Its Sunday evening and we’re headed to the Nelum Pokuna Theatre for something exciting. If you connected the dots, you would’ve noticed that we were going to TEDxColombo 2017. If you didn’t already know, TED or Technology, Entertainment and Design is a set of conferences that are held globally. TEDx is a series of independently organized events that aim to shared the best ideas within a community. Held on the 17th of September 2017, TEDxColombo 2017 had a total of 8 speakers.
Welcome to TEDxColombo 2017
We’ve been to our fair share of TEDx events and this one had a special place in both TEDxColombo and our hearts. This marked the 10th TEDx event held thus far. From a mere 100 participants at their first events at their first events, this years TEDxColombo 2017 played host to 1,100 people at the Nelum Pokuna theatre. Koshal Krishnakmuar, co-organizer of TEDx Colombo was up on stage in the big red circle to welcome everyone. “It marks the culmination of a 10-month process,” he said. Under the theme of connecting the dots, Koshal shared that most of our lives, we ignore dots that connect together. They always looked at the dots to connect to be bigger and better.
We learned why content is key from Bhanuka Harischandra
“So who here has an older sibling?” He asks before sharing that he and his brother played a lot of games. They rushed home from school everyday to play Pokemon and Super Mario. If you’re the younger sibling, then normally you would merely watch while your elder brother plays. But Bhanuka enjoyed this. A few years later, he and a few misfits got together to record and tell stories. These stories were merely them playing video games. Over time they built a following of people watching them play video games. This team of misfits then went on to become a company that worked with business across the world.
He then went onto explain why content matters more now than ever. There’s 7.5 billion people in this world. Of that, 3.2 million are connected by some method. Be it a tablet, a PC, or mobile, they’re all connected. Perhaps the largest connected platform of this nature is Facebook, where 2 Billion people are connected. A decade ago it would’ve been unthinkable to have so many people on a single platform. This in turn, creates so much content that there’s 1 billion hours of video uploaded to YouTube.
From newspapers to radio to television, the way we consume content is changing. You watch content in a new setting that’s easier to digest. Now, it’s not just the platform that is changing, but the content itself. You have companies spending millions but they’re competing for one thing: attention. More specifically, your attention.
These companies are fighting against you for creating content. As an example, if you consider the biggest star online, it is not a singer or an A-List celebrity, but it’s just a guy who plays video games. He’s none other than PewDiePie and he plays a lot of video games. Bhanuka joked that he’s not very good at playing video games, but PewDiePie’s content has been viewed 16 billion times. The reason his content is viewed so much is because he’s relatable and because you can relate to him you can trust him. Trust is a key element here.
Bhanuka then shared the example of Salman Khan and the concept behind Khan Academy. He wanted to teach his niece mathematics, but couldn’t. This led him to record videos and upload them on Facebook for his niece to watch and learn. This snowballed and pretty soon, he had his own following of people who would watch what he taught simply because they understood him. Khan was not a teacher but that didn’t matter to them. Bhanuka then shared that he looked for people online to hunt for talent and recorded every moment of his life. He explained what an Instagram story was and then shared that he built a following through his stories. As of today, his business hires people only via their Instagram stories. His Instagram story for TEDxColombo, for example had over 100,000 views.
“We started an accounting firm. If you know anything accounting it’s not sexy at all,” he says regarding SimpleBooks. He shared that it’s tough to create a specialization for accounting. But Bhanuka found that there were a lot of people trying to setup companies but there was misinformation. So they started writing about registering businesses and the other legal jargon in a form that people could understand. And it has paid off. “Right now our company is the largest one setting up companies in Sri Lanka,” he said.
“You need understand that everyone should create content. You can be a rocket scientist, you can be a gardener, you can be a drop out like me, but you need to tell that story.” It’s not the degrees you hold, it’s the stories you tell. With that, Bhanuka’s session came to an end.
Harinda Katugaha taught us about Neuroplasticity
“I’ve been given all the advantages in life, but I somehow managed to mess it all up” said Harinda. He shared that people have two narratives. The first is the positive things we tell each other. In that narrative we leave out the experiences we don’t want people to know. We leave out the lessons we learned in the past. And so how many of us can say we are the summation of our newsfeeds?
The second narrative is the truth. There’s a place on this planet that has stored every single one of our experiences. There’s a place that knows everything that happened to us: This is called Neuroplasticity. This is a process that allows you to create synaptic connections with experiences. The more you do something. The more you create pathways. Your neural plasticity is also a record of your history. It’s that uniqueness about you. It’s what makes your dress funny. Neural plasticity is you.
