Hard Questions [UPDATED]


This morning I received an email from the organizers of the TEDxLowerEastSide event, which is scheduled to be held later this month at The Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts. As one would expect with a TED event, the speakers’ list looks fantastic and the theme for the day, The Hero’s Journey, is a strong platform on which to build an emotionally and intellectually compelling program.

I’ve been to one previous TEDx event, TEDxHarlem, and it was terrific, so I was eager to fill out the application. Sure, I’d be getting home late the previous day from London, but these type of opportunities shouldn’t be missed. So, I started to fill out the application which was pretty standard stuff until I came to this part:

Please choose one question and answer in 500 words

  • If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on who you are and what you do, how would you be? What would you do?
  • What is it you are trying to create in the world and how is your work helping to manifest or support that?
  • What question are you living?

Could you answer these questions? Have you even asked yourself these questions? If you’re at all like me, things just got really uncomfortable for you. Uncomfortable in a way that punctures your probably comfortable life. My guess is that you are reading this from within a well-lit, climate-controlled environment, or perhaps off of your smartphone. Sure, we all have hardships and challenges in our lives, but by and large you are probably reasonably comfortable. Go read those three questions again.

You hear a lot of talk about “getting out of your comfort zone” but it’s hard isn’t it? A job, kids, leaky roof, maybe elderly parents, there’s a lot going on in your life and quite frankly staying inside your comfort zone sounds like a damn good idea. I get that. So I’m not going to ask you to quit that nice gig, or even give up your $4.50 latte. But do this for me – copy and paste those three questions into a word document. Don’t try to answer them right now, just print the questions out and tack them up on your office wall. Just read them each day for a week, or maybe a month. Think about them a little bit. Then, when you are ready, try to answer just one of them. If you do, I hope you’ll share them with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


UPDATE: After I wrote this blog post, I sent a note to the TEDxLES organizers saying that I appreciated the invitation to apply for attendance, but didn’t feel I could honestly answer any of the three questions. this afternoon they got back to me and referred me back to the application page, noting that based in part on my comments, they have amended the application essay question. It now reads as follows:

  • If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on who you are and what you do, how would you be? What would you do?
  • What question are you living?
  • What is your favorite TED talk and why?
  • TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Which of the 3 are you particularly passionate about and why?
  • If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be about and why?

So they added to more questions, which are ‘easier’ to answer. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Actually, yes, I am sure. I don’t like it. Now people can take the easy way out. We have too much of that in this life. If I do decide to apply for attendance I won’t choose one of the latter to questions.

  • Todd Gailun

    Rick, my name is Todd Gailun and I am the chief curator of TEDxLowerEastSide. Thank you for writing this post. I’m so happy you appreciated the questions we initially asked people to answer. We sought to ask tough questions that really asked people to think about their own Hero’s Journeys. We wanted them to reflect on their assumptions, ideologies, prejudices, etc…My hypothesis with this TEDx was to find speakers who understood that the best way to communicate their wisdom and life experiences was to manifest vulnerability and humility. It is my personal view that those qualities disarm people and give them the opportunity to “go to pieces without falling apart.” In other words, allow them the chance to begin examining their lives. I don’t believe in easy answers and I think that asking the “Why?” question is what really ensures intoxicating conversations at TEDx events, and really connects people at the deepest level. In the spirit of ensuring that we attracted an eclectic mix of people, we chose to modify some of the application questions. Some people have had the opportunity to profoundly investigate our core questions. Others haven’t. I want TEDxLowerEastSide to be open to those who are just beginning a journey. That is why we’ve broken down the day into the three sections which correspond to The Hero’s Journey: Departure, Initiation, Return. We want people who are just beginning to hear the call to adventure. TEDxLowerEastSide is here to offer perspective to all kinds of people along their journeys. It is not only for those who’ve amassed years of wisdom, and can answer our tough questions precisely and profoundly. We’re in business to reward the curious and while we do think there is something valuable about taking people out of their comfort zones, we don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. Learning to ask questions isn’t easy, but all those who come to TEDxLowerEastSide will benefit from a ton of curious minds. We think that the questions we added will invite people who are hungry to experience life as a journey, not a destination. I would personally like to invite you to come as my guest.

  • amorita

    Rick, I appreciate you for sharing this (and your honesty!) and Todd for including these questions in the TEDx application (and I totally agree – the “easier” added questions really dilute the value of the initial three and make the organization look cheap). Its these questions that ultimately make people happier in this fragmented world.

    I spent a lot of time trying to answer these kinds of questions myself, so, despite my fear of looking like a pompous know-it-all, I want to share my thoughts:

    1. I believe in the assumption that the success of our planet literally depends on who I am and what I do. I try and be more open, honest (with myself and others) and compassionate. I try and reflect these qualities in my action. Not easy, but keeping myself in check is important to me, not because I need to “improve” myself (that sounds too critical to me) but because I believe in my inherent self-worth and identity as the one that’s capable of manifesting these qualities.

    2. I’m trying to build a network of people who are genuinely interested in asking difficult questions, step out of comfort zones, and really trying to understand the problems we face—going beyond just acting now in pursuit of efficiency, but building an intention toward better answers.

    3. How do I integrate my desire to serve, my interestes, and my needs as a mortal? E.g., Making sense of eating icecream while looking at and wanting to help someone needing help, while battling the thoughts in me that “that’s not what I’m called to do.”

    Hope these are at least mildly interesting… :)