Exclusive Insights From Four TEDWomen Speakers

Featuring Luvvie Ajayi, Justin Baldoni, Susan David and Sally Kohn.
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Host Pat Mitchell speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Host Pat Mitchell speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Throughout this past year, we have been witnessing something remarkable— an active energy, a renewed force of nature coming to the surface. It is women: courageous, motivated, hurting, angry, concerned, resolute. Women of all backgrounds, ages, races and experiences, rising up everywhere to use their voices, speak their truths, and demand change. Whether marching at the Women’s March or stepping up by the tens of thousands to run for office, or courageously sharing their stories of harassment and assault with #metoo, women are newly engaged and energized in increasing numbers, and we are rising—to share our stories, articulate our outrage, advocate for our concerns and our planet, and share our visions and dreams for a more equal, just and harmonious world.

It was no surprise to me, then, covering this year’s TEDWomen conference at the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans, to see that the stand-out messages in many of the talks were focused on women overcoming fears, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and speaking truth to power.

The TEDWomen conference—a part of TED, the nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading—is committed to being a forum that offers a high-profile platform for women of diverse backgrounds, perspectives and professions to share their stories and visions. This was the 7th year of TEDWomen, the concept for which was spearheaded by media pioneer Pat Mitchell, and grew out of what she identified as a void that needed to be filled after she talked to TED founder Chris Anderson back in 2008 about the fact that women made up “less than 20% of the TED talks online and on the TED stage.” Mitchell offered to help Anderson find female speakers for what she thought at the time would only be a one-time conference in 2010. Now, seven years later, due to its popularity and success, TEDWomen is still going strong.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Bridges." I asked Mitchell how she chose this year’s theme, and she told me, "This theme seemed to respond to a time when the divides between people, cultures, races, genders and countries never seemed wider. We wanted to deliver ideas about how we build bridges of understanding, design ways to connect again, suspend our own opinions and beliefs to listen to others, and rebuild relationships, personal and collective.”

The event featured a live program of more than 40 speakers and performers over three days, and was broadcasted to more than 200 simultaneous TEDxWomen events held in more than 60 countries in 160 cities around the world. The diverse speakers presented from the worlds of entrepreneurship, innovation, science, art, activism, business, civil society and more.

One of the much-anticipated talks, which Mitchell said was booked long before the Harvey Weinstein story broke and sexual harassment was back in the headlines, was Gretchen Carlson, who was one of the first women to step forward back in 2016 with her harassment claims against former FOX News network head Roger Ailes. Mitchell said that it was fortuitous timing for Carlson’s talk and that she hopes that we are “at a game changing moment.” In Carlson’s TEDWomen talk (which you can view here), she told her story and identified three specific things we can all do to create safer places to work. Said Carlson during her talk, "We will no longer be underestimated, intimidated or set back. We will stand up and speak up and have our voices heard. We will be the women we were meant to be."

To herald the moment that we are in, I decided to interview a few of this year’s amazing TEDWomen speakers for their advice and encouragement for women to be brave, overcome their fears and speak truth to power in order to be our full selves, advocate for the causes we care about and contribute to positive change. I also reached out to a male speaker, actor and proud feminist Justin Baldoni, (whose talk you can view here) who challenged men to redefine masculinity by being “brave enough to be vulnerable” and “strong enough to be sensitive.”

Here is a sampling of some of the wisdom that was shared with me during those interviews (and stay tuned for the full roster of inspiring TEDWomen talks to go online, which will appear on TED.com in the coming weeks and months).

In alphabetical order: Luvvie Ajayi, Justin Baldoni, Susan David, Sally Kohn.

Luvvie Ajayi on Being the Domino

“Being yourself can be a revolutionary act. In a world that wants us to whisper, I choose to yell.”

Luvvie Ajayi speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Luvvie Ajayi speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Luvvie Ajayi is an award-winning author, speaker and digital strategist who thrives at the intersection of comedy, technology and activism. A fourteen-year blogging veteran, she is the voice behind Awesomely Luvvie, a widely-respected humor blog that covers everything from TV, movies and technology to travel, race and life’s random adventures. It was her blog that inspired Luvvie’s debut book set to release November 21st, I’M JUDGING YOU: The Do-Better Manual, which instantly hit the New York Times best-seller’s list.