Here you have two choices. You can choose with all of your experience to become passive, or you can actually experience life with diversity. The latter would create more diverse neural pathways. This allows you to create new connections. You learn new things faster and learn the space around you.
From being a loan shark (he called himself an enabler), Harinda earned the trust of people. From there, he went from being a lender to being a borrower at university in the UK. He found a new but expensive love: travel. To finance his adventures, he went to the registrar’s office and paid extra to get the balance his dad paid for tuition and told the registrar that his dad will pay the following semester.
Harinda then went from travelling for pleasure to travelling for friends. His friend said that she was arrested in Ethiopia for being in a play that advocated gay rights, which was illegal. He went to Ethiopia and they spoke about what she should do. He said she could leave the country to be safe. He said regardless of whether she left of not, he said we shouldn’t judge. We think our solution to the problem is the right one. And that’s wrong. We need to let each other do what we believe is right.
The story then went a full circle back to his opening statement where while driving to Washington DC to carry on his work as an NGO, he was stopped for talking on his phone. He also found out that his license was suspended and found himself behind bars. Here he learnt another important lesson: life is not a box of roses. There’s a reason a book and a movie are so different. Each of us different has a different imagination. A book is a storyline that allows us to maximize our imagination. A movie dictates exactly how you should view it. “Words will design you, but experience will define you so go and experience life,” Harinda said in conclusion.
Creating better leaders with Vidusha Nathavitharana
“All my growing years I was told to shut up,” says Vidusha. He shares that his mother and prefects told him to not to talk. When he started working, he thought it would change but it didn’t and his bosses always asked, “Are you getting any work done?” He became a leadership coach and faced a client asked him, “Can you transform a person into a leader?” This demotivated him because his only answer at the time was, “No.”
Speaking at TEDxColombo 2017, Vidusha drew inspiration from his daughter where he wanted to help her find her inner confidence. One day, his daughter came home from school after being bullied. Vidusha wanted to help her find her inner confidence to stand up to her bullies. His solution was to take her whitewater rafting. Against his discreet wish to be silent, his daughter walked into house and screamed it out. In the end though, he found that this helped her find her inner confidence.
The issue with leadership training he says is that its flawed. Most people that come, don’t want to be there. He always asked his audiences whether they wanted to be here and why they’re there. No hands were raised. Because of this, Vidusha changed the process. People were asked to study for two months with 100 videos and an exam. Clients were terrified. He told clients that if people want to learn leadership they will want to study. His saving grace was a person named Ajith who translated all of Vidusha’s content from English into Sinhala. Ajith is now the head of HR at a leading company.
Leadership Vidusha says, is felt in the heart. The programs don’t just transform people. The participants realize their potential, and managers support them. It’s about time we rethought leadership development programs. Here’s what he learned: we can’t teach leadership. People are far more capable than we give credit for. Every single human being wants to be a success. Our role is not to teach about leadership. Our role is to facilitate the learning of leadership. In conclusion, Vidusha ended is presentation stating that “If your children don’t become better than you then you have fathered in vain”, emphasizing that if your followers, (whether they’re your children or students) don’t exceed your standards, then you’ve pretty much failed.
Amidst all the speakers, we had someone speaking something a little different.
This was Anish Wijesinghe. Anish, an Entrepreneur/Musician and CEO of Motion Miracles started off by playing a guitar in a vertical manner. Unusual, yes. The guitar, he says, is one of the most versatile instruments out there and he indeed did prove his point, by experimenting with various styles of guitar. From there, he explained that he tried various methods of playing the guitar, even with his chin. All the variations to music he did, he did with no prior knowledge of music. Because he was not limited to by the traditional orthodox rules regarding how an instrument should be played, there was no end to what he could create.
Anish went on to explain about his life and how he was home-schooled. This is where he learnt to play the guitar. He also began experimenting with beatboxing and the various sounds that one could make with one’s voice and mouth. Throughout his entire session, he would burst into music which were all original compositions and emphasize that limits only exist because we set them.
