The Audacity to Imagine

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Below is the speech of Adora Svitak, a prolific writer, 14 years of age, who “Could read and write simple words at age two and a half; read her first chapter book at age three and half; started to write short stories at age four; started to type short stories at age 6; appeared on Good Morning America and met Peter Jennings at age 7, published her first book at age 7, began teaching through distance learning at age 10, spoke at the prestigious TED conference at age 12,”

Below is her speech at the TED conference. It is a great read, giving a perspective on how insightful the young citizens of the world can be.

“Now, I want to start with a question: When was the last time you were called childish? For kids like me, being called childish can be a frequent occurrence. Every time we make irrational demands, exhibit irresponsible behavior or display any other signs of being normal American citizens, we are called childish. Which really bothers me. After all, take a look at these events: Imperialism and colonization, world wars, George W. Bush. Ask yourself, who’s responsible? Adults.

Now, what have kids done? Well, Anne Frank touched millions with her powerful account of the Holocaust, Ruby Bridges helped to end segregation in the United States, and, most recently, Charlie Simpson helped to raise 120,000 pounds for Haiti on his little bike. So, as you can see evidenced by such examples, age has absolutely nothing to do with it. The traits the word childish addresses are seen so often in adults that we should abolish this age-discriminatory word when it comes to criticizing behavior associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking.

Then again, who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? Maybe you’ve had grand plans before but stopped yourself, thinking, “That’s impossible,” or, “That costs too much,” or, “That won’t benefit me.” For better or worse, we kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking. Like my wish that no one went hungry or that everything were a free kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities? Sometimes a knowledge of history and the past failures of utopian ideals can be a burden because you know that if everything were free, then the food stocks would become depleted and scarce and lead to chaos. On the other hand, we kids still dream about perfection. And that’s a good thing because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first.

In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility. For instance, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, my home state has a program called Kids Design Glass, and kids draw their own ideas for glass art. Now, the resident artist said they got some of their best ideas through the program because kids don’t think about the limitations of how hard it can be to blow glass into certain shapes; they just think of good ideas. Now, when you think of glass, you might think of colorful Chihuly designs or maybe Italian vases, but kids challenge glass artists to go beyond that into the realm of broken-hearted snakes and bacon boys, who you can see has meat vision.

Now, our inherent wisdom doesn’t have to be insider’s knowledge. Kids already do a lot of learning from adults, and we have a lot to share. I think that adults should start learning from kids. Now, I do most of my speaking in front of an education crowd, teachers and students, and I like this analogy: It shouldn’t just be a teacher at the head of the classroom telling students, “Do this, do that.” The students should teach their teachers. Learning between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal. The reality, unfortunately, is a little different, and it has a lot to do with trust, or a lack of it.

Now, if you don’t trust someone, you place restrictions on them, right? If I doubt my older sister’s ability to pay back the 10 percent interest I established on her last loan, I’m going to withhold her ability to get more money from me until she pays it back. True story, by the way. Now, adults seem to have a prevalently restrictive attitude towards kids from every “don’t do that, don’t do this” in the school handbook to restrictions on school Internet use. As history points out, regimes become oppressive when they’re fearful about keeping control. And although adults may not be quite at the level of totalitarian regimes, kids have no, or very little say in making the rules, when really the attitude should be reciprocal, meaning that the adult population should learn and take into account the wishes of the younger population.

Now, what’s even worse than restriction is that adults often underestimate kids abilities. We love challenges, but when expectations are low, trust me, we will sink to them. My own parents had anything but low expectations for me and my sister. Okay, so they didn’t tell us to become doctors or lawyers or anything like that, but my dad did read to us about Aristotle and pioneer germ fighters when lots of other kids were hearing “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.” Well, we heard that one too, but “Pioneer Germ Fighters” totally rules.

