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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 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.

What are You Breaking Through?

That's the questions to delegates at the 2015 TEDMED event. Thanks to the Fellowship with the Bush Foundation I am able to attend this premier gathering. TED talks are now iconic for the sharing of ideas and inspiration. TEDMED takes that speaking and event formula and applies it to health and medicine.

In just a single day, I've met and listened to some of the most brilliant innovators in health and science. As a historian of sorts, the closest comparison to what TEDMED is might be the famed academies or lectures in England in the 1800s -- minus the formal wear and with the inclusion of women and minorities.

Two incredible examples.... 

 With U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy at TEDMED, November 20, 2015, Palm Springs, CA.

With U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy at TEDMED, November 20, 2015, Palm Springs, CA.

One of the speakers, Sam Sternberg, is with CRISPR and innovating CRISPR Cas9, a gene splicing and editing technology. Yes, it is possible to cut bad or defective genes with better or repaired gene sequences. This is not science fiction. And to hear first hand the discovery, development, evolution, and application of what was once science fiction is mind-blowing.

You'd likely think that someone like Dr. Sternberg is unreachable, but the wonderful thing about the TEDMED experience is accessibility to the speakers; which takes me to the second example.

The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, gave an impassioned talk about the important role happiness plays in our health. I'm going to write separately on this topic. Following General Murthy's talk, I had the chance to spend five minutes talking to him and his chief of staff about addiction and the work of Face It TOGETHER. He was deeply interested. His office is preparing a report on the state of addiction and addiction care in the U.S. That brief interaction will hopefully lead to a follow-up conversation with General Murthy's office and input into his report.

This is the TEDMED experience. Brilliant and impassioned people from all over the world have convened to learn about breakthroughs in health and medicine and to share their breakthroughs, both big and small. 

We advance as a people and a civilization because of curiosity and drive toward something better. How are you breaking through in our home, your life, your community, or your work? What barriers are standing in the way from a life and a world that you want to live and you want to leave for your children?

The inspiration at TEDMED is that you do not need to be the inventor of gene editing technology, but simply be a compassionate and curious human being.