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TED conference: The instants that sparked the ideas

Not that anyone would conduct such behaviour in these environs, but you can't throw a rock at the annual TED Conference without hitting some sort of great achievement. Repeatedly, the story of the climb to accomplishment involves a fascinating story about inspiration.

For veteran film and theatre production designer Brian Ferren, it was a childhood trip to Rome's Pantheon; that famous hole in the ceiling became an opening for the nine-year-old to sky-high possibilities, illuminating how science and art can collaborate to produce greatness. For architect Marc Kushner, it was the unfortunate layout of his boyhood home in New Jersey, where to get from his bedroom to the bathroom, he had to cross a bridge that opened up to the family room below, where people tended to congregate.

Here are some other tales of inspiration and creativity from the Vancouver TED:

James Duncan Davidson

Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert produced a massive bestseller with Eat, Pray, Love, but that came with its share of terror. How to follow up such a huge success? She felt certain that fans of her memoir would be disappointed with whatever she wrote next. She considered giving up writing altogether.

She, weirdly, found herself identifying with her younger self – an unpublished waitress in a diner coming home daily to a mailbox stuffed with rejection letters for almost six years. It made no sense. What did constant failure have to do with success beyond her wildest dreams?

Here’s what she discovered: The answer, in both cases, was to keep doing the thing she loved not for the end game but for the activity itself. It was her love of writing that inspired her writing.

“That’s how, in 2010, I was able to publish the dreaded follow up to Eat, Pray, Love. And you know what happened? It bombed. And I was fine. Actually I kind of felt bulletproof because I knew that I’d broken the spell and that I’d find my way back home to writing for the sheer devotion of it.”

Ryan Lash


For Sting, it was a glimpse of a different kind of life that provided motivation to get out of his shipyard building town, Newcastle, and what seemed his inevitable future working there. That shipyard at the end of his street made some of the biggest vessels in the world. So big, that sometimes royalty would show up on launch day. When Sting (then Gordon Sumner) was a boy, he remembers the Queen Mother coming to town for one of those events. He stood at the side of the road, in front of his house, wearing his Sunday best and holding a Union Jack. Finally, her Rolls-Royce drew near.

“I started to wave my flag vigorously and there is the Queen Mother,” the superstar musician told the audience. “I see her and she seems to see me, she acknowledges me. She waves, and she smiles. And I wave my flag more vigorously. We’re having a moment, me and the Queen Mother. She’s acknowledged me. And then she’s gone. Well, I wasn’t cured of anything. It was the opposite, actually. I was infected. I was infected with an idea. I don’t belong on this street. I don’t want to live in that house. I don’t want to end up in that shipyard. I want to be in that car. I want a bigger life. I want a life beyond this town. I want a life that’s out of the ordinary.”

Ryan Lash

Lars Jan

This Los Angeles-based artist has had a lifelong fascination with aquariums. He used to visit the New England Aquarium in Boston as a child.

The mild fascination became deeply seared in his consciousness when he saw a vast jellyfish exhibit at an aquarium in Osaka, Japan. “I’ve often imagined an aquarium’s inhabitants peering at me through their windows to see me on the outside as the entertainment, the imprisoned, the submerged,” he told the audience.

A deep thinker, Jan has been working for years to develop Holoscenes, which contemplates humanity’s relationship with water in the biosphere in this environmentally perilous time. The installation will feature three large aquarium-like sculptures, each inhabited by a single performer carrying out an everyday behaviour – shopping, cooking, enjoying a sunset – while the tank is filled with water and drained at intervals.

“I’m using the aquariums of Holoscenes to weave the unravelling story of water – the rising seas, melting glaciers, intensifying floods and droughts, into the patterns of the everyday. The ebb and flow of water and the resulting transfiguration of human behaviour offers an elemental portrait of our collective myopia, persistence and for better or worse adaptation.”

Holoscenes will premiere at Nuit Blanche in Toronto in October. 

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