I loved to write from the age of four, and when I was six my mom bought me my own laptop equipped with Microsoft Word. Thank you Bill Gates and thank you Ma. I wrote over 300 short stories on that little laptop, and I wanted to get published. Instead of just scoffing at this heresy that a kid wanted to get published or saying wait until you’re older, my parents were really supportive. Many publishers were not quite so encouraging, one large children’s publisher ironically saying that they didn’t work with children — children’s publisher not working with children? I don’t know, you’re kind of alienating a large client there. Now, one publisher, Action Publishing, was willing to take that leap and trust me and to listen to what I had to say. They published my first book, “Flying Fingers,” — you see it here — and from there on, it’s gone to speaking at hundreds of schools, keynoting to thousands of educators and finally, today, speaking to you.

I appreciate your attention today, because to show that you truly care, you listen. But there’s a problem with this rosy picture of kids being so much better than adults. Kids grow up and become adults just like you. Or just like you? Really? The goal is not to turn kids into your kind of adult, but rather better adults than you have been, which may be a little challenging considering your guys’ credentials. But the way progress happens is because new generations and new eras grow and develop and become better than the previous ones. It’s the reason we’re not in the Dark Ages anymore. No matter your position or place in life, it is imperative to create opportunities for children so that we can grow up to blow you away.

Adults and fellow TEDsters, you need to listen and learn from kids and trust us and expect more from us. You must lend an ear today, because we are the leaders of tomorrow, which means we’re going to be taking care of you when you’re old and senile. No, just kidding. No, really, we are going to be the next generation, the ones who will bring this world forward. And in case you don’t think that this really has meaning for you, remember that cloning is possible, and that involves going through childhood again, in which case you’ll want to be heard just like my generation. Now, the world needs opportunities for new leaders and new ideas. Kids need opportunities to lead and succeed. Are you ready to make the match? Because the world’s problems shouldn’t be the human family’s heirloom.

Thank you.”

-Adora Svitak
Sources:
http://www.ted.com/speakers/adora_svitak.html
http://www.adorasvitak.com/About.html#bio

A Knowledge Not Gained by Words

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“What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see.”

-Adlai Stevenson

 

The Opportunity of Adversity

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Below is the full text of the speech of Aimee Mullins at TED Talks. Aimee Mullins is an accomplished model, respected activist,  TV and movie actress,  awarded athlete -and she just happens to be a double amputee having lost both legs as an infant. 


“I’d like to share with you a discovery that I made a few months ago while writing an article for Italian Wired. I always keep my thesaurus handy whenever I’m writing anything, but I’d already finished editing the piece, and I realized that I had never once in my life looked up the word “disabled” to see what I’d find.

Let me read you the entry. “Disabled, adjective: crippled, helpless, useless, wrecked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, run-down, worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, handicapped, senile, decrepit, laid-up, done-up, done-for, done-in cracked-up, counted-out; see also hurt, useless and weak. Antonyms, healthy, strong, capable.” I was reading this list out loud to a friend and at first was laughing, it was so ludicrous, but I’d just gotten past “mangled,” and my voice broke, and I had to stop and collect myself from the emotional shock and impact that the assault from these words unleashed.

You know, of course, this is my raggedy old thesaurus so I’m thinking this must be an ancient print date, right? But, in fact, the print date was the early 1980s, when I would have been starting primary school and forming an understanding of myself outside the family unit and as related to the other kids and the world around me. And, needless to say, thank God I wasn’t using a thesaurus back then. I mean, from this entry, it would seem that I was born into a world that perceived someone like me to have nothing positive whatsoever going for them, when in fact, today I’m celebrated for the opportunities and adventures my life has procured.

So, I immediately went to look up the 2009 online edition, expecting to find a revision worth noting. Here’s the updated version of this entry. Unfortunately, it’s not much better. I find the last two words under “Near Antonyms,” particularly unsettling: “whole” and “wholesome.”

So, it’s not just about the words. It’s what we believe about people when we name them with these words. It’s about the values behind the words, and how we construct those values. Our language affects our thinking and how we view the world and how we view other people. In fact, many ancient societies, including the Greeks and the Romans, believed that to utter a curse verbally was so powerful, because to say the thing out loud brought it into existence. So, what reality do we want to call into existence: a person who is limited, or a person who’s empowered? By casually doing something as simple as naming a person, a child, we might be putting lids and casting shadows on their power. Wouldn’t we want to open doors for them instead?

