A few weeks ago I had the great honor of serving as the Emcee for the TEDxNJLibs conference held at the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey. You probably know all about TED and the famous talks. You may be less familiar with TEDx which seeks to replicate the vibe and excitement of the annual TED event. Putting on a TEDx conference in no easy undertaking. From finding the right speakers to planning out the one-day program, this is an enormous amount of work. The payoff is treating the attendees to a great day of inspiring and amazing speakers. The Library Garden gang did an amazing job organizing the event. Last year I attended their Pres4Lib unconference which was great, and I wondered if they could top it. Going for the TEDx was a brilliant move, and yes, they did top themselves.
The main thing you should know is that TEDxNJLibs was really not about librarianship. The theme was community and culture, and like all TED events it featured a diverse collection of speakers who brought different perspectives to the theme. And just like TED events, the speakers shared stories of courage, caring and inspiration. As a celebration of culture it also featured great music and good food. It was a really well-balanced program that got me thinking. One of the commonalities that ran through the talks was, for me at least, the idea of choosing to act to make a difference in the community and lives of others. Whether it was Sam Daley-Harris’ effort to use microfinance to eradicate world hunger and poverty, or Salman Ahmad’s mission to share music to promote peace, the speakers demonstrated that a single good idea, well executed, can make a difference.
I do want to share one illustrative story because it’s a good one, but also because it involved the community library. Mimi Omiecinski moved to Princeton, New Jersey in June 2006, with absolutely no plans to start a small business. But that’s exactly what she did. The epitome of the local entrepreneur, Mimi started a local walking tour company in Princeton, New Jersey. Mimi’s business, like any new one, was slow to catch on with the community and visitors. But then she had an idea – a great one. According to an interview with a local paper Mimi recalled:
A few years ago, I started my bike tour business, and I literally couldnâ€™t even give away the bikes. So I started the walking tours (Princeton Tour Company), and figured Iâ€™d study up on Albert Einstein for a tour. So I Googled him, and found out he was born on March 14 â€” 3/14. Pi, of course, is 3.14159 … That was my â€œoh my godâ€ moment.
Many of have that “oh my god” moment but we either let it drift off or perhaps we do make a note of it, but then we ultimately never get past the idea stage. But Mimi took hold of her idea and became its champion. Out of her “aha” moment grew Princeton Pi Day, celebrated of course on March 14. Taking personal responsibility for the idea, Mimi enlisted businesses and others in the community to participate with special events and items that would cost $3.14. A real stroke of genius was collaborating with the Princeton Public Library. The Library put together a mix of Einstein and Pi-related activities (Einstein look alike contest, contest to recall the most numbers in Pi, pie throwing, etc.), and funds raised by Mimi’s tours would be contributed to the Library. Mimi’s one simple idea and her commitment to it made all the difference for the community, its people, and the Library.
The “one idea can make a difference” is a theme that others have explored. Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his book The Tipping Point. He referred to it as “creating an epidemic”:
The virtue of an epidemic, after all, is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can spread very, very quickly. That makes it something of obvious and enormous interest to everyone from educators trying to reach students, to businesses trying to spread the word about their product, or for that matter to anyone who’s trying to create a change with limited resources.
Had I not been asked to emcee, I probably would still have attended TEDxNJLIBS. I knew it would be a fun and informative event, and one of the great things about TED is that is you can easily expose yourself to new ideas and new mysteries. Doing so is one way to keep learning and putting yourself in a position to get those ideas that can lead to innovations that make a difference. I learned one other important lesson from the TEDx speakers. Having a great idea is important, and coming up with a plan to implement it is the start to creating change. The other important ingredient is the “WHY”.
As in “why am I doing this?” I don’t doubt that Mimi wanted to jump start her tour business, but I think there was more to Pi Day than that. As I listened to her tell the story I sensed she really wanted to do something to bring the community together for a shared experience. She believed it would make the community a better place, and the community members believed in her – and shared the vision for what Pi Day could offer. The next time you have an idea try to do more than capture it on paper. Share it with colleagues. Play with it. Come up with some prototypes for it. If there’s a positive response, take it to the next level. But always keep the “why” question front and center. If you strongly believe in the WHY – if it is more about doing something for the community and is less about how it advances your career – then it should be easy to articulate for yourself and demonstrate to others the WHY behind your great idea. Start there and you will make a difference.
Addendum: You can view the video of Mimi’s TEDxNJLIBS presentation here.