Finding purpose from "X" to "Why"

TEDxGVSU hosts inaugural event

By Emily Doran | 2/26/17 10:09pm

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GVL/Kevin Sielaff - Marcus Collins, Senior Vice Preident of social engagement at Doner Advertising, speaks during the TEDxGVSU event held in Grand Valley's Cook-DeWitt Center on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

by Kevin Sielaff / Grand Valley Lanthorn

What happens when you experience a life-changing illness that makes you rethink what’s important to you and how you’re spending your time? How do you reconcile your idealistic childhood dreams with the need for practicality as an adult? How should you view yourself knowing you’re one tiny speck in a vast universe?

Guest speakers at TEDxGVSU’s inaugural event, “The Blueprints Between X and Why,” examined these questions and many others Friday, Feb. 24, in the Cook-DeWitt Center.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL/Kevin Sielaff - Ryan Lafferty, a marketing and brand strategist who teaches at both GVSU and the Kendall College of Art and Design, speaks during the TEDxGVSU event held in Grand Valley's Cook-DeWitt Center on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL/Kevin Sielaff - Euphoria acappella group performs during the TEDxGVSU event held in Grand Valley's Cook-DeWitt Center on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

During the three-hour event, individual presenters drew from their own life and career experiences to offer insight into finding meaning, purpose and fulfillment while progressing through life and navigating different career paths. Two central themes that emerged from these talks were the importance of asking questions and searching for answers and looking to the past to understand the present and plan for the future.

Shannon Cohen, the founder of Tough Skin, Soft Heart, said although she wasn’t doing what she had planned career-wise when she was little, she was still living out her childhood dreams by drawing from the same inspirations that motivated her then. She urged the audience members to pursue careers inspired by their childhood aspirations that would enable them to “live at the intersection of joy and purpose.”

“We know as leaders how to live at the intersection of obligation and duty,” Cohen said. “We know how to live at the intersection of ‘got to’ and ‘don’t want to.’ (Childhood) is one of those unique, special, precious stages in our lives that are often accompanied with some of our most limitless thinking and often accompanied with us being unfettered with our perception of self and what we can be and do.”

Matthew Smith, a Grand Valley State University student, spoke about his struggles with anorexia and how they motivated him to refocus his interests from extreme running to dumpster diving. Through his new hobby, Smith has salvaged more than $40,000 worth of food and merchandise, which he has largely donated to local charities. He said this amount was minuscule compared to the total amount of wasted food in the United States but that every bit helps. Building on this point, he told the audience members they didn’t have to be “radical activists” to make a difference in their communities.

“We’re not all called to create some overhauling change in society, but we are responsible for those around us,” Smith said. “When it comes down to it, we don’t have to be rich, we don’t have to be famous and we don’t have to be some radical activist with our whole lives devoted to just a single cause.”

Ryan Lafferty, a marketing and brand strategist who teaches at both GVSU and the Kendall College of Art and Design, encouraged audience members to view challenges as “and” situations instead of “either/or.” Addressing scenarios from this perspective, he said, fostered creative and effective problem-solving.

“Living in the ‘and’ demands that we look at things from different points of view,” Lafferty said. “We have to abandon the notion of a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer and come at situations from all different kinds of perspectives.”

Shane Larson, an astronomer and research associate professor at Northwestern University, offered some advice on how humans could be inspired, not discouraged, knowing their small place in the universe. He said human beings had the unique ability to ask questions, which was the first step to finding answers about their purpose in the cosmos.

“You’re a way for the cosmos to look at itself and ask those questions that we always ask,” Larson said. “In a very real way, you are the cosmos made manifest. (We’re) all made of the same star stuff.

“It’s okay to feel small. We are small. Be humble because you don’t know everything there is to know about the universe, but be noble because you can figure it out. You have the power to ask the question and figure out the answers.”

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