The Power of asking "What if?"

“Living fully means accepting suffering.” – Lucy Kalanithi

TEDMED was the antidote to the election sickness. At times over the last year, the election challenged our hope in humanity. While the speakers and delegates of TEDMED could not restore hope to a severely sick political system, the speakers demonstrated the truism that humanity inherently advances – we always have. Jay Walker, chair of TEDMED, made it clear that human’s constant asking “what if” has propelled us from sticks and fire to electrical power.

The theme of this year's TEDMED: What if?

The theme of this year's TEDMED: What if?

Hope in humanity was evidenced through women and men across the U.S. inventing and applying some of the most mind-boggling advancements in medicine and health.

We are creating holographic visualizations of a person’s heart that show precisely how blood pumps and flows. The best cardiologists can now look at a person’s heart in 3-D from around the world, permitting diagnosis without cracking open a chest.

We are looking into the brain and learning how it stores memories and making it possible to recall specific memories.

We are beginning to understand that the brain is an electrical organ – meaning that mental illness is an electrical disorder requiring completely new and better treatments for psychiatric conditions.

And, we are also coding the lives of dying individuals so that caregivers can learn in the form of a videogame because “some knowledge needs to be experienced.”

The question of “what if” is incredibly powerful. The question can be applied retroactively, but this is mostly a futile exercise because what is past cannot be changed. The question of “what if’ when applied to the future can change mankind.

What if each of us asked “what if” in our own daily lives? What would the ripple effect be if we are all striving toward a better self in our own small way? Or as Jay Walker put it: “We are the architects of what if.”

On the famous red TED dot. 

On the famous red TED dot. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to attend TEDMED, now two years in a row, thanks to The Bush Foundation Fellowship. As the final six months of the Fellowship begin, I am starting to think well above the immediate activities, events, and learnings to understand what this Fellowship experience means for me as a leader today and as a leader tomorrow.

Even more, how does the adversity of my past intersect with the fortune of my today?

The final TEDMED speaker, James Gordon, said that it is “possible to learn from every trauma life brings to us.” Sometimes the learnings are instant; sometimes they take years to be revealed. What’s critical is that we keep ourselves open to what can be learned.

“We are all in this together,” proclaimed Gordon. We are, even when it feels like we aren’t.

Thank you, TEDMED, for continuing to be a torch that lights ideas driven by asking what if.

Power of Proximity

My friend, thou art good and cautious and wise; nay, thou art perfect – and I, too, speak with thee wisely and cautiously. And yet I am mad. But I mask my madness. I would be mad alone.

My friend, thou art not my friend, but how shall I make thee understand? My path is not thy path, yet together we walk, hand in hand. – ‘My Friend’, Kahlil Gibran

“We have got to get closer to one another.”

That was the call from Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in his acceptance speech of the Independent Sector John W. Gardner Leadership Award on Friday.

Stevenson believes that the continued hate, intolerance, discrimination, misunderstanding, and conflict in our world is a result of our separation from one another.

We have to “be proximate – there is power in proximity,” says Stevenson.

With Bryan Stevenson at the Washington Hilton after receiving the Independent Sector James W. Gardner Leadership Award.

With Bryan Stevenson at the Washington Hilton after receiving the Independent Sector James W. Gardner Leadership Award.

What a time to hear this message.

Regardless of who you voted for – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or someone else – there is no denying that significant strife and hate exists in our communities. Day after day many are bearing witness to or are the direct target of outright hate. This is happening in big cities and small towns. Many now feel “safe” openly expressing their hate for people of color, people of non-Christian religions, and people of diverse backgrounds. And yes, your comments and shares on Facebook or Twitter are the same as a note left on a windshield or spray paint on the side of a school.

This visible display and act of hate hasn’t been seen in such prevalence since the 1960s.

For Stevenson, fear drives intolerance. And, fear is perpetuated by long-held and misplaced narratives. Some of these narratives are handed down to us from ancestors; others are created, shaped, and maintained by societal forces.

