Bliss in Banff: Dylan’s Transformative Experience at TED Summit

I get very anxious when flying. I have no idea why, but traveling doesn't agree with me. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing the world. I always jump at the opportunity to travel somewhere new. Last spring, after our TEDxFoggyBottom event concluded, I applied to TEDSummit. It was very spontaneous and, in retrospect, I am so grateful that I applied. A month later, I found myself booking a flight to Banff.

I was ecstatic. I had doubts about whether or not I was going to be selected to attend the event, due to my brief time with TEDxFoggyBottom. Before I get into my journey to Canada and my experience at TEDSummit, let me explain what TEDSummit is.

TEDSummit assembles some of the most passionate TEDsters, speakers, authors, TED Fellows, TEDx organizers, volunteer translators, TED staffers, educators, animators, and partners from almost 70 countries. The week-long summit in Banff revolved around the theme of “Aim Higher, Together.” I did not understand what this meant before the trip, but TEDSummit ended up changing my life.

I did not sleep the night before my flight, I couldn’t. Due to a mix of anxiety and excitement for TED, my eyes were bloodshot by the time I was dropped off at Newark Liberty International Airport. After white-knuckling the turbulence and almost throwing up, I finally landed in Canada. I was picked up from the airport by TEDSummit representatives and brought to my hotel. At last, my anxiety had faded and I was completely overwhelmed by pure TED excitement.

Okay, so, Canada is lit. I can’t write this blog post without giving credit to the beauty of the Canadian wilderness. I saw moose, grizzly bears, black bears, and elk. For the nineteen years that I have been on Earth, I had never seen so much beauty. My daily activities included canoeing in glacier water, seeing the northern lights, and watching a concert with snow-capped mountains cascading behind the stage. I remember looking up at the stars at two in the morning on my first night in Banff and I not believing that TEDxFoggyBottom would have brought me to that moment.

I had a multitude of transformative experiences while at Banff, among them included the personal connections I was able to make with TEDsters from 70 countries worldwide gathered to learn from, inspire, and elevate one another. In a meeting set up exclusively for university organizers, I had the chance to collaborate and learn from other individuals my age at a pub in downtown Banff. I was the only rising sophomore in attendance, which at first intimidated me. I was in the presence of people who had been hosting events for four years and I had just finished my first event and still felt like a novice in the TED community. This quickly changed when I began to notice how much I was able to offer the other organizers. “How do you get so many attendees with such low ticket prices??” “How did you fund your stage design?” “Is it better for videos to be more cinematic or more abstract?”

I had answers to most of these questions, just by drawing from the experiences I had in my year with TEDxFoggyBottom. Sometimes it is easy to take things for granted; what I no longer take for granted is the culture that exists at TEDxFoggyBottom. A culture in which everybody cares about each other, and inspires us to work into insane hours of the night to help make an idea into reality. A culture that you can know will make you laugh and smile. A culture that encourages passionate people to chase higher positions and carry on a legacy of greatness and professionalism.

My second and most mind blowing and transformative experience was a conversation with Mr. Usman Riaz, who presented at TEDxFoggyBottom in 2014. Usman is a master musician, composer, filmmaker, and animator. As someone who wants to pursue a career in film and entertainment, meeting him was unbelievable. Before turning twenty, Usman had already had short films in festivals, and had performed in some of the greatest music halls around the world. I approached the prodigy at dinner, and started speaking with him about his work. We went to grab some drinks before sitting down to talk. I started firing off questions about film and his creative process, and then quickly apologized for asking so many questions. He smiled and pulled out his iPad Pro. For me, this moment was the equivalent of Willy Wonka opening the door to the chocolate factory. He started by showing me pictures of his visits to Ghibli Studios and Disney Animation. These studios invited him to come visit, as Usman is working on a feature film crowdfunded by thousands of his fans. He then moved on to showing me the storyboards for his film, which blew me away. One piece of advice really stuck with me- I told him how I was hired to work on a film I really didn't want to work on. After TEDSummit, my plans were to head back to New Jersey where I would be working on a poorly written, low-budget, indy-horror film. In his own eloquent way, he told me to never sacrifice my creative vision. Why aid someone else’s creative vision when you don't agree with it? I took his advice and quit the film gig, and spent the rest of the summer creating music and writing movies.

This event served as a catalyst for several new passions within me. I saw what TEDx events were capable of doing around the world. I saw that they each have the ability to teach, inspire, and help. On my final day in Banff, I spotted the big man himself, Chris Anderson, at a concert TED was hosting. I knew Chris was the Curator of TED, but I said to myself,  “why not?” and walked over. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, even though he didn't need an introduction. I wanted his advice, so I went ahead and asked, “I am definitely one of the younger attendees here at this event, and I have learned so much, but is there any advice you have on making the most out of this week?” He smiled. He continued by telling me to be open and explaining that I have a lot to learn, but by being completely and utterly vulnerable, I will grow the most, and he is right. Between gripping the rosary during turbulence and losing to the urge to puke, I had some contemplation time on the plane ride back. I realized that the openness of which Chris Anderson spoke, is what makes TEDxFoggyBottom so amazingI came to TEDxFoggyBottom after I had been cut from GW Rowing, so I was vulnerable, to the say the least.

I was accepted into a new community and I was given the opportunity to excel in the work we did. I have never been with a more diverse group of people at GW, and I have never felt more comfortable being myself. I look forward to the weekly group meetings because I trust my fellow TEDsters. I know I never have to try and be something I’m not. We are all very different individuals and we are united in something so simple, yet complex: hosting a TEDx event.