The cave we fear to enter.

Yes, that was the title of my TEDx talk.

No, this post isn’t the script for that talk. I mean, it is, because I’ve included the draft script at the end of this post. But it isn’t, because what people have been asking, in this last week, isn’t “What did you talk about?” but, rather “What was it like, giving a TED talk?” (Exciting. Exhilarating, actually. Also: a hell of a lot harder than I expected it to be…. and more….)

Photo credit Meggan Kiel

(No, I don’t have the link to share the recording of the talk yet — but when I do, I’ll share it here.)

Let’s start in a strange-seeming place:

We have a cat, and, as I wrote years ago, the cat lives in exile in my son’s room. Now that both children are in college, I have to keep the cat company. Since the guest room that’s part of her suite is also the room I use for exercise, I spend time with her every day.

But what she really wants is someone to lie down in the bed and watch television, so she can sit on the lap of the person who’s watching television, because, in her old age, she’s that kind of cat.

Last Friday, the cat was my audience as I rehearsed my talk about art, art history, artificial intelligence, and humans. She paid me no attention, but her sleek black, green-eyed face made for a nice focal point while I practiced and played with different words, intonations, and pacing.

Once all of that was clear and settled in my head and I’d practiced enough that I felt confident about the ultimate delivery the next day, I got into bed with the cat to watch mindless television while she purred in my lap.

We watched Quantum Leap. No, not the original one, which was terrific, but the new one, which is terrible. Really, really terrible. Second-guess me at your own peril here, noting that it’s time you won’t be able to get back.

Watching that show did prompt an ongoing thought, though, about the idea of leveling up, earning access to something new through action that addresses a present issue. Master this level, and you move to the next one. Master this life, and you come back into a better one. Screw up this level/life, and you either repeat-repeat-repeat or move down.

Only the way I’ve been thinking about this idea, since standing in the red circle and delivering the talk that I prepared (because turning in a script beforehand is a requirement) and edited and recorded and rehearsed and re-wrote and re-recorded and practiced and practiced and practiced (because that’s actually what it is to give a TEDx talk, PRACTICE), sounds something like this:

What opening is present, right now, that’s an opportunity to break from past behaviors and experiences. What fear or mental model is in the way of behaving differently in this go-’round? Who are the holographic advisers, doing their damnedest to make this round a success?

Maybe you’re wondering. “What the hell is the connection between this bad-TV-inspired idea and the work I was doing last weekend, preparing to stand in the big red circle under the hot lights?”

An artist friend who’d stood in the red circle the year before offered me one piece of advice when asked about her experience: “Trust Darius [the coach assigned to work with all TEDx Memphis speakers]. Listen to him, and do what he suggests. I didn’t, but I wish I had.”

As I’ve written often in the last 10 years, life is a trust fall, start to finish, like it or not. Deciding to trust, in general, and which specific people to trust, in particular, is the terrifying-gratifying heart of that deal.

So, I listened to my artist friend. And when the coach (who is a wonderful public speaking coach, for anyone who’s interested in working on that skill) came backstage to the green room to tell me, “good job,” I felt settled and completely at ease

And that’s what it was like, giving a TED talk.

Script (ish) follows, at the end, for anyone interested.

P.S. The last module of the First 100 Days material? Coming tomorrow morning;. It’s already queued up to post at 7:30 a.m. Here’s a sneak peek at the materials.

P.P.S. Here’s what I’m cooking this week:

Couscous bowls (inspired by this David Tanis recipe – but adapted for what’s available, right now, in the market, because it’s still winder)

  • Prepare couscous as usual; toss in a mix of brown butter (most of