A few years ago, while I was on a self-imposed sabbatical from design, the president of Bennington College flew down to Santa Fe to see me, completely out of the blue. She had recently been on a board retreat in Bermuda where they were planning a brand new institute at Bennington College as the crucible to galvanize a new curriculum around the world's most pressing problems. A faculty member whom I don't know had shown her and the trustees a video of a talk I gave in Chicago in front of an audience of about 700, a visual explanation of the interplay between democracy and capitalism. The trustees encouraged her to investigate who this guy was and what made him tick.
I had seen Dr. Elizabeth Coleman's own TED talk on her call to reinvent liberal arts education, and was blown away by her audacity. I considered it to be one of the most important TED talks ever done. But that was one of many videos I watch online, and like most, fine as an inspirational datapoint, but more or less irrelevant to me in my day to day life and career. After all, I had left academia decades ago to plunge headfirst into the private sector, never to return again. I, like many, felt academia had a tendency to be divorced from reality, and I wanted nothing more than to play in reality's sandbox, landmines and all. I became a professional designer with my own successful design firm in Manhattan, doing award-winning work for blue-chip clients and dotcom startups, and making a decent living at it. There was no bandwidth to think about anything else beyond work, work, work.
When Liz contacted me, I was pretty gobsmacked. What would the point of a meeting with her be about? What could I possibly have to offer someone of her stature and accomplishments? My family moved to New Mexico from NYC after 9/11 for a life "reboot". I had sold my firm, I left the design reservation to pursue a few entrepreneurial ventures, and started a slow but cathartic process of detoxifying myself from the insanity of the commercial and corporate worlds. I was in a serene state of creative openness and intellectual curiosity, and worked on several projects of my own conception, as one often does when one doesn't have paying clients anymore. I suppose Liz's visit came at a fertile time. I just didn't know what on earth we'd talk about. The weather?
And there we were, sitting together on a sunny day on a park bench in the quaint and historic main plaza of downtown Santa Fe. After some brief pleasantries, a neutron bomb of a first question emerged from Coleman.
"So, Gong. What keeps you up at night?" she asked in unblinking don't-waste-my-time gravitas.
"What? Seriously?" I stuttered. No one had ever asked me that before. How on earth do you even begin answering a question like that? This wasn't going to go well at all. Why? Because I actually am a bonafide insomniac. Lots of things keep me up at night. All that question did was to kick up all my anxious and neurotic worries about the effed-up world that my daughter was growing up in, but mostly my frustrating lack of grasp about how and why things worked they way they do. If this were a job interview question, and in a way it was, I would surely choke because there's simply no way to answer that question coherently. Just too loaded.
What ensued was an unforgettable conversation that lasted for 12 solid hours. Twelve hours going toe-to-toe with a take-no-prisoners luminary born in 1931 (what she has witnessed first hand I only read about in history books), the head of a prestigious and famously progressive institution, a known firebrand, a fearless catalyst for change in the entrenched and risk-averse world of academia, and a consistent lightning rod of controversy. We sparred vigorously over current-day politics (we discovered, albeit uncomfortably, that we did not share the same taste in presidential candidates), political philosophy, governance, wicked global and domestic problems (and who to blame), the deteriorating state of education in this country, who the relevant power players were and why, the implications of the financial crisis, the chasm in values between the current generation in power and the disenfranchised emerging generation of young people, and more. Much more. It was hard to keep track of it all. I was completely spent by the end of it, and she could have easily gone on for another day. Nevertheless, I learned that day that I could go 12 rounds with a titan, something I never imagined even remotely possible. And it was all about what keeps me up at night. God only knows what keeps Liz Coleman up at night.
And to top it all off, after such an intense and grueling day, she insisted that we dine with my wife Bonnie and 3 year old daughter Willow in the 4-star restaurant at her hotel. She refused to let me have the check. Liz later showed us her elegant accomodations and allowed my kid to giddily use her bed as a trampoline. To my chagrin, Willow had no idea whose expensive linens she was trashing.
Weeks later, I received an appointment letter in the mail. "Should I sign this? I have no idea what I'm getting myself into," I said to my wife. Bonnie wryly replied, "You'd be totally nuts to sign it and totally nuts not to sign it."
As Yogi Berra famously said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
So, I took it.