Aspen Ideas Festival Part 1

Last week I was honored to participate in an Arthur Vining Davis Foundation (AVD) Fellowship at the Aspen Ideas Festival. For four days I lived and collaborated with 16 other fellows and five members of the AVD Board. The Aspen Ideas Festival is hard to describe since it is unlike anything I have ever seen before and I could not believe the level of speaker and attendee the Festival attracted. I will use the pictures below to give a brief synopsis of the experience.

I moved to Dublin after working for four years in Aspen so it was a surreal and nostalgic experience to return to the town where my parents still live. The first night the AVD fellows were hosted at a beautiful home in the Starwood neighborhood of Aspen. Some of you may recognize the name of the neighborhood from a John Denver song! The views of the West Elk Range are stunning. The picture above shows the view along with the AVD fellows and Board members. We were led by Nancy Cable, an amazing leader and the president of the AVD Foundations. 

The opening session featured two other impressive women. The picture above is of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde. It was amazing to hear her reactions to Brexit barely forty-eight hours after she was addressing the crisis at the IMF. She was clearly not happy that Great Britain voted to exit the European Union. Brexit and Syria were significant topics of discussion at the Festival.

We then heard Atlantic Magazine owner David Bradley interview Susan Rice, assistant to President Obama for National Security Affairs. Rice's life story and her work in the United Nations inspired all of us in the crowd. Wish I could convince her to speak at graduation!

One of the first breakout sessions I attended featured Adam Grant, bestselling author of Originals and the top rated professor at the Wharton Business School. He covered many of the topics he outlines in his book about nonconformists, arguing that originals fight groupthink, they make the unfamiliar familiar to those around them, they need to find allies in unlikely places, they make it safe for people to bring up problems, and they put values above rules. Grant was an excellent speaker.

Next I attended a packed auditorium to hear Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter, Better, Faster. I expected a slick presentation, but was surprised to find Duhigg funny, humble, smart, and informative. I was most struck by his argument that productivity and efficiency are not the same thing. The most productive people often have habits, like Thomas Edison taking a long cold bath every morning, that are quite inefficient, but lead to deep thought and impressive productivity. He also noted something that struck a chord in my boarding school  mindset. He pointed out that productivity in most communities requires a high level of human touch and interaction, something that many leaders will write off as inefficient. Duhigg urged us to create our own habits that carve out time for reflection.

The campus of the Aspen Institute is absolutely stunning and contains sculptures and designs by the likes of Andrew Goldsworthy. Gourmet food was served throughout the day in a series of tents around the campus. I enjoyed touching base and comparing notes with the other fellows during meals.

Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson (if you have not read his biography of Steve Jobs I highly recommend it) then interviewed Comcast/NBC CEO Brian Roberts and Rio Olympics host Bob Costas. They spent an hour talking about their innovative approach to covering the upcoming Summer Olympics. While I worry that we might lose the power of our collective viewing of the Olympics due to the increase in individual event coverage, I have hope that the wonderful Bob Costas will bring us together again during primetime with his great storytelling. He was hilarious throughout the session.

The first day ended with a visit from Secretary of State John Kerry. I was impressed with his grasp of the complexity of the current state of foreign affairs. Like Walter Isaacson he warned us about the growth of tribalism and nationalism around the world, including within our own country. As an example he connected the refugee crisis in Syria to the recent Brexit vote in Great Britain, suggesting that a fear of immigrants encouraged a good number of British people to vote to exit the European Union and strengthen their borders. He explained his controversial decision to allow some economic investment in Iran despite Iran's support for some terrorist groups. His main point, and one well taken, is that foreign policy is not black and white.

Andrew Goldsworthy's snaking wall on the Aspen campus is a fitting symbol of the opening days at the Ideas Festival. It was an intellectual journey and I was exhausted by the time I walked back to our hotel. More to follow...