A self-proclaimed professional troublemaker, Luvvie tamed her fears by conquering them in the boldest ways possible—deep-sea diving, skydiving and ziplining across forests. In her talk (which you can view here), she encouraged others to do the same, to be the first domino causing a chain reaction. She said, “There are too few people willing to be the domino, to serve as a catalyst by doing or saying what is difficult.”

Marianne Schnall: You gave such inspiring talk about overcoming your own fears. How does one conjure up the courage to be the domino, to be the first and to say the things we think not to say?

Luvvie Ayaji: There is no one way to do that. I think it just comes from knowing, acknowledging the fact that it is scary but then kind of taking a deep breath, swallowing hard and just doing whatever that is anyway. There is no easy way—just do it. It’s just one of those things that comes with fortitude of like, “Okay, I have to do it. So I am just going to acknowledge the fact that this is how I am feeling about it, but it is not going to stop me.”

MS: You spoke a lot about you know that there are too few people willing to take that fall in terms of speaking up and being the first. Why do you feel that right now it is so important that everybody, in particular women, do this right now? What are the stakes that you see?

LA: What’s at stake are our basic rights and the things that we hold dear. I don’t think we can afford to be silent anymore. Where before we could probably be like, “Yeah, I guess I will be quiet because I might lose something,” I think now we have way more to lose than we realize. So that’s what is at stake, like the fact that now people are even discussing Roe vs. Wade where that might even be called to back into debate. So, yeah, I think it is expensive to be quiet sometimes, I think it costs us more to be quiet than it does to speak up.

MS: What would you say to women—who as girls are often groomed to please and be liked and not make trouble—about how to not worry about what other people think as you speak your truth?

LA: You can’t please everybody, so you might as well just speak the truth. That’s all your job is: to speak the truth. If nothing else because at least you know that you were authentic to yourself, and at the end of the day you have to basically answer to yourself, not anybody else.

MS: What one message are you hoping to convey through your talk and in your work generally right now?

LA: I am really trying to encourage people to do what feels scary… encouraging people to just tell the truth.

Justin Baldoni on Men Being Brave Enough to Be Vulnerable

“Fellas, we are the problem. And if we want to be part of the solution, then words are no longer enough.”

Justin Baldoni speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Justin Baldoni speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Justin Baldoni is an actor, producer, director, and CEO of Wayfarer Entertainment. Best known for his role as Rafael Solano on the CW’s hit show, Jane the Virgin, he is also the moderator of the new show Man Enough, a weekly dinner party that brings together some of the most recognizable faces from Hollywood to have deep (and sometimes uncomfortable) conversations about what it means to be a man today.

In his talk, “Why I’m done trying to be ‘man enough’” (which can be viewed here), Justin invited men to reject traditional norms of masculinity, to be accountable for and conscious of their actions—and to be vulnerable, express emotions, and disrupt the patriarchy. He asks, “Men, are you brave enough to be vulnerable? Strong enough to be sensitive?”

Marianne Schnall: You said that men have to “be brave enough to be vulnerable,” so literally overcoming fear and having courage for men is to be vulnerable and go against gender norms. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Justin Baldoni: I have to brave enough to be vulnerable and open up, and I think that we completely forget that bravery isn't just something that is outside of us, it's also inside of us and we can use it to go inside of ourselves. I think it takes a lot of strength to be sensitive, it takes strength to be willing to show your cards, to be willing to cry when you are hurting or when you are happy. Because it takes strength to be okay with not caring what someone is going to actually think of you, that they see you weak when someone in your family dies or when you are struggling with something.

It's strong to be able to hold those things, but we don’t teach our children that and we don’t teach our boys that, we don’t teach our men that. We just teach our boys that girls cry and boys suck it up, and then all that happens is we don’t ever learn to express ourselves. I think there is this misconception and it starts when we are kids. And it's ingrained in our psyche and in our culture, and I think that we just really need to be mindful of the way we talk about ourselves and our own qualities.

