No idea is simple when you need to plant it in somebody else’s mind.
-Dom Cobb (Inception)

I’d heard a lot about TED over the years. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and it’s a conference where a variety of speakers share “ideas worth spreading”. I’ve watched a number of their online videos from speakers like Jason Fried and J.J. Abrams.

The TEDx program gives communities the opportunity to have a TED experience at the local level. October 15th was the second TEDx Omaha event, and I was fortunate to attend it. I managed to get a second ticket, and brought along coworker/friend Micah Yost. This was wonderful because during each break we had our own discussions about the ideas presented.

What do I think? I think everyone of us that attended/watched has a different takeaway from TEDx Omaha. There were lots of ideas presented from a diverse group of people. Where else are you going to hear about urban planning, poetry slams, simplifying, deception, the power of a smile, cooking and more? There were ideas, innumerable ideas.

But what is one going to do with them?

Everyone applauded the presenters. Everyone likes new and different ideas. Everyone likes ideas that support their own beliefs. But what is the day about? To just simply spread ideas? Is it to simply have some new talking points? I don’t think so. Even though the tag is “ideas worth spreading”, what is worth spreading is an idea that plants within an individual or community.

The TED talks that have been legendary are the ones that have planted within people. They aren’t just babble that is quickly forgotten.

So here I am a week later thinking about that. What were the ideas worth spreading? What are the ideas that have taken up root within my brain that I can’t pull them out and discard? What are the ideas that as a community we need to plant within our borders? The ideas I keep coming back to are from Dave Weaver, Anne Trumble, and Othello Meadows.

Dave Weaver created The RID Project, which I already have started. The idea has not only brought about action in my life, but conversations with others as I do act. I’ll be blogging my first update tomorrow.

Anne Trumble is the Executive Director of Emerging Terrain. One of Emerging Terrain’s projects was the repurposing of the abandoned grain elevators along I-80 in downtown Omaha. Hearing the genesis of the idea, to completion, was wonderful. It’s a plus for Omaha that there are people like Anne wanting to make sure the urban center doesn’t fall into disrepair and disrespect. 76,000 people drive by the grain elevators a day, but their drive just got more interesting, inspiring and fun because of art on a grain elevator. I found myself thinking of other parts of Omaha, that people don’t even think twice about, that could be repurposed to add light and life to the city. I thought this presentation was the best in its execution.

And then there was Othello Meadows. Othello received a standing ovation when his presentation ended. It was good, but I couldn’t help but think, “Are any of us going to act on what he said, or is our standing and clapping the limit of what we’ll do?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a column New York Times columnist David Brook wrote called “The Limits of Empathy”. Some snippets:

Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

Othello’s idea was solid, “Place as Fate: The injustice of geography”. He said:

“We should be enraged by this concept of place determining your fate. Sadly this city doesn’t face this. We should be saying that’s just unfair.”

Everyone nodded their head in agreement.

“What’s your zip code? Depending what it is, I can tell a lot about your life without even meeting you and can tell your life in ten years. You attend a failing school, live in housing that contributes to health problems, and will experience violence. Hard to break the cycle.”

Everyone nodded their head in agreement.

“Our child is completely supported and yet my son didn’t do anything to deserve the start he has in life. He didn’t pull himself by the bootstraps in utero. He didn’t do anything to deserve his lot in life. Kids who grow up in different neighborhoods are expected to accomplish the same things.”

Everyone nodded their head in agreement.

“The hard part? Changing the dynamic of a community. Having the will to face the facts, that a city turns its back on the least amongst us. Nationally, Omaha is getting a lot of publicity from Forbes and Fortune 500, but it has to be true for everyone.”

Everyone nodded their head in agreement.

“I’m trying to merge values and actions. I fight everyday to not be a hypocrite. We have idealized version of Omaha but reality of Omaha is poverty and violence for many. We need to bring those two sides of Omaha together. It takes generations to make that happen. It can happen.”

Othello walked off stage and people stood and applauded. It was a great talk, a great idea, but would the idea plant in people’s minds? Would we, as a people and city, have the commitment it takes to merge ideas with actions? Would we have the generational commitment it will take to help bring about the end of poverty and violence for many in Omaha?

Othello’s idea has stuck with me because it needs to be more than just an idea. It’s an idea that I’ve heard before this year, countless times, and been empathetic to, but yet never did something about it till this year.

It’s an idea that has been taking root in my mind since the beginning of the year when I read Generous Justice by Tim Keller. It’s an idea that was hammered home at Leadership Summit when I heard about tough callings from a variety of speakers. It’s an idea that told me I can’t lead and preach from the seats on this one. It’s an idea that pressed me to get involved in the city, and not just be empathetic anymore. It’s an idea that can’t be implemented overnight, but it can spread like wildfire if we believe.

It’s an idea worth spreading. It’s also an idea worth acting on now.

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.
-Dom Cobb (Inception)

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