One such person who opened doors for me was my childhood doctor at the A.I. duPont Institute in Wilmington, Delaware. His name was Dr. Pizzutillo, an Italian American, whose name, apparently, was too difficult for most Americans to pronounce, so he went by Dr. P. And Dr. P always wore really colorful bow ties and had the very perfect disposition to work with children.

I loved almost everything about my time spent at this hospital, with the exception of my physical therapy sessions. I had to do what seemed like innumerable repetitions of exercises with these thick, elastic bands — different colors, you know — to help build up my leg muscles, and I hated these bands more than anything — I hated them, had names for them. I hated them. And, you know, I was already bargaining, as a five year-old child, with Dr. P to try to get out of doing these exercises, unsuccessfully, of course. And, one day, he came in to my session — exhaustive and unforgiving, these sessions — and he said to me, “Wow. Aimee, you are such a strong and powerful little girl, I think you’re going to break one of those bands. When you do break it, I’m going to give you a hundred bucks.”

Now, of course, this was a simple ploy on Dr. P’s part to get me to do the exercises I didn’t want to do before the prospect of being the richest five-year-old in the second floor ward, but what he effectively did for me was reshape an awful daily occurrence into a new and promising experience for me. And I have to wonder today to what extent his vision and his declaration of me as a strong and powerful little girl shaped my own view of myself as an inherently strong, powerful and athletic person well into the future.

This is an example of how adults in positions of power can ignite the power of a child. But, in the previous instances of those thesaurus entries, our language isn’t allowing us to evolve into the reality that we would all want, the possibility of an individual to see themselves as capable. Our language hasn’t caught up with the changes in our society, many of which have been brought about by technology. Certainly, from a medical standpoint, my legs, laser surgery for vision impairment, titanium knees and hip replacements for aging bodies that are allowing people to more fully engage with their abilities, and move beyond the limits that nature has imposed on them — not to mention social networking platforms allow people to self-identify, to claim their own descriptions of themselves, so they can go align with global groups of their own choosing. So, perhaps technology is revealing more clearly to us now what has always been a truth: that everyone has something rare and powerful to offer our society, and that the human ability to adapt is our greatest asset.

The human ability to adapt, it’s an interesting thing, because people have continually wanted to talk to me about overcoming adversity, and I’m going to make an admission: This phrase never sat right with me, and I always felt uneasy trying to answer people’s questions about it, and I think I’m starting to figure out why. Implicit in this phrase of “overcoming adversity” is the idea that success, or happiness, is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience, as if my successes in life have come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetics, or what other people perceive as my disability. But, in fact, we are changed. We are marked, of course, by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or both. And I’m going to suggest that this is a good thing. Adversity isn’t an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life. It’s part of our life. And I tend to think of it like my shadow. Sometimes I see a lot of it, sometimes there’s very little, but it’s always with me. And, certainly, I’m not trying to diminish the impact, the weight, of a person’s struggle.

There is adversity and challenge in life, and it’s all very real and relative to every single person, but the question isn’t whether or not you’re going to meet adversity, but how you’re going to meet it. So, our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity, but preparing them to meet it well. And we do a disservice to our kids when we make them feel that they’re not equipped to adapt. There’s an important difference and distinction between the objective medical fact of my being an amputee and the subjective societal opinion of whether or not I’m disabled. And, truthfully, the only real and consistent disability I’ve had to confront is the world ever thinking that I could be described by those definitions.

In our desire to protect those we care about by giving them the cold, hard truth about their medical prognosis, or, indeed, a prognosis on the expected quality of their life, we have to make sure that we don’t put the first brick in a wall that will actually disable someone. Perhaps the existing model of only looking at what is broken in you and how do we fix it, serves to be more disabling to the individual than the pathology itself.

