In 2010, I was a college dropout bartending in Alabama. Five years later, I was named on the Forbes 30 Under 30. I run a neuroscience organization that recently spun out of MIT, and I curate the TEDx Music Project.
Here are the three habits that got me there.
1. When considering whether to embark on a major risky decision, ask yourself this: If I don’t do it, will I look back in five years and wish I had?
If the answer is yes, go for it.
It was spring of 2010 and I had just discovered TEDx; at the time, it was a newly launched program of local, independently organized TED events. I was a big fan of TED so I drove two hours to Tennessee, where I attended the first TEDxNashville.
On that day, I decided I would bring TEDx to Alabama. We’d fly in speakers and have a huge event that would bring Ideas Worth Spreading to my hometown of Huntsville. Nevermind that I had never raised sponsorships or organized an event. The initiative was past the threshold; a Twitter account had been registered.
Then I hit a roadblock.
I quickly discovered one of TED’s cardinal TEDx rules: In order to have more than 100 people at your TEDx event, a TEDx licenseholder must attend TED. Like, TED, TED, the big conference where you see people like Bill Gates and Will Smith. The event where people wait years to get in and pay thousands of dollars.
It wasn’t possible, so I tried to hack it. I reached out to all the TEDx organizers in the Southeast (a whopping three people at the time) asking if one of them could hold our license for TEDxHuntsville. None could but one offered to come to lunch.
Tod Martin, the owner of a large marketing company in Atlanta, drove four hours to have a meal. We chatted for three hours about life and ideas and TED and TEDx. After he left to head home, he sent a text:
“We have to get you to TED. It will change your life.”
“But even if I could afford it, applications are closed,” I responded.
“Don’t worry, we can have a bake sale.”
We kept talking and a couple weeks later, my new mentor had secured a spot for me at TED. I spent some time working with an environmental NGO, so TED was kind enough to let me use my once-in-a-lifetime (literally) nonprofit discount, which brought the ticket down from $6000 to $2000. I still couldn’t afford it.
On their own accord, TEDxAtlanta pitched in and I borrowed the rest of the money from my boyfriend. Suddenly, in a span of a month, I had gone from a TEDTalk fan online to someone who was going to TED.
Not only did I take charity and borrow money to get there, but I also had to hack my airfare, buying a standby ticket (which stranded me at Heathrow for four days upon return, but that’s another story) and literally couchsurfing. Yeah, I couchsurfed at TED because I couldn’t afford a hotel. I actually had so little money I overdrafted my bank account while I was in England and my parents had to wire me funds.
Pretty sure I was legitimately the poorest person at TED. But money is just money; what really matters is experience. I may have had pennies, but I was rich in opportunity.
At that bank-account-wrecking TED, I met superbrain Sebastian Seung, the founder of the project I now run. I connected with astronauts and magazine editors, sustainability directors of Fortune 500 companies and even the legend, Chris Anderson, himself.
Tod was right: TED did change my life. It taught me to think bigger and broader; to be bolder both with my intellectual ambitions. At TED, a stranger walked up and said, “So, what inspires you?” That single sentence is one of the most impactful phrases I’ve ever heard.
At that moment, I realized caliber conversations are everywhere if only I catalyze them. TED helped connect me to both mentors and great minds. Through it, I’ve realized what matters is the people you connect with in life.
This is one story among many. I’ve flown to another country with only a few hundred dollars in my bank account. I’ve quit a job to housesit in Hawaii for a few months on three weeks notice.
Life comes at you only once and the opportunities that open don’t often come again. Be brave, take big risks and you’ll find your future becomes more fantastic than you ever imagined.
2. When you read something that impresses you, write to the author.
When I read something that strikes me as interesting, I write to the author. This has led to connections ranging from friendships to business relationships and even new side projects.
I never write to people to complain. In fact, I don’t even leave negative reviews online; there are plenty of others who will do that. It’s not worth my time to leave a complaint for digital eternity.
But I always leave reviews when experiences are exceptional, which is kind of similar to writing to authors whose articles you enjoyed. A simple “I loved your article!” or “I read your piece and it made me wonder…” or “I enjoyed your story and it got me thinking about…” goes a long way.
Think about it: An author writes a piece in WIRED or publishes a paper in Nature. A great deal of work and passion go into each paragraph. In my experience, when I write with questions or ideas, most authors write back.
One such case is that of Sebastian Seung. Back in 2012, I discovered a project he was working on called EyeWire when legendary science writer and Yale Professor Carl Zimmer tweeted about it. I checked it out and remembered it was the neuroscientist I met at TED.
I wrote a note to him saying how great I thought it was. Then, I kept digging and thinking about it, so I wrote him a followup with ideas for how I thought the project might be improved. It wasn’t “this sucks and you should fix it.” It was “the site has a great purpose, but it takes a bit of digging to uncover it. Have you thought about syncing up with a design studio to make some animations explaining it? I would be happy to make some introductions for you.”
I volunteered to help. A couple days later, we were on Skype. A few weeks after that, I had volunteered my time to fly out to Palo Alto and host a brainstorm session. During that trip, Sebastian asked if I would consider moving to Cambridge to work on the project at his computational neuroscience lab at MIT.
In no way shape or form did I ever imagine a couple emails would turn into that. I wasn’t even looking for a job; I was happy as a creative director of a health company at the time. I merely saw something interesting and had ideas about how I could contribute to it.
Two years later, I’m the Executive Director of EyeWire.
Talk to strangers! Especially the ones with thoughts you find interesting.
3. Work without pay on side projects you’re passionate about.
Money only matters as much as you make it matter. Can you pay rent at an apartment with power, Internet and running water and have enough spare change for food? Then, congratulations, you live better than a couple billion people on earth.
Many of the most interesting and fascinating projects I’ve worked on have usually started with my working without getting paid: EyeWire, TEDx, and the largest among my side endeavors, the TEDx Music Project. This one’s different. Despite the fact that it’s been running since 2012, I have never and will never make a dime from this project; it is purely for passion.
I started the TEDx Music Project with a simple premise: It should exist. There are thousands of TEDx events curated locally around the world and almost all of them have live music. Music that is recorded and licensed Creative Commons, meaning it’s free to share.
Over the years, I’ve led a team of TEDx organizers and TED fans in the curation of over 600 tracks of innovative music from all around the world. Recently, I presented our latest data visualization of the library at TEDxIstanbul.
This expansive side project has taught me more than to fight for what I believe should exist. It’s helped me learn to maintain and motivate a team of people distributed across a global network, from Delhi to Dubai. It’s taught me the life of a project organizer isn’t usually glamorous; it involves a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of tedium.
I’ve also discovered that a project as big as this can be run and maintained entirely by volunteers. No one on the TEDx team has ever been paid. We do it because we love it.
This gives me great confidence in the future. If the next generation is full of bold risk takers, optimistic connectors and emblazened makers who create regardless of profitability, then our world will most definitely be more amazing than anyone can imagine.