Peter D’ Almeida was on stage next
Peter started off by explaining that his life had little to do with technology. Sharing his life experience, Peter explained that he had 11 siblings. After his father passed away, his mother’s only source of income was his deceased father’s pension. They faced aqaunting question of how they would make ends meet. Her answer? Faith, but Peter calls it ingenuity. When a neighbor threatened to attack their house, the family immediately sprang into action. The girls of the family would be armed with water mixed with chili powder. The boys would be armed with crowbars and other weapons. If an attack did occur, the boys would duck, and the girls would throw the water on to the attackers with the boys following up with their attack.
The point to all this? Peter’s answer is that this is an example of the power of organizing. It also goes to show that any successful action can only start with a clear identification of the problem at hand. This, Peter says, is what is missing in society. He emphasized about how politicians are not equipped to identify problems in the country and therefore cannot come up with a suitable plan. He also explained that nothing operates without the participation of the masses. A collective consciousness, Peter called it.
Using a number of examples such as the saving of a phosphate supply in Eppawala, a historically important locations in Sri Lanka and even the world. The then Government decided to hand over the gathering of this precious resource to an American company who intended on strip mining it, destroying this historical place in the process. By launching a campaign of collective action which involved picketing at the Fort Railway station, the people were able to convince the Government to change their minds and the project was stopped.
Peter then went on to explain about some of the prevailing issues in Sri Lanka such as our massive debt of Debt is $3.9 Billion. The lack of water due to the massive drought, which is actually the worst one we’ve had in over 40 years. With regard to Health issues, Peter also explained that 1/5 Sri Lankans have Diabetes as opposed to a country such as Singapore where its 1 of every 9 people. Diabetes also contributes to kidney disease. Kidney disease alone happens in Anuradhapura, due to the chemical contaminants in the water they drink.
Peter also touched on another key topic: Education. We’re taking the joy out of our children’s child hood and killing imagination and creativity. How? By sending them for tuition classes and other classes from a very young age, rather than letting them enjoy their childhood. Peter drew his inspiration for this by a talk by Sir Ken Robinson. There, Ken speaks about how schools kill creativity. What if you used a small portion of your resources to address one of the key factors in the world and in society? That, Peter says is a life worth lived. Even the smallest action, done with a collaborative consciousness can have a massive effect. Peter ended his session with the phrase “an ounce of consciousness is worth a ton of creativity.”
What does it take to be curious? Smriti Daniel explained
Smriti began her talk by introducing us to Edward de Silva, who at 89 years was the oldest living resident of the Hendala Leprosy Hospital. First diagnosed as a 14-year old student, Edward had been quarantined behind the walls of this hospital for decades. He lived through many events in Sri Lankan history. Following the introduction of multi-drug therapy, Edward was cured, but the stigma proved much harder to shake off. His brothers and sisters were so ashamed of him that all future generations of his family and relations know nothing about him. Smriti went on to contrast Edward’s experience with that of a leprosy patient today, pointing out that while medical advances had made for radical changes, some things still stayed the same.
Smriti explained that this is what her job looked like as a journalist. Starting from a point of complete ignorance, she lets her curiosity guide her. But it’s not just journalists who need to be curious. The truth is that some of the most successful people she profiles are curious themselves, she says, explaining that their ability to become curious about how to do things better or differently is the first step toward their success.
She also relies on her readers to be curious: curious about people they may never meet, or places they may never go to. Why are we so concerned about stuff that doesn’t relate to us, she asks. She drew on current research to explain how part of the answer is that human beings as a species are biologically incentivised to learn.
Smriti then outlined three lessons she learned from being a journalist:
Be open to having a conversation. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a question, and listening. She illustrated her point with a story she worked on about the lives of three transgender men in Sri Lanka. She concluded by reflecting on what in that anecdote was useful to her audience: she felt that it might be in committing to a conversation, not worrying too much about doing all the talking and simply trusting that everyone has some insight and value to offer regardless of your first impressions.
Go looking for the surprising. Smriti explained that before she began working on a piece about the need to develop a locally produced antivenom for Sri Lanka, she had a profound fear of snakes. While working on the piece, she learned that the toxicity and composition of venom in snakes was different across countries due to reasons such as climate and diet of the snake. Spending time with people who worked with these animals and wanted to protect them also helped shift her perspective. The moral of the story? Curiosity, allowed her to spot opportunities and recognize gaps she might not have otherwise, and when deployed in the right context was also a particularly effective response to fear.
Confront your bias. Smriti admitted that perhaps the hardest thing about cultivating curiosity for her had been in being willing to investigate her own prejudices and confront the stereotypes she unthinkingly replicates. Both journalists and readers are in the grip of their own biases. We often want the headlines to say it all, she said. We want our victims to be weak and our perpetrators to be heartless. We want stuff people into 140 characters.
