You came to Las Vegas from the health sciences affiliate of the hugely popular TED conference, TEDMED. How did you get that cool gig?
I have a degree in music and had a career as a freelance violinist, which is a terrible way to make a living. I decided I would get a job in marketing and learn how to market classical music to audiences. I went to work for a company founded by entrepreneur Jay Walker, who founded Priceline and eventually bought TEDMED. I turned out to be a very good project manager, so I did 10 years of marketing, project management and launching businesses, while doubling as a violinist.
Then I injured my back to the point where I had difficulty standing and walking. I had to re-learn how to walk, [using a form] of biomechanics called the Feldenkrais Method. It’s learning how to rewire your motor patterns, so that they’re more biomechanically efficient and disrupting patterns of pain. I studied behavior change, neuroanatomy, biomechanics, anatomy, neuroscience. Originally, I wanted to do this therapy so I could get back to, you know, bumming my shoulder out [playing violin]. But it ended up being a total reversal of the way I think. Feldenkrais is actually about learning how to learn … and because of it I came to understand the process of learning itself. Curating TEDMED was a natural extension of that.
What did curating a TEDMED conference entail?
I would select the themes, the topics and the speakers who would be featured on the programs—about 60 speakers in a four-day period. Essentially, what I did was put together a team and work with speakers to produce 11 documentaries in four days.
Have you ever done anything like this, programming a speaker series at the heart of what is a music festival at its core?
No. My friend Andrew Hessel is a synthetic biologist who prints open-source cancer therapies on 3-D printers, and he’s tickled pink that he’s on the same lineup as Kanye West!
[Festival founder] Rehan Choudhry says that the point of Life Is Beautiful is not only to have a smorgasbord of talent in whatever field, but also to engage. This is a generation that’s super motivated to have a social impact. I’m hoping that the Learning Series will make doing good, finding meaning and changing the world seem accessible, if still very challenging. That’s how you get smarter—through the right mix of success and failure.
Speaking of the right mix: You’ve got Isaiah Austin, who missed out on the NBA Draft because of a career-ending illness but perseveres; Shiza Shahid, CEO of the Malala Fund (the charitable organization founded by recent Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai); and David J. Peterson, who created some of the languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones, among many others. How did you choose these folks?
One thing I tried not to do was to pick speakers who would give the traditional motivational talk: “Keep looking at the mountain, keep heading to the horizon.” I believe that the process is a hell of a lot messier and grittier than that. Take Giles Duley, who went from fashion photography to being a humanitarian photographer. His motivational talk could be, “I’m so amazing, I’m doing good for the world.” But he’s still struggling with the injury of having stepped on a landmine. He’s determined to create a life that has meaning, to use his creativity and his talent and his passion, and do these dangerous things and not be limited.
It’s raw. He’s not going to pretend it’s not. It’s not necessarily about overcoming it; it’s about living through it.
You gotta tell me how you got Pussy Riot to come to Las Vegas.
I have the world’s best teammate Erin Booth [who worked with me on Life Is Beautiful]. That’s the short answer. Every day I would say, “I want Pussy Riot. I want Pussy Riot.” I don’t take credit; it really was Erin who secured them. I’ll just credit myself with being very tenacious. She was remarkable in stalking them on Instagram.
Let’s say you’re preparing me to give a TED-style talk. What advice would you give?
The first thing is to find out your authentic path. I was influenced by meeting Richard Saul Wurman, the cofounder of TED, who looked at me with full fierce eyes and said, “Talk to everyone for five minutes.” What he meant was that everyone has a story in them. I curate, in part, by looking for where a person seems the most alive. Where does that person seem to be at a mental or emotional crossroads? Because that’s usually the kind of pattern that they’ve been hacking at their whole life. I’m very excited to uncover where it is that they have to go off-road from their polished talks.
Why do you think we love these kinds of talks so much? What made a TED-style series an anticipated part of a music and food festival?
TED has done an incredibly good job of making the world seem possible. There’s something about being able to express a complex idea simply that resonates for us. It’s a pattern that all brains like, and I believe all brains actually like the feeling of learning. When you make learning into something that can be done on your terms, you help people feel like they can engage with the world.