As boys we start repressing those things because that makes us weak, so what ends up happening is we start repressing all of those things and then one day it's just the dam that has to explode and it either explodes in depression or it explodes in a breakdown emotionally or it explodes in rage. Because we all know that rage and anger are really the emotions that young boys are told they are allowed to feel.

I think men that come forward and talk about their struggles and their depression are brave, men that go see a therapist are brave, men that are willing to confess their fears to their wife are brave—there are different levels of bravery that I think it's okay that we start talking about and rewarding and supporting and acknowledging in men.

MS: What was your own journey in terms of having to redefine your own sense of masculinity, and why you think this is so important for men right now?

JB: I just remember feeling so much emotion as a young man and as a young boy from whatever situation I was in, whether it was hearing boys make fun of other boys or getting bullied myself. But I was taught that I shouldn’t feel those emotions, let alone express them, because those emotions made me “girly.” So at a very young age I had to kind of put on this tough exterior, this mask of masculinity. I mean, even the root word of masculinity means it's like a mask. So I put that on as a young boy and then teenager, not allowing myself to feel or at least to show that I felt anything.

And when I hit my late twenties, I started to look at myself and ask, Who am I? Who am I really? I found that the behaviors that I had developed as a young man weren’t serving me anymore because I was doing and saying things that weren't true to myself, to my core. I was treating women in the way that really wasn’t how I wanted to treat them but was how I was told that I should treat them if I want a certain results. And none of it was working for me. I found myself lonely, isolated, unable to express the things I wanted to express, my work suffered. So all of these behaviors and all these things, I just started recognizing them in myself. It just came down to, well, let me just start to figure out who I am and just kind of rebuild myself.

And then the more I learned about feminism, the more I realized, well I guess I'm a feminist because I believe in equality. In feminism, women are fighting for equality, but the reason they are fighting is because men are fighting back. So to me it was like, well then I need to talk to the men, and if I'm having these issues, I wonder if other boys and other men are having these issues and maybe there is a chance that if we can affect young boys and young men and create a new generation of men that are willing to talk about these things and open up and share their feelings, and by sheer by accident we can create a new generation.

MS: What got you started on this path of speaking out about these issues of masculinity?

JB: What kind of got me started was Jane the Virgin. I ended up on a show that was a feminist show, I got a certain kind of group of fans that started following me, and I started sharing what I cared about, which was my family and my love for my wife and when my daughter was born and talking about equality for women, and then realized I wanted to talk about redefining masculinity.

And then so many of the women following me started saying I was perfect and started saying they wanted to clone me, and when I hear that it bothers me because I’m flawed, I’m not perfect. So every time I hear this it makes my work that much more meaningful because I want to go reach other men. There are so many men out there who are better men than I am, who are more in touch with their hearts and more in touch with their vulnerability and that sensitive side, and those men need a voice and need a platform. So I really hope that they start coming out of the woodwork and that women can start recognizing that they also exist.

MS: What drives you to keep doing this work?

JB: I’m just trying to figure out how I can keep going and how I'm going to affect the hearts of young boys and men and even women around the world by letting them all know that they are enough. They are enough as they are. They don’t have to be anybody else, they don’t have to be like that guy or like that woman, they don’t have to act that way if that’s not who they feel they are in their core. They don’t have to push away their emotions just because it makes them look weak. And in fact, if we can start to redefine what that means and teach young boys that their emotions are actually their strength, their vulnerability is their power, there is a really good chance that we can create a big difference in the world. That’s what drives me.

Susan David on Having the Courage to Feel Our Emotions

“Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking.”

Dr. Susan David speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Dr. Susan David speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Susan David, Ph.D., is an award-winning Psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School; co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital; and CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. She is the author of the new #1 Wall Street Journal best-selling book Emotional Agility based on her concept that Harvard Business Review heralded as a Management Idea of the Year.