She said the real test of curiosity might be in how good you are at being curious about yourself. How clearly can you see your own bias? Now, what will you do about it?
Having established that curiosity had intellectual and social benefits, Smriti argued that it was also a necessity in Sri Lanka today. With the RTI (Right to Information) Act, we have the right to be curious about our government. She added that with a new constitution in the works, you have to be willing to be curious to how the old one failed us, and how the new one could be made better.
In conclusion, Smriti said that this small island had seen communities separated by war, misinformation and political manoeuvring. In this context, genuine curiosity about each other, curiosity with prejudice or defensiveness could be the first, small step toward building a country we would all like to live in. Curiosity could be a radical act, she said. All you have to do is start with a question.
Today in Sri Lanka, curiosity is a necessity. With the RTI (Right To Information) act, we have the right to be curious about our government. She added that with a new constitution in the works, you have to be willing to be curious to how the old way failed you, and how the new one could be made better. In conclusion, Smriti explained that genuine curiosity without prejudice could be the first step to building the country that we all envision. Curiosity is a radical act. All you have to do is start with a question, and from there, connect the dots.
Are you worried about the future?
That was the opening question from Aritha Wickramasinghe at TEDxColombo 2017. Aritha, a Founding Trustee of the global education initiative Think Equal (founded by acclaimed filmmaker Leslee Udwin) explained that the number of grave crimes reported in Sri Lanka has increased by 10% and crimes against women increased by 9%. Around the world, 1.6 million people are killed every year due to violence.
How can we solve this? asks Aritha. Is it by the law? What if I told you that within a generation we could have a just society with peace? That certainly piqued everyone’s attention. Aritha went on to explain that within the next 15 years, we could have a critical, better thinking, equal thinking society. In fact, we are creating it right now. How? Its called education. But not just regular education. This is social and emotional intelligence. It teaches one to be kind to one another and treat everyone equally.
Aritha went on to explain that our mindset can only be changed through education. Through neuroscience, we know that a child between the ages of 3 and 7 can be taught to be more human and social than at any other age. Think Euqal and their global committee of experts (whihc includes celebrated educationist Sir Ken Robinson) created the world’s first global curriculum for social and emotional intelligence.. You can’t teach these by standing in front of a blackboard. You have to use creative methods. Accordingly, Sri Lanka was the first country to pilot this initiative. Sri Lanka will also be the first country in 2018 to have the initiative implemented in all schools.
Aritha shared some stories from children who had taken part in this initiative. The first was about the girl with the mirror. The girl aged 3 and a half had a rash all over her body. During the first lesson of the initiative, the children were asked what they like about themselves. This, Aritha says is to teach acceptance of ones’ self and then accept others. The girl took the mirror and said she likes her face. In short, even though she was bullied and made fun of because of the rash, she accepted herself.
The second example was about the boy with the bags. The bags are used in the classes and represent various elements such as a character bag, problem bag and solution bag. Using these, children can come up with solutions to identified problems. The child wanted to take the bag home to tell his parents to end arguments between his mother and father. In short, if there is a problem, let’s find a solution.
In conclusion, Aritha emphasized that if we teach children these skills, to just imagine our country or world. “Imagine they are all dots. Imagine they all connect to each other. “Are you still worried about the future?”, Aritha asked again. “Because, in a world that thinks equal, I kinda feel good about it.”
The last speaker for the day was another musician
Krishan Maheson AKA Kingsouth is a Musician/Rapper and the founder of Thamizh hiphop music in Sri Lanka. He spoke about his fascination with rap music, specifically, Tamil rap music. At the age of 15, he along with his other friends, had their first single on 2005 and was also the first Sri Lankan artist to release an album with Universal Music in 2005.
He went on to perform one of his songs J-Town Story which was in collaboration with Iraj. The crowd was certainly digging to the beat and we too found ourselves tapping our toes to the beat and singing along if and when we could. Krishan also had a live demonstration of how music is produced by taking simple sounds and blending them together to create something new. With a few more beats and some killer Tamil rap, Krishan’s session came to an end.
That signaled the end of the speakers for TEDxColombo 2017. With the vote of thanks given by the Safra Anver, co-organizer of TedXColombo 2017 drew to an end. We’ve been to TEDxColombo events before and we were once again impressed by the topics and the speakers as well. It certainly did help us connect the dots.