What’s the best thing you’ve ever spent money on? Experience

I opened Quora on my iPhone the other morning and saw this question and suddenly felt an urge to answer. Odyssey on the fly

What’s the best thing you’ve spent money on?

Amy Robinson, idea machine Edit Bio

TED.

I spent every penny I had (and then some) getting to a TED Conference when I was 24. It changed my life.

I was organizing a TEDx in Huntsville, Alabama, where I’m from, when I learned that in order to have more than 100 people at your event you have to go to TED. Like, go to TED. Real people actually do that and you can too.

At the time I was working in environmental management and bartending on the side i.e. not your typical millionaire attendee. It was April, my TEDx was slated for November and TEDGlobal was happening in early June. TED Registration was closed so even if I could have afforded it, I couldn’t  apply.

Then came Tod, a now close friend and mentor at TEDxAtlanta who I reached out to for advice. We talked extensively and he convinced me that I should do everything in my power to go. He wrote letters to TED on my behalf and landed a nonprofit rate (yes it exists; you can only use it once in your life). I spent everything in my savings to buy that ticket. I had to fly standby because I couldn’t afford a real flight.

I don’t really know how to explain it..the sheer joy, inspiration and openness of ideas that is TED. Big ideas from the stage coupled with extraordinary audience members is the perfect storm with which to disrupt yourself. Conversations blew my mind. I talked with executives, researchers, explorers, entrepreneurs..I met people from all walks of life from all over the world, something I had not much been exposed to while growing up in Alabama.

TED audience members are all people who go to great lengths and expense to immerse themselves in Ideas Worth Spreading. I was nervous and intimidated but I forced myself to suck it up and walk up to strangers and ask them things like “What talks inspired you most?” In part because one of the first interactions I had at TED was with a stranger who walked up, said hello then asked point blank “so what inspires you?” So..that can happen. It helped me realize I can catalyze amazing, thoughtful conversations by asking intimate, important questions. TED was the perfect environment for it. I learned never to be intimidated and to just relax and talk about ideas that matter. The editor of WIRED and Shell’s Sustainability Director are all people, too, and if you just ask interesting questions with an open mind, they might surprise you with perspectives you never even imagined.

I realized how little I knew about the world and how much, even in my state of perpetual optimism, I had underestimated the infinite opportunities in it. TED connected me with ideas and people that have helped shape who I am today. Involvement in TED and my expansion into TEDx has heavily influenced how I organize projects and even got me into crowd sourcing, which I now do for MIT. It is my duty to use my time here on Earth to make it a better place and TED has played an instrumental role in shaping how I take action along those ideas.

Now, three years later, I am Creative Director of EyeWire, a game to map the brain at Sebastian Seung’s Lab. I met Sebastian at TED. I started the TEDx Global Music Project — it was catalyzed in part by TED. I cannot quantify the multitude of things that this engagement has brought to my life.  I’ve kept going to TED and expanded to TEDMED and many TEDxes.

I wrote this story out because TED can be anything. I followed my passion for ideas and caliber conversations and I invested everything so that I could take action – it started because I wanted to put on a big TEDx event. You can find your TED (and it may be cheaper!) and when you do, I hope you have someone like my friend Tod to tell you to throw caution to the wind go for it. And if you don’t, I will be that person for you. My email is neurons@mit.edu. If you ever need encouragement to be brave, drop me a line.

You must take risks. I overdrafted my bank account while at TED (ahh FML but it was worth every penny I didn’t have). My parents had to wire money over because I didn’t even have a credit card. That’s the TED attendee story you don’t hear! Money is a means to experience. I don’t buy prada bags. I buy plane tickets. It’s true. Put your pocketbook where your heart is — better, where your head is. Invest in your passion. I use my money, limited as it may be, to facilitate action, interaction, collaboration, side projects and I rarely live a day without experiencing awe at just how much my life has changed since I signed away my savings to attend a dreamy conference in England..

What does the world look like through the eyes of a neuroscientist?

connectome project

How does the world look through the eyes of neuroscience?

Paul King of the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at UC Berkeley sums up his perspective in 7 points on Quora:

1. Body image is dynamic and flexible.
2. Perceptual reality is entirely generated by our brain.
3. We see the world in narrow disjoint fragments.
4. Our behavior is mostly automatic.
5. Our brain can fool itself in really strange ways.
6. Neurons are really slow.
7. Consciousness can be subdivided.

Read the full answer on the EyeWire Blog.

Image courtesy of the Laboratory of NeuroImaging at UCLA and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH, Consortium of the Human Connectome Project.

A Bucket List

US Presidential Elections 2012 have me thinking about awesomeness.   Ironically, the time of year that America divides decisively into two halves, seemingly uniting only in declaring their unfettered hate of each another, makes me think about how much I love it when these sentiments don’t dominate conversation. Remember that time when we landed Curiosity on Mars?  Remember how awesome that was?  Yes, you do.  Humanity rocks.

Tonight seems appropriate, then, to dig up and publish the old Bucket List.  That’s right – I have one. It’s in Google Docs. I keep it real(time updated).  Browse the magna carta of Amyian wonderfuel.