In her talk, she says that how we deal with our inner world drives everything. Every aspect of how we love, how we live, parent and lead is influenced by our emotional agility, how well we approach our emotions with curiosity, courage and compassion. But we need to strip away the toxic rigidity of categorizing emotions as overwhelmingly good or bad, pushing away the “bad” ones or pretending they don’t exist. Tough emotions are a part of our contract with life, she says. It’s up to us to handle them and ourselves with mercy and grace.

Marianne Schnall: Why is it so important that we learn to deal with and be open to our difficult emotions like fear, anger and sadness, and how can we learn to do this for ourselves and for our children when we are not given the support and tools to do so?

Susan David: It’s critical because our emotions are the call signaling function that we as human being have at our disposal. Emotions often taught us things to help us communicate with other people, but in fact a core aspect of our emotions is that they help us to communicate with ourselves. So often when we feel in dissonance with something, when we feel disconnected with something, those are the kinds of things that we have emotions about. As I said in my talk, we tend to have strong emotions about things we care about, so when you aren’t open to your emotions, what you’re doing is basically cutting off from yourself the key resource that is actually there and available to help you to understand yourself better in the world.

And a key thing that emotions give us they help to signal our values. Our emotions are flashing lights to our values. If you are sitting reading the news and you feel anger rise inside you, often that anger is a sign, like, “Gee, you know, I am worried about issues of equity or fairness.” Or if you’re feeling guilty as a parent, you know often that’s a signpost that presence and connectedness is really important to you.

The value that emotions bring is our values, quite literally, which is that if we slow down, if we open ourselves up to them, our emotions are a core resource that help us to shape our lives effectively.

MS: When we live in a world that tells us that the main goal is to just be positive and be okay, how can we become more comfortable with our difficult emotions?

SD: A very, very important way to first and foremost start learning from emotions is to end the struggle that we have with our emotions, quite literally by dropping the rope. What I mean by this is our social and cultural expectations create almost a tug-of-war within us around our emotions, where we’re constantly going backwards and forwards as to whether we should feel something or we shouldn’t, we’re allowed or not allowed, whether it’s a good emotion or bad emotion.

We have a choice of showing our emotions and ending the judgment that we have about our emotions. And it’s difficult, it’s not an easy thing to do, but often there is a level of choice in saying, “I am not going to second guess myself anymore, I am not going to judge myself. This is what I am feeling.”

MS: One of the lines from your talk that was re-tweeted and went viral was when you said, “Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is fear walking.” What did you mean by that?

SD: If we are waiting for our fear to abate, if we’re waiting for the fear to go away for us to do the stuff that’s important, we’re never going to step up, we’re never going to stand up. We cannot wait for fear to go away because it’s like waiting for breathing to go away, it’s like waiting for thinking to go away—these are core human parts of us. So really what I meant is that courage is not the absence of fear, it’s not about not feeling fear, it’s not about conquering fear—it’s about having the capacity to notice your fear, to notice it with compassion because you’re feeling fearful about something and something that matters to you.

So we want to notice our fear with compassion. We want to notice our fear with curiosity: What is this fear trying to say to me. What is it specifically that I am scared of here? What is this fear trying to tell me? So courage is about being able to notice our fear with curiosity and with compassion and still choose to take steps in the direction of our values.

MS: What are the wider implications for the world of a more emotionally resilient people and society? What would that look like?

SD: We know that we are reaching levels of social change, gender change, equity, more value-based ways of being, not when we are not feeling fear but when we’re taking steps in the direction of our values, and that often feels fearful and that’s normal.

Sally Kohn on On Neutralizing Hate

“Hate is in all of us and we can see it when we think we hold the moral ground over another.”

Sally Kohn speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Sally Kohn speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and columnist, and is currently working on a book about hate—why there’s so much hate in our world today, why it’s getting worse, and what we can do to stop it. The Opposite of Hate will be published in the Spring of 2018.

