To start off the session, progressive media voice Sally Kohn addresses the controversy surrounding her recent Washington Post article, “I’m gay. And I want my kid to be gay, too.”
When the article came out, she got her usual backlash from anti-gay voices claiming that she’s trying to “recruit.” But for the first time in her life, she was also getting hate mail from the gay community. Some readers told her she sounded “like one of those right-wing homophobes who says gay people should choose not to be gay.” After all, if being gay is a choice (and here Kohn makes a bold statement/Wham! reference, removing a layer to reveal a CHOOSE GAY t-shirt), then it’s a choice people can be told not to make. But Kohn explains that she sees the vehement opposition to the idea of choice in gayness as a direct reaction to a narrow-minded society — it’s an assurance that being gay is something that can’t be helped, and something you can’t infect your neighbor’s kids with. This version where we look for a gay gene, Lady Gaga writes a song, and we just want to be included, says Kohn, is a version that’s designed not to threaten the status quo. Unwilling to accept a reality where no one would choose to be gay because it means being a second class citizen, she says, “In a world where it is 1,000% morally, socially, culturally and politically acceptable to be gay, it should be 1,000% celebrated.”
Next, businesswoman Barbara Corcoran shares the six most important traits for successful entrepreneurship — the traits she sees over and over in the best contestants on Shark Tank. 1. Resilience: the ability to bounce back, not feel sorry for yourself, and have “the low IQ to say ‘hit me again,’” she jokes. 2. Street smarts: knowing how to think on your feet, make it all up, and do what you do. 3. Big picture thinking: not getting bogged down in detail, but being able to see your ultimate goals clearly from the get-go. 4. Charisma: one of the most underrated things in the entrepreneur’s bag of tricks, the simple ability to charm their pants off. 5. Competition: the fuel that gets you really fired up, the drive to defeat your rivals. And 6. People smarts: the ability to pick the right people at the right time to do the right task. These skills, says Corcoran can’t be taught or bought with a Harvard MBA — they’re just there. So take a look at the ‘dumb kid’ in the class, she insists, because they just might be the most successful at building a business.
Poet and educator Jamila Lyiscott takes the stage with a lyrical account of a simple educational tool she uses for the teachers she trains: the art of the cypher. It’s a piece of hip-hop culture with African roots; it’s newly written ideas over a beat. Over 80% of urban educators are not people of color, and come from outside of the communities they teach in, says Lyiscott, and when they learn the cypher they learn something important about the students they teach. When forced to improvise verbal and rhetorical dexterity, they show terror, fear, vulnerability, discomfort about being inauthentic: My lines suck. She asks, how many of your students do you label illiterate by societal standards, while you can’t do this? She reminds them, and us in the audience, that when they fail to incorporate the genius of diverse cultures, then everyone is robbed of the opportunity to be their best selves.
Classical pianist and pre-med student Shivam Shah gives a quick lesson in music appreciation — through understanding how the sounds of classical piano are produced, by a novice and by an expert. If we place two pianists at the same piano and ask them to play the same song, he says, there will be many ways to tell who’s the experienced pianist. First, you can observe where they’ve tensed and relaxed. When a piece is played with a constricted wrist, there is not much distinction between the melody and the rest of the notes. With an expertly free wrist, you can catch the melody. Over just a few notes it may not sound much different, but over a whole composition it can make a big difference. Next, you can observe how they hold themselves over the piano. You may see a pianist with arms waving or scrunched up over the piano and assume expertise, but sometimes it’s the one who looks the most bored at the piano who’s the true expert, because it’s with careful, controlled movements that you increase accuracy. Lastly, an expert and a novice will use the pedals very differently because it’s easy to overuse the pedals when you begin. Pros use the pedals sparingly, he says, and understand that pedal use is not binary but in degrees. Watch and listen carefully, says Shah, and you’ll notice the loose wrist, the tempered body and the flowing pedal of an expert — and maybe appreciate classical piano a bit better.
For startup maven Jacqui Chew, 10 years ago marked a scary moment: She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and felt confused and alone, with her family thousands of miles away. As she wrestled with her symptoms and with the stigma, she realized there were three things her friends and acquaintances were getting very wrong about bipolar. 1. Everyone believed it to be uncommon, but in fact there are 30 million people worldwide, six million of them in the US, with bipolar, and chances are most people know someone affected by it. 2. It does not bestow some mythical powers of creativity. Though Chew is a writer, she assures us that she is no Pulitzer Prize winner, as though transformed by her bipolar. 3. It’s treatable, but it isn’t curable. When medicine, therapy and self-care improved her condition after initial diagnosis, Chew felt much better — so much better that she believed herself cured and decided to stop, resulting in 18 months of deep depression. She now knows that treatment must be a way of life for her, and over time she’s developed a few more ways to take care of herself, including one that might improve anyone’s mental health: She refuses to work with assholes. Having shared her own journey with bipolar disorder, she asks us all to get out, learn more, and educate away the stigma.
And now for something completely different: Onyx Ashanti treats the room to a beatjazz performance using high-tech instruments of his own creation that envelop and disguise him. It’s a full sensory experience of lights, sounds both totally alien and mundanely familiar, and mesmerizing movement.
Material scientist Jun Kamei has a serious problem he wants to share: When he tries to fry an egg in his stainless steel pan, it sticks to the bottom. Though a Teflon nonstick coating can change the destiny of his egg, the coating gets scratched off easily and his harmful to his health. Here’s what works event better: A cast iron pan. The carbon-rich surface helps retain the oil in the pan, so the food doesn’t burn on, and unlike Teflon, this solution has existed for 300 years. Kamei explains that we often see traditional things as beautiful but not useful — but try telling that to the scientists who recently created an origami-inspired solar panel that folds and unfolds in seconds. “Traditional crafts are full of wisdom,” he says, “and they can inspire us to think of new technology that will shape our future.”
In a predictably delightful trick, cyberillusionist Marco Tempest makes some magic with that most brain-boggling of mathematical toys, the Rubik’s cube. “A good puzzle is a mystery,” he says, “and we love mysteries.” Onstage the Rubik’s cubes (and he’s brought plenty) seem to instantly solve themselves, copy one another, and share a big, friendly smile. Though some might find the cube to be too frustrating, Tempest says, “Puzzles give us the opportunity to solve a seemingly impossibly challenge. It’s a mystery that promises a solution. We just have to find it.”
Finally, writer Joshua Prager shares that he has an important birthday coming up: 44. It’s important because he read a passage in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night that describes that year as the feeling of having finally arrived. Though Prager knew it wasn’t about him, he identified with it. And then he found other passages by other writers about turning specific ages, and indeed he identified with those too, because as he says, “There are patterns to life, and they are shared.” He thought to himself that there must be somewhere passages written about every age, and slowly he began to collect them, pouring through countless texts to create his list and assemble them into a life. “Books tell us who’ve been, who we are, and who we will be too,” says Prager, as he shares some of the beautiful, poignant passages from his findings. “A list would last,” he says, “would clasp what was fleeting, be a glimpse into the future whether we made it there or not.” As his list coalesced, so did the life he had been living. His list of 100 years is done, but he is not done because he has his life to live and many more years to pass into.
By Morton Bast