right. Democracy is the best system. Period. But he also said “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

Solution: we all need to be above average voters. The “Lake Wobegon” of electorates. Let’s get going. We’ll be in the election line sooner than you think.

Nov 4 / Michael Wright

Stand up straight…own the room.

When I was a teenager, my dad would admonish me to stand up straight. His reasoning was that when I was slouched over with my hands in my pockets, I looked like a hoodlum. What he didn’t understand was that that was the point. I wanted to look like a hoodlum. Putting this in terms of nonverbal communication, I was conveying exactly what I wanted to convey: don’t mess with me, I’m tough.  Dad was right; we were just on different pages at the time.

Eventually I straightened up (literally and figuratively).  And it’s a good thing. Because after watching Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your body language shapes who you are,” I understood there was an even better reason to straighten up. Yes, I was telling the world I was a punk, but I was wiring myself to be one at the same time.

Fascinating stuff. We all understand the role of nonverbal signals in communication. We know that how we say something is as important — or more important — as what we say. There are books on gestures and facial expressions and postures and what it all means to the receiver.

But, now there’s some serious science about how nonverbals affect the sender, whether they intend it or not. Cuddy covers some of the things we’ve heard before. How forcing a smile when you feel lousy can improve your mood. The “fake it ’til you make it” stuff. I don’t want to minimize that, because it’s real and it’s important and can make a huge difference.

But Cuddy focused her research on the study of “power positions”  — standing up straight,  hands on hips, taking up space, radiating confidence. She also drew on research that noted that dominant primates, and effective leaders, tended to assume such positions, while also having high levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).  Sometimes these hormonal levels actually develop after the ascendancy into dominance or leadership. In other words, you wind up at the top, you act like you belong, and your body chemistry and mind change accordingly. Act big; become big.

She tested her hypothesis by measuring subjects’ body chemistry before and after they assume power (or non-power) positions. She also tested their risk aversion before and after. Voila.  People using the power positions increased testosterone and reduced cortisol — quickly –while their cowering counterparts experienced the opposite. The power people made big bets.  The non-power people, not so big.

Of course, Rogers and Hammerstein discovered this decades ago, and immortalized it in a song from The King and I called “Whistle a Happy Tune.” You won’t find it on the pop charts, but if you click on this link and read the lyrics, you’ll see they nailed it.

Toward the end of her talk, Cuddy told a personal story of feeling on the brink of failure. Of feeling like she didn’t deserve to be where she was. A mentor told her otherwise. Told her to step up and claim her place. Told her to fake it until she made it. And Cuddy did.  Later in life, when she was in the mentor position, she gave similar advice to a young woman, then watched her “fake it until she became it.”  This was the highlight of the talk.

I think we all have moments when we are unsure, or feel vulnerable. Cuddy’s advice: before you walk through the door, take two minutes and get into a power position.  Stand up straight, put your hands on your hips, own your space, and then march in and be what you are destined to be. If that doesn’t work, just whistle a happy tune.



Sep 3 / Michael Wright

Creativity: inspiration, or theft?

Maybe both. Kirby Ferguson, however, might err more on the side of “theft,” though he uses a nicer name his TED talk “Embrace the remix.”

There’s a part of me that bristles when I hear remakes, or remixes, or covers of music. At least when I like the original. I mean, why would anyone remake a Beatles tune, or Springsteen, or any of the great rock bands from the ’60’s and ’70’s? They’re perfect in their original form. Let ’em alone in their purity. But, there’s another part of me — a grudging part, I’ll admit — that recognizes that often creativity comes from changing things that already exist. Certainly from building on what others have done.

I’m not so cool about Bob Dylan ripping off melodies, which seems to have occurred with some frequency. But building on the work of others seems to be at the core of science and medicine. And I guess art and music, in some ways. And I suppose politics, and cooking, and design, and, well, maybe just about everything, if I think long and hard about it.