No time like the present, as Tibolt says, to “take action on your ideas.  Action generates inspiration!”

First, four Bucket List Accomplishments:

1. Learn to Surf

Completed: August 2009

One summer I happened upon a housesitting gig in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Thanks to a nicely timed Facebook status update from an old high school friend (these were the days when we weren’t constantly fbing) and a spontaneous me, I decided that if I did not take this opportunity to live in Hawaii, I would probably regret it in five years. On two weeks notice, I hauled out. A month later I checked surfing off the bucket list.

A sensible bucket lister would include things like summiting a volcano or cliff jumping..but no, the only thing that counted towards bucket lis mastery on that excursion was in fact learning to surf.  Shaka and mahalo to my lovely local friends who patiently waited as I battled swell after swell before finally hanging ten. Below: Brent Nakano, little sister Sara who came out to visit, and yours truly.

2. Run through a field of flowers

Completed: April 2011

It was so great that I didn’t just run through them, I sprawled out and basked in the awesomeness of 360 degree pink-tipped clover. And then I added more flower sprints to my Bucket List futures.

3. Skydive

Completed: Summer 2004

The summer after high school, I decided to jump out of a plane. This is the decision process that goes into most of my bucket list feat completions, or life in general.  I want to X. I do X. There is a video of this dive..somewhere.  The guys who made it liked heavy metal and as I recall it’s set to limp bizkit. Rock on, 2009 bro.

4. Play with penguins

Completed: April 2012

Because who doesn’t want to hug a penguin? They’re fucking awesome. Tiny feathered tuxedoed demolishers of fish with winds apparently strong enough to break an adult’s femur yet the little buggers still can’t get airborne. This shenanigan actually got me published in the Huffington Post via Quora (a most amazing social network).

That’s it.  In 26 long years I’ve completed four Bucket List items. A whopping one item every 6.5 years. Better step it up if I want to finish in my one and only lifetime.

Next, Future adventures:

  • Go to space
  • Have sex in space
  • new: run through fields of: blooming lavender, dutch tulips and a blooming south african meadow
  • Visit Machu Picchu
  • Speak at TED
  • Own a ridiculously fast, energy efficient convertible sports car
  • live in Asia
  • new: skydive in a wingsuit somewhere with beautiful scenery
  • be able to balance a handstand for one minute
  • New Years on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
  • become proficient in the most advanced mathematics
  • jump off the roof of a building into: a pile of snow; a swimming pool
  • ride a giraffe
  • scuba dive in waters inhabited by bioluminescent creatures

That’s my entire bucket list. I also want to understand consciousness but that doesn’t really feel appropriate next to “live in Asia,” it’s not really a bucket list item so much as the purpose of my life.

Now, thanks in part to US elections, my bucket list is public. You should make yours public, too. Inspire people!  Make a google doc of your bucket list and publish it on the web. Share a link in the comments or post it on Quora.

Finally, the point of this post is to overcome partisanship and remember human awesomeness. I’ll leave you with a #lifebonus video from my friend John Boswell, the beautiful mind behind Symphony of Science:

What are the best TEDTalks?

On Quora: What are the best TED presentations?

The best TEDTalk, in my opinion, is a 6 minute presentation by William Kamkwamba: How I harnessed the wind.  A 16 year old boy couples science and determination, building a windmill from junk parts that irrigates his families fields, saving them from starvation. It just gets better from there.

Daniel Kahneman, founder of the field of behavioral economics, discusses the riddle of experience versus memory

Steve Keil’s Manifesto for Play

Matt Ridley: When ideas have sex

Finally, Carl Schnoover: How we see inside the brain

More favorites.

crazy awesome, quora

“Sweet, intense and cool all in one.”  Urban Dictionary thus defines “crazy awesome,” solidifying the phrase into infinite internet existence.  Yes.  It doubles as a description of Quora.

My last three blog posts have featured Quora.  Why?  Because it is impacting how I think and I think I should share the process as it unfolds.

Stats:

I’ve asked 68 questions and contributed 65 answers.  I follow 51 topics and 11 boards,  6 of which I curate.  2358 credits. 152 followers, 109 following.

My most popular board is How to entertain an intellectual with 106 followers, 26 posts and 2636 views.

Yesterday I woke up to 85 notifications.

Whoa.

One month ago those numbers were halved or quartered.  Notifications were virtually non-existent.

It’s safe to say that Quora is a little addictive.  Thankfully, if you’re intelligent and interactive (or famous in San Francisco), Quora’s community will love you back. Why?

In the words of Jason Preston, “Quora is curiosity, never satisfied. “

…at the core I think I find Quora addictive because it is a targeted attack on human curiosity.

We’re all wired, somewhere in our brains, to be turned on by new knowledge. And Quora is designed to constantly surface new answers about topics we are interested in, without us having to ask the questions.

And when we do have questions the crowd is there to help.  Curiosity fuels me on Quora.  It fuels people to reach out and interact with each other.  Here are a few examples.

Inbox notes from strangers:

Going through your quora answers, I see so much energy, optimism and straight pointedness.