By not treating the wholeness of a person, by not acknowledging their potency, we are creating another ill on top of whatever natural struggle they might have. We are effectively grading someone’s worth to our community. So we need to see through the pathology and into the range of human capability. And, most importantly, there’s a partnership between those perceived deficiencies and our greatest creative ability. So it’s not about devaluing, or negating, these more trying times as something we want to avoid or sweep under the rug, but instead to find those opportunities wrapped in the adversity. So maybe the idea I want to put out there is not so much overcoming adversity as it is opening ourselves up to it, embracing it, grappling with it, to use a wrestling term, maybe even dancing with it. And, perhaps, if we see adversity as natural, consistent and useful, we’re less burdened by the presence of it.

This year we celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and it was 150 years ago, when writing about evolution, that Darwin illustrated, I think, a truth about the human character. To paraphrase: It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor is it the most intelligent that survives; it is the one that is most adaptable to change. Conflict is the genesis of creation. From Darwin’s work, amongst others, we can recognize that the human ability to survive and flourish is driven by the struggle of the human spirit through conflict into transformation. So, again, transformation, adaptation, is our greatest human skill. And, perhaps, until we’re tested, we don’t know what we’re made of. Maybe that’s what adversity gives us: a sense of self, a sense of our own power. So, we can give ourselves a gift. We can re-imagine adversity as something more than just tough times. Maybe we can see it as change. Adversity is just change that we haven’t adapted ourselves to yet.

I think the greatest adversity that we’ve created for ourselves is this idea of normalcy. Now, who’s normal? There’s no normal. There’s common, there’s typical.. If we can change this paradigm from one of achieving normalcy to one of possibility — or potency, to be even a little bit more dangerous — we can release the power of so many more children, and invite them to engage their rare and valuable abilities with the community.

Anthropologists tell us that the one thing we as humans have always required of our community members is to be of use, to be able to contribute. There’s evidence that Neanderthals, 60,000 years ago, carried their elderly and those with serious physical injury, and perhaps it’s because the life experience of survival of these people proved of value to the community. They didn’t view these people as broken and useless; they were seen as rare and valuable.

A few years ago, I was in a food market in the town where I grew up in that red zone in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I was standing over a bushel of tomatoes. It was summertime: I had shorts on. I hear this guy, his voice behind me say, “Well, if it isn’t Aimee Mullins.” And I turn around, and it’s this older man. I have no idea who he is.

And I said, “I’m sorry, sir, have we met? I don’t remember meeting you.”

He said, “Well, you wouldn’t remember meeting me. I mean, when we met I was delivering you from your mother’s womb.” (Laughter) Oh, that guy. And, but of course, actually, it did click.

This man was Dr. Kean, a man that I had only known about through my mother’s stories of that day, because, of course, typical fashion, I arrived late for my birthday by two weeks. And so my mother’s prenatal physician had gone on vacation, so the man who delivered me was a complete stranger to my parents. And, because I was born without the fibula bones, and had feet turned in, and a few toes in this foot and a few toes in that, he had to be the bearer — this stranger had to be the bearer of bad news.

He said to me, “I had to give this prognosis to your parents that you would never walk, and you would never have the kind of mobility that other kids have or any kind of life of independence, and you’ve been making liar out of me ever since.” (Laughter) (Applause)

The extraordinary thing is that he said he had saved newspaper clippings throughout my whole childhood, whether winning a second grade spelling bee, marching with the Girl Scouts, you know, the Halloween parade, winning my college scholarship, or any of my sports victories, and he was using it, and integrating it into teaching resident students, med students from Hahnemann Medical School and Hershey Medical School. And he called this part of the course the X Factor, the potential of the human will. No prognosis can account for how powerful this could be as a determinant in the quality of someone’s life. And Dr. Kean went on to tell me, he said, “In my experience, unless repeatedly told otherwise, and even if given a modicum of support, if left to their own devices, a child will achieve.”

See, Dr. Kean made that shift in thinking. He understood that there’s a difference between the medical condition and what someone might do with it. And there’s been a shift in my thinking over time, in that, if you had asked me at 15 years old, if I would have traded prosthetics for flesh-and-bone legs, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. I aspired to that kind of normalcy back then. But if you ask me today, I’m not so sure. And it’s because of the experiences I’ve had with them, not in spite of the experiences I’ve had with them. And perhaps this shift in me has happened because I’ve been exposed to more people who have opened doors for me than those who have put lids and cast shadows on me.

