TEDxHarvardCollege Asks the Tough Question: What If I’m Wrong?

Most of us proceed through life with strong aspirations and visions for a future full of success, whether that be professionally, familially, or personally. Yet, in many cases, serendipity takes a firm, exacting grip our lives and leads us toward opportunities we never could have imagined. In this process, we are brought closer to the truth about the ill-conceived notions that shape our relation to the world around us: They are often half-baked and marred more by deep-set biases or modes of thinking rather than objective projections.

This past weekend, the TEDxHarvardCollege team was courageous enough to assign the question “What If I’m Wrong?” as the thematic undertone for the event, hosted in the iconic Sanders Theatre on Harvard University’s campus.

The theme made for a stimulating afternoon of critical thinking and investigation of the factors involved in cognition to reveal how much of what we do is heavily skewed by habit, a product of mindless execution rather than mindful reflection. The question is an important one for this year’s TEDxHarvardCollege at a time when the facts are sometimes hidden beneath prevarications and misleading narratives.

“We are very proud of our theme this year,” said Cliffton Wang, a sophomore at Harvard College and president of TEDxHarvardCollege. “We think it’s a pertinent theme, especially among us students. At times, it seems like you show weakness if you say that you’re wrong. By hosting this event, [we hope to] show people that there are opportunities for growth everywhere you go.”

This solid thematic foundation for the event was a result of lots of back-and-forth among approximately 22 Harvard students comprising the TEDxHarvardCollege board.

“It’s a lot of straight up brainstorming,” Wang said. “Every [board] member sends in four or five suggestions. … We talked about how we would describe each theme, and we eventually came to this one. It was the one that stood out to all of us from the start.”

From this point on, the board collaborated tirelessly to curate a unique slate of speakers whose work and career paths have dealt with this essential question of “What If I’m Wrong?” The speakers came from all different backgrounds and included Gil Zamora, a forensic artist, and Johnathan Lee Iverson, the youngest and first African American Ringmaster in the 150-year circus history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The former elucidated the conventional traps of the artist’s memory contamination in suspect sketches, while the latter spoke about his unexpected shift from singing in a boys choir in Harlem to accepting a job offer out of college that would lead to an illustrious career directing “The Greatest Show On Earth.”

“We tried to have a set [of speakers] that you would not commonly see among TED talks,” Wang said. “[We] found people that you don’t hear from too often but nonetheless have as much or even more to say as people who would usually talk at these events.”

One of the speakers was Ellen Langer affectionately known as the “mother of mindfulness” and the first female professor to gain tenure in the psychology department at Harvard. Her research focus has been on mindfulness and decision-making, and her talk at TEDxHarvardCollege advocated for a sensitivity to mind-body unity. In this way, she asserted that one can go from doing things mindlessly—based on rote memory or routine—to mindfully. Through her studies, she has found that we are rarely in doubt but often in error, and that we must embrace uncertainty to see things a bit more clearly.

The event was engaging, well-attended, and pleasantly intimate in such a grand setting like Sanders Theatre. Speakers would not hesitate to ask for the audience’s input and interact with them in a conversational mode that made for a special experience. There was even a special performance by the Harvard Breakers breakdancing team, which became an instant crowd favorite between speeches.

Although this was only the fifth installment of TEDxHarvardCollege, the event has evolved over the years and grown a solid reputation within sphere of student-run initiatives.

“It’s really cool for me and us to see how much we’ve grown over the years,” Wang said. “We’re just really excited for the next one.”

Featured Images By Alessandro Zenati / Heights Editor

November 11, 2018