A funny thing happened on the way home from TED.
TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design – is the high-end, slightly cultish conference where brainiacs with big ideas give 18-minute talks – not lectures, not speeches – to a well-heeled, mostly American audience. People pay a minimum of $8,500 (U.S.) to attend, celebrities show up and you hear words such as "audacious," "bold," and "imagine" (as an instruction) with disquieting regularity.
This is the third year that the organization's main conference has been held in Vancouver; I've been covering it each year as a journalist.
Sharing a taxi home with a colleague one day this week, the conversation somehow turned to the Holocaust. My colleague and I were comparing notes about our families' experiences when the driver piped up with an inquiry. What were we talking about, he wanted to know. He was only vaguely aware of the term "the Holocaust." Did it have something to do with those very thin people who had starved to death? Was Hitler somehow involved?
Now this was like mental whiplash: I had spent the day listening to people such as Ottawa "biohacker" Andrew Pelling walk us through growing ears in a petri dish using apples and human cells; and Boston-based biomedical engineer Laura Indolfi explain a tumour-caging device she is developing to fight pancreatic cancer. So to turn around that evening and encounter someone who was unfamiliar with one of the defining catastrophes of the 20th century felt rather discombobulating.
But then I started thinking about the benefits of travelling outside my own bubble of existence, as I had that weird day – first moving among Silicon Valley visionaries who populate the hallways at TED, and then having a meaningful conversation with that genuinely curious cab driver who was largely unaware of the terrible experiences that had befallen my family.
I've probably been watching too many TED talks this week, but I thought: There are lessons to learn from both.
The theme of this week's conference was "Dream" (if you don't buy into the TED thing, it really can be irritating). Perhaps coloured by this weird juxtaposition of the TED talkers and the taxi driver, I started thinking about the speakers who had landed on or advanced their dream vocation not just by thinking outside the box, but by venturing beyond their usual circle of experience.
Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse creator of ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, talked about a life experiment she conducted: She would say yes to everything for a year – and ultimately beyond (a project that apparently did not include saying yes to my interview request).
There was one yes that was particularly profound. One day as she was leaving the house, her toddler asked her to play. Instead of rushing off, she stopped and played – and made a vow to do so every time one of her kids asked.
It had a "magical" effect on her home life – but also a stunning side effect.
This went down at a time when Ms. Rhimes was having some creative challenges. But something amazing happened when she ventured outside her workaholic bubble – even for 15 minutes to play with her kids on the way out the door: she discovered that play improved her work.
"Saying yes to playing with my children likely saved my career," she said.
I may have cursed Ms. Rhimes and her vow every morning this week as I hustled my son out the door so I could make it to the TED media room by 8 a.m. (15 minutes to play – as if), but I can't argue with her central premise: Trying something different can open up the creative floodgates.
It's something to think about next time you book accommodations through Airbnb, the roots of which can be traced back to a 2005 yard sale in Rhode Island. After graduating from design school, Joe Gebbia was unloading his belongings. He sold a piece of his artwork to a guy driving across the country before joining the Peace Corps.
Yard-sale chat turned to a beer at the bar and when the stranger said he didn't have a place to spend the night, Mr. Gebbia invited him to sleep in his living room – on an air bed.
Two years later, Mr. Gebbia was living in San Francisco. He was unemployed and almost broke, his roommate moved out, and his rent went up. Then he learned there was a design conference coming to town and hotels were sold out. With a new roommate, he retrieved that same air bed from the closet. "We built a basic website and Air Bed and Breakfast was born," he said.
More than 80 million people have since signed on to the service.
Would Mr. Gebbia have conceived and co-founded Airbnb had he not pursued a social encounter with the Peace Corps guy? Maybe. But even if it doesn't lead to a startup that becomes a money-maker and major disruptive force, isn't bursting the bubble of your own comfort zone worth it – just for the experience?
We spend so much time in our social and occupational echo chambers, insulated. Venturing out may be a shock to the system, but it also seems essential for discovery.