See, all you really need is one person to show you the epiphany of your own power, and you’re off. If you can hand somebody the key to their own power — the human spirit is so receptive — if you can do that and open a door for someone at a crucial moment, you are educating them in the best sense. You’re teaching them to open doors for themselves. In fact, the exact meaning of the word “educate” comes from the root word “educe.” It means “to bring forth what is within, to bring out potential.” So again, which potential do we want to bring out?

There was a case study done in 1960s Britain, when they were moving from grammar schools to comprehensive schools. It’s called the streaming trials. We call it “tracking” here in the States. It’s separating students from A, B, C, D and so on. And the “A students” get the tougher curriculum, the best teachers, etc. Well, they took, over a three-month period, D-level students, gave them A’s, told them they were “A’s,” told them they were bright, and at the end of this three-month period, they were performing at A-level.

And, of course, the heartbreaking, flip side of this study, is that they took the “A students” and told them they were “D’s.” And that’s what happened at the end of that three-month period. Those who were still around in school, besides the people who had dropped out. A crucial part of this case study was that the teachers were duped too. The teachers didn’t know a switch had been made. They were simply told, “These are the ‘A-students,’ these are the ‘D-students.'” And that’s how they went about teaching them and treating them.

So, I think that the only true disability is a crushed spirit, a spirit that’s been crushed doesn’t have hope, it doesn’t see beauty, it no longer has our natural, childlike curiosity and our innate ability to imagine. If instead, we can bolster a human spirit to keep hope, to see beauty in themselves and others, to be curious and imaginative, then we are truly using our power well. When a spirit has those qualities, we are able to create new realities and new ways of being.

I’d like to leave you with a poem by a fourteenth-century Persian poet named Hafiz that my friend, Jacques Dembois told me about, and the poem is called “The God Who Only Knows Four Words”: “Every child has known God, not the God of names, not the God of don’ts, but the God who only knows four words and keeps repeating them, saying, ‘Come dance with me. Come, dance with me. Come, dance with me.'”

Thank you. (Applause)”

-Aimee Mullins (2009)
TED Talks

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Nothing is Beyond our Reach, Nothing is Hidden

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“The long chains of simple and easy reasonings by means of which geometers are accustomed to reach the conclusions of their most difficult demonstrations, had led me to imagine that all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way, and that there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach, or so hidden that we cannot discover it, provided only we abstain from accepting the false for the true, and always preserve in our thoughts the order necessary for the deduction of one truth from another.”

-Rene Descartes

Set Your Sights High

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“Set your sights high, the higher the better. Expect the most wonderful things to happen, not in the future but right now. Realize that nothing is too good. Allow absolutely nothing to hamper you or hold you up in any way.”

-Eileen Caddy

Achievement of Your Values

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“Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.”

-Ayn Rand

A Coping Mechanism

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“One of life’s best coping mechanisms is to know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference.”

-Robert Fulghum

There are No Limits

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“Perhaps there was no limit, there might, quite likely, be no such condition as the ultimate; there might be no time when any creature or any group of creatures could stop at any certain point and say, this is as far as we can go, there is no use of trying to go farther. For each new development produced, as side effects, so many other possibilities, so many other roads to travel, that with each step one took down any given road there were more paths to follow. There’d never be an end, he thought — no end to anything.”

-Clifford D. Simak

The Architect of Circumstance

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Instead … of saying that Man is the creature of Circumstance, it would be nearer the mark to say that Man is the Architect of Circumstance. It is Character which builds an existence out of Circumstance. Our strength is measured by our plastic power. From the same materials one man builds palaces, another hovels, one warehouses, another villas.

-George Henry Lewes

Paying the Full Price for Fullness of Life

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It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment, or the courage, to pay the price … One has to abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover, and yet demand no easy return of love. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to the total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.

 -Morris West