The West Wing, TED Talks, and My Journey of Self-Discovery

In season one, episode twelve of The West Wing, President Bartlet and his crew prepare for their first State of the Union address. During that time the President pulls aside the Secretary of Agriculture, the chosen government official to remain behind in case of an emergency, and speaks with him about what his new role would be. He starts telling him about DEFCON 4 and bringing together the Joint Chiefs and then he stops and says:

President Bartlet: You got a best friend?

Secretary of Agriculture, Roger Tribbey: Yes, sir.

President Bartlet: Is he smarter than you?

Secretary of Agriculture: Yes, sir.

President Bartlet: Would you trust him with your life?

Secretary of Agriculture: Yes, sir.

President Bartlet: That’s your Chief of Staff.

This exchange says a lot about the friendship between Leo and President Bartlet, but it also says a lot about government and about life.

The US presidency is one of those jobs that absolutely cannot be done by a single person. Sure, the President is the final word and spokesperson, but the White House is an office kept running 24 hours a day only by multitudes of hardworking people. So while the President might ultimately be held accountable, his decisions are almost always influenced by those working under him.

Our lives are much the same. We don’t know everything there is to know and can’t do everything there is to do by ourselves. We need help, especially from people who are smarter than us.

So I’ve been reading a lot of TED Talk transcripts lately.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas. They began in 1984 as a conference on Technology, Entertainment and Design, but today their lecture series covers almost all topics – from science to business to global issues. In their own words, TED, “believes passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.” In the past 30 years, they’ve succeeded in their mission to bring together the world’s most inspired thinkers, highlighting authors and educators and reformers as much as scientists and historians. The people they spotlight are from all walks of life and their words continue to inspire me.

They are the Leo to my President Bartlet, smarter than me and trustworthy enough to help me do better at my job of being a person.

So I’ve started keeping a working document of inspirational quotes, of passages that connect with me and help me to think complexly about issues that I’m passionate about. Recently I wrote about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I’ve also taken down notes on education, social media, success, happiness, regret, and the twentysomething lifestyle. These are all causes that set my wheels spinning, all areas of life that affect me daily.

In the past I’ve looked a lot to my peers for these answers. I’ve looked at the examples of my similarly afflicted friends and I’ve interpreted that as permission to feel the way that I feel and as affirmation of my normality. But Meg Jay made a great point in her speech, “Why 30 is Not the New 20” in which she said:

“[T]he urban tribe is overrated. Best friends are great for giving rides to the airport, but twentysomethings who huddle together with like-minded peers limit who they know, what they know, how they think, how they speak, and where they work. That new piece of [identity] capital…almost always comes from outside the inner circle.”

I’m not saying any of these speeches are the end all and be all of answers, – or that my best friends don’t have any – but all these new sources of information are helping me to think complexly about my life and to absorb all kinds of perspectives as possible solutions to my problems. That’s what a good Chief of Staff does; they help you make decisions with the best available resources, the most amount of information possible, and that’s decidedly in conflict with what I’ve been doing up until now. I have to look and think outside my of daily bubble, have to push the boundaries of my comfort zone.

In the last few weeks I’ve read about forty Talks on a variety of different topics and what I’ve spoken about thus far barely skims the surface of the collective idea-pool. I’m trying to broaden my knowledge by relying on others who are smarter and more experienced than I am, looking to people beyond my bubble for information. And I encourage all of my readers to check out some of the Talks, too (I’ve linked some below) and then let me know what you think of them (or if you have other favorites that I might enjoy) down in the comments! You never know what you might find.

Do Schools Kill Creativity? – Ken Robinson

When Online Shaming Spirals Out of Control – Jon Ronson

How We’re Priming Some Kids for College – and Others for Prison – Alice Goffman

A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success – Alain de Botton

Why 30 is Not the New 20 – Meg Jay

Don’t Regret Regret – Kathryn Schultz

The Surprising Science of Happiness – Dan Gilbert

What I’ve Learned From My Autistic Brothers – Faith Jegade

The Power of Vulnerability – Brene Brown


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