In her talk, she admits that in grade school she mercilessly bullied another kid, with cruel words that stayed fresh in her mind long after every other fact about fifth grade was forgotten. That memory, along with a noticeable increase in recent hateful thoughts in the world at large, made her question how she thought of herself: “What if I wasn’t a nice person at all, but really just a hateful monster?” She began to ask questions and set out to understand this early episode of bullying in her life within the broader context of hate and its growing influence in the world.

Marianne Schnall: One of the big things that I think is so important that your talk underscored was overcoming the fear of the “other” and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. What advice do you have in terms of learning to have conversations with people who may appear or believe differently than us, and why do you think especially right now learning to do that is important?

Sally Kohn: To be honest, it was always important. If your critique is that the other side doesn’t listen, understand, connect enough, that literally is a two way street. You can’t just say, hey, they don’t understand us. They don’t listen to us. They don’t connect to us. You do have to recognize that you may in fact play a part in that as well and that it’s not just on those proverbial others to relate to you, but vice versa.

MS: What advice do you have on having productive conversations with people who you may have different values and see things differently that don’t lead to just some of a shouting match?

SK: The first thing is kind of a philosophical approach, which is to understand that people who disagree with you are not necessarily your enemy. And the truth is that I’ve met a lot of extreme people who extremely disagree with me in very vocal and vociferous ways, and I can still find more I agree with them on than we disagree on.

We happen to have a society in general, and a media environment in particular, that hones in on those areas of disagreement and makes them feel magnified. But we still love our kids. We still want our family and people around us and everyone in the world to be safe. We still don’t understand why everyone watches Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and yet when it’s on we can’t look away. You know, we have all these things in common.

Even my closest friends, I don’t see eye to eye with them on everything. But I have sort of a well-honed habit of focusing on the things we agree on or the ways in which we’re alike or the ways in which we’re connected. Why don’t I do that with the people on the “other side?”

MS: You have experience in terms of getting up there and be able to speak out even knowing that you might get some push back or trolls or the haters out there. What advice do you have and what is your way of dealing with that sort of backlash, that is just going to come naturally with when we do forcefully speak our minds as women?

SK: We’re seeing right now what happens when not only we women speak out on an individual level, but the power of community, the power of many voices. And the truths about sexual assault, sexual harassment that had been buried for so long—not just because women had strong reasons to not speak out, but because of patriarchy and misogyny. Those kinds of massive institutions of injustice and habits of injustice don’t topple because we kind of hope they will. It happens when we all come together, speak up, support those who do, sometimes yell really loudly as a group. Women and men, using their voices collectively for justice. And I think certainly in recent history, this was one of the most profound examples, the way we’re seeing day after day after day the ripple effects what happens when more women speak out, speak out together and act to make change. We’re seeing how incredibly powerful and persuasive that is.

MS: How can we learn to advocate for the causes we care about without inadvertently spreading more negativity, more hate and division, especially while there is so much kind of resist and protest energy? How can we do that while simultaneously modeling this more loving and harmonious world that we want to represent and not by creating more division or hate in the world?

SK: We do tend to think that other people are hateful. And what’s more—what I came to realize is—we hate them for it! So we literally hate this group of people or that group of people because we think they’re just so hateful, and we don’t think we’re hateful, even though we’re literally hating them.

And there are all kinds of physiological phenomena for this and research that proves this: the inability of human beings or our disinclination as human beings to see our own stuff and yet very accurately critique and label it in others. I mean we can’t even have a real discussion about hate if we can’t see that we’re all implicated, all involved, all part of the problem.

It doesn’t mean it’s all the same. But hate is hate. And there’s a bit of a sanctimony issue that we need to step away from and start to face our own issues head on if we’re then going to have a real conversation about others.

For more about TEDWomen and this year’s speakers, visit www.tedwomen2017.ted.com


Marianne Schnall is the founder of What Will It Take Movements, a media, collaboration, learning, and social engagement platform that inspires, connects, educates and engages women everywhere to advance in all levels of leadership and take action. She is also a widely-published journalist whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, CNN.com, Forbes, the Women’s Media Center and The Huffington Post. She is the co-founder and executive director of the women’s website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice and What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.

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