Love it !!

another came in while I was writing this post:

I’m a recent graduate who took the plunge into the polluted fires of China and recently came back out to seek greener pastures States-side. Many of the experiences I’ve had are once-in-a-lifetime, so your outlook on career-life balance definitely resonates with me.

To fulfill my long-term goal of becoming an entrepreneur and achieving financial freedom, I’m making a career transition–I hope into an entry-level sales position. Yet, in the back of my mind, I know that rationalizing what I want to or should do doesn’t have much to do with reality, so I want to ask you a simple question:

How did you get onto the road of being absolutely happy with what you’re doing?

I know it’s a big question that probably has an equally big answer, but if you have the time to distill your experience, I’d really love to read your reply.

Awesome.  I will reply to him.

I need to think hard to venture out, to be uncomfortable and unconventional. Great people like you make this world interesting!

You can see why why Quora makes you feel good.  Strangers spontaneously light up your day with kind words, useful answers and entertaining ideas.  This week I unexpectedly discovered that caffeine is a natural insecticide and that hippopotamus milk is pink.  Useful?  Probably not.  Delightful?  Definitely.  I love surprises and ideas, two things which Quora is full of.

I often get on Quora to achieve a thoughtful interlude between projects during the day.  And ok, in honesty, I’ve also been losing too much sleep to the epic Quora news feed (it’s 1 am now).  So what’s the point of all this?  Quora is a story.  It’s unfolding now.  It’s influencing my daily activities, my perspective.  Right now I’m not sure how to think of it.  I do think about it, though.. why Quora is valuable and how that value transfers to other parts of life.

Quora is a dose of “hm, that’s interesting!” every time you open the app.  After a brief spurt of ADD-ish idea tangents, I return to life refreshed, inspired, and might even shape projects in a different way than before the influence of Quora.

It inspires me to diversify creativity and share outputs, like autotuned voice memos, and experiences by responding to the occasional college grad looking ta build a life he loves.

In closing, here’s a little creative challenge for you, noble reader:

What is the most epic day you can imagine?

Tony Nguyen sets the stage:

Here goes nothing.

You wake up in a time machine 3 days in the past on a deserted island somewhere in the Atlantic, and upon walking out, you discover that a feast fit for a king is laid out, catering to whatever culinary desires you possess. Finishing the last of your decadent meal, you fly using your newly available superpowers and perch atop a double rainbow.

You discover that all the women of your fantasies are lined up waiting on command to do whatever you wish. After you have completed most if not all of your fantasies, you ride a neon robot giraffe to the start of EDC, a massive rave with your favorite producers/Djs. You then proceed to party until the end of your most epic day ever.

This all took place while accompanying theme music followed you around.

I laughed out loud when I read this and it made me happier for the rest of the day (small joys go far).  Maybe it was the imagination or perhaps the surprise that someone actually answered.  Either way, it’s crazy awesome. I can hardly wait until tomorrow – a new day, the sunny end of this night.  New ideas and discoveries await on Quora and beyond.

Career Advice

A question popped up in my Quora feed today that prompted a short sidetrack into a topic I think many of us struggle with on a regular basis: work.  The Question:

I hate my job, but it pays a lot of money. What should I do?

On a whim I decided to contribute a unique perspective, seeing as I am in the exact opposite situation. Here’s my response:

Interesting question.

To give you a different perspective, my job/life is spectacular but my bank account is empty. I work 80 hours a week but only a small fraction are paid.   It isn’t such a big deal because a. I live an extraordinary life and b. doing what you love eventually pays off.  Last month I spent my birthday in Doha, Qatar.  Last weekend I was sailing SF Bay during a break from building a game to map the brain with MIT.  Two examples of hundreds.. Extraordinarily wonderful and surprising things will happen when you stop focusing on money and start focusing on living with passion.  Reevaluate why you value the ideas and things that matter to you.

There is no substitute for living a life you love.  Start now..it will only get harder to change

Be Inspired on Quora

How do you discover the web?

I’ve become a big fan of Quora, a Socratic social network.  In the words of its founder, Adam D’Angelo:

When you want to know more about something, Quora delivers you answers and content from people who share your interests and people who have first-hand knowledge — like real doctors, economists, screenwriters, police officers, and military veterans. On Quora, it’s easy to create a personalized homepage of everything you want to know about by following topics, questions, people and boards.

UCSD’s Neuroscience Department shared Quora with me on Twitter about a year ago.  Yes, that’s right.  Neuroscience labs are on Twitter.  Follow some.  But back to Quora.

If you already use it, do so more frequently.  And connect with me.

If you don’t use Quora yet, it’s pretty simple.  Like Twitter, you follow people and they can follow you back.  Link with Facebook and your “likes” automatically become Topics you follow.  This means that when someone adds a question to a topic you follow, it shows up in your feed.  You can also follow questions.  Play around with Quora.

Ask questions.

Add and explore answers.

Shuffle and discover random and hilarious questions, like

Create boards.

Today I built “Be Inspired” featuring ongoing questions like

(The crowd loves Euler’s equation)

Quora rocks.

Share links to your favorite Quora questions in the comments.  Add the most delightful questions to Be Inspired.

Amy