The Bush Foundation’s Dominick Washington artfully highlighted this truth during a lunch hosted by the Bush Foundation during the Independent Sector Conference this week.

Washington challenged the room to think about where we are from. Each of us are shaped by where we are from. We are from places, from people, from ethnicities, and from experiences. When we break down where we are from, we see the complexity of our origins. All that complexity, however, intersects with where we are.

National Museum of African American History and Cult

National Museum of African American History and Cult

We use this complexity as an excuse to separate, to put up barriers. We chose not to see the shared complexity of others who share the same space. Instead, we choose only to see the differences and maintain our distance.

We need to be more proximate.

The challenges of our world will continue if we keep our distance; if we refuse to enter places of discomfort; if we fail to bear witness to what is happening around us.

We can change the narratives of hate and hopelessness. We can fight through the “paradox of liberty” that seems to plague America.

As Stevenson said, “We are responsible.”

The Power of Suggestion and Support

The way I remember it, I was sitting at a Culver's somewhere between Minneapolis and Sioux Falls during an undergraduate mock trial trip when Professor Sandy McKeown challenged me to consider going to law school then becoming a public defender.

That was 2007. It was my second semester at the University of South Dakota after returning to college at the ripe old age of 30 and after a felony DUI conviction that was preceded by 12 years of struggling with addiction.

My goals until that challenge were: (1) Continue working on my recovery and journey to wellness, and (2) Graduate with a journalism degree and return to my former career of radio broadcasting. 

After a long string of excuses and self-imposed limitations, a process began with Professor McKeown, my lawyer, and many others to clear a path to law school. 

Three years ago -- 2013 -- the Supreme Court of South Dakota approved my conditional admission to practice law in South Dakota. Thirteen conditions were recommended and imposed by the Board of Bar Examiners. 

Last week, the Court approved the Board's recommendation for full admission to practice law in South Dakota.

Professor McKeown was a former public defender. I wanted to be a public defender. What better place to impact the lives of individuals struggling with the same mental health and addiction issues I struggled with.

But life does not follow some of the best laid plans. The challenge, because of my past, was not getting into law school, but getting admitted to practice law. Overcoming that challenged required a 4-hour hearing that strategically educated the Board of Bar Examiners about addiction and addiction recovery through key witnesses and other evidence. The entire presentation to the Board was architected and led by Professor McKeown as my lawyer. We not only proved-up 8 years of recovery -- sobriety, in a less enlightened world -- but my good moral character, which is the standard to meet in South Dakota.

It took a year from that hearing before the Supreme Court approved the conditional admission. By this time, I was out of law school for a year with a massive financial aid debt about to become reality and no possibility of practicing law in a traditional way. 

By this time, I had been working at Face It TOGETHER for 9 months. 

The public defender's office would have been poetic, but Face It TOGETHER was where I was meant to be. 

Consciously I knew during law school, during the bar exam, during the Board of Bar Examiner's Character and Fitness Hearing, and during three years of conditional admission that the accomplishment of the above letter was not for me. The accomplishment was for others like me who can one day see that addiction or mental illness should not be an immediate barrier to becoming a lawyer. Addiction, like many other chronic illnesses, can be managed and is not instantly or forever disabling. 

Today, as I write this, I am the newly appointed chair of the Lawyer Assistance Committee for the State Bar of South Dakota. My first task is to redraft out-dated statutes that define addiction and mental illness as "misconduct" versus the health conditions that they are.

I am incredibly grateful for that moment nearly 10 years ago that, in part, set the destiny of my life, but will undoubtedly set the destiny of many other lives.

The Addiction Data Anomaly

Anomaly. Noun. Something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.

Anomalies are important to identify in a data set. They can skew your results, but they can also highlight a critical point.

Over the last year, going to conferences on data science and meeting dozens of people in the data world, I'm finding I am the anomaly. I've met people working in nearly every industry... but have failed to met another person with a focus on addiction or mental health.

Positively, this means I'm intriguing and people want to hear about our work at Face It TOGETHER. Negatively, this means that the nation's number one health care challenge has very few data experts, practitioners, and quality research.

This really has to change.