Ferguson shared a Henry Ford quote that acknowledges this:  “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable.”

Thomas Jefferson admitted he proposed no new ideas when drafting the Declaration. He just assembled  the mother-of-all cases for independence from ideas that already existed. Did a fine job, though, one must admit.

So if these titans can accept this, why do I resist? Because I believe there is a spark of inspiration that is dormant in all of us.  And every now and then, in just the right brain and at just the right time, real inspiration occurs, and the world is never the same.  Isaac Newton? Albert Einstein? Mozart?  Hendrix? Not exactly copycats. Though it is Newton, of all people, who is attributed with the quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on shoulders of giants.”

And I guess I want to believe that maybe that spark is somewhere in my brain, waiting to burst into flame. Problem is, whenever I experience a blinding flash of insight, by day’s end it turns out my brilliant idea has already been invented, or discussed, or discredited. Sometimes long past.

The Wayne State TEDsters were split on the origins of creativity.  At one time, there HAD to be a new idea — at least at the very beginning.  Otherwise, we’d still be hanging out in caves and munching on raw meat.  We tried to come up with originals. Music, instruments, machines, art. Everyone seemed to have a theory about some natural or man-made phenomenon that inspired them. I think everyone agreed that advertising was a continuous remake of one pitch, invented deep in the past by the some wooly mammoth hide salesmen. We asked ourselves the question: “Can you envision something that doesn’t exist, and has no reference to anything in existence.” Well, that stumped us. Made us think about those 3am conversations under the stars. Wow, man, that is heavy.

Ferguson showed video of Steve Jobs as a young entrepreneur quoting Picasso: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And then noting — shamelessly — how his company stole “shamelessly” to achieve success. The same Steve Jobs was a bit more prickly about such theft — er, “innovation” — when Android came along and stole from Apple. To quote the older, richer, more protective Jobs, “I’m going to destroy Android because it is a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” It seems, says Ferguson, that we don’t mind stealing, unless it’s from us.

Whether you call it theft or remixing or innovation, the origin of ideas and inventions is becoming more than a philosophical exercise. When it comes to commercial technology, anyway, it’s winding up more and more in court. Are we protecting intellectual property? Or halting the advance of technology? It’s a tough question, and one that needs a creative solution. Perhaps someone will come up with a great idea.


Jul 15 / Michael Wright

The high wire as a metaphor for life

What’s the scariest thing you ever did?  How did you feel when you were about to begin?  When you finished?  These are the questions we couldn’t help indulging in after watching Philippe Petit’s “Journey across the high wire” TED talk.

Of course, this kind of discussion is fun, but it was not the point of Petit’s talk. This wasn’t about risk, or danger, or fear of heights — literal or figurative.  This talk was about living a life of joy and curiosity.  About pursuing dreams with passion, and turning life’s inevitable challenges into improvisational masterpieces.

Petit, I must admit, isn’t a typical man, and he wasn’t a typical kid. When he was six years old, he became interested in magic tricks. That’s not all that unusual. But unlike most kids, he didn’t drop it when the next shiny object appeared.  He pursued it with extraordinary tenacity.  To the point that when a famous magician told him (after he had spent two months mastering a card trick) that he was a failure, he spent another two years perfecting the trick.  That’s unusual; that’s tenacity.

At this point I was impressed, but I was also feeling sorry for his parents.  I was wondering if they wished this tenacity were better aimed at math and science.  If they tried to refocus Philippe, they didn’t succeed.  At 14, he pursued juggling, succeeding despite being hoodwinked into buying faulty clubs. At 16, he decided to become a tight rope walker.  Taught himself with some trees and ropes in the backyard.  Not the usual teenage diversions.

Petit performed some noteworthy high wire feats, including walking the gap between the Trade Towers.  His story of the first step onto the wire is masterfully told.  Yes, he was a seasoned pro, but it’s a long way down, and the first step is a long way out.  But, as Petit tells it, faith overcame doubt; he took the step, and made the walk.

Later in life he agreed to walk between the Arab and Jewish quarters to open the Israel Festival.  He had a beautiful plan. Walk to the center, release a dove as a symbol of peace in a magical flourish, and finish the walk.  But, as with life, things don’t always go according to plan.  The cheering crowd had no idea that things were going awry.  What happened by mistake looked to them like the work of a genius.  And they were inspired.  But Petit was struggling.  The crowd didn’t know it, but it was their cheers  for Petit’s every step — Arab and Jewish together —  that helped him safely across.  They inspired him. He inspired them.

Funny how things turn out sometimes. Petit may have chosen an unusual career, but his lessons in life apply to everyone.  Pursue your dreams.  Pursue them with passion.  And hard work.  And tenacity. With faith and joy and curiosity.  And with the conviction that by embracing the unknown, you can do the impossible.

Jun 14 / Michael Wright

Is happiness just a matter of perspective?

As an incurable optimist, I’d like to think so. Rory Sutherland — marketeer that he is — builds a pretty good case in his TED talk “Perspective is everything.” And we had a lively chat among the WSU TEDsters about the framing (or re-framing) of ideas, and “thinking” yourself happy. But something about this talk — at least when I played it out later — started to bug me.

I do believe that how you think about your circumstances — your perspective — can have a considerable impact on whether you are happy or miserable. I believe that satisfaction with what you have, rather than constant desire for something else, is a recipe for happiness. So I believe — to a great extent — that happiness is a choice. But at some point — maybe because Rory is such a consummate pitch man — this talk smacked of hucksterism.

Not happy with your life? Just think yourself happy! Sometimes, sure. But not always. Sometimes, you have to struggle. Sometimes you have to fail. Most times, you have to work. Our greatest joys often result from trial, and challenge, and sweat. You can’t just wish for them. You have to do something. Or endure something.

OK, maybe I’m working myself into a bit of an attitude. My colleagues will tell me I’m getting ahead of myself. We didn’t reach any of these dire conclusions last week. We actually thought about how to apply perspective and framing to our communications goals. And I think that’s right. But sometimes I get concerned when we think marketing to ourselves can be an answer to life’s challenges. Or a guarantee of happiness. Then again, maybe I just need to change my attitude.

May 11 / Michael Wright

So, money CAN buy happiness

But, there’s a catch. You can’t spend it on yourself. And you can’t save it. You have to spend it on behalf of others. So says Michael Norton in his TED talk “How to buy happiness,” and he backs it up with research.

Not buying it? I’m not surprised, given the normal inclination to hang on tightly to one’s money and possessions. But there is a giving paradox, isn’t there? Despite the drumbeat of cultural consumerist messages, it feels good to give. And have we not heard, “As ye give, so shall ye receive?”

Norton’s research seems to bear this out. He asks people how happy they are, gives them money to spend on themselves or others, then asks them again. The ones who spend the money on others (note – this was “free” money given to them – Norton didn’t make them dig into their own pockets) claim they are happier at the end of the day. If it sounds like I’m simplifying the research, I’m not. That’s what it was. And at one point, I was about to call BS. Except that, even though I might quibble with the research methodology, I think the conclusion is correct.

But it’s not just money. Acts of generosity in general benefit the giver as well as the receiver. The Rand’s and Neitzche’s of the world notwithstanding, I think the wisdom of the civilized world would back me on this. If you want to be happy, make someone else happy. If you want to be miserable, think only about yourself.

There’s more science behind this than Norton’s, too. “The Trust Molecule,” and article by Paul Zak, discusses the surge in oxytocin caused by acts of generosity. Oxytocin is known primarily as a female productive hormone, but guess what guys, we have some, too. And it’s a good thing. When we get a surge of this stuff, we feel better about the world and our fellow men and women. And how do we get these surges. Act generously. And create a virtuous circle.

So, give ’til it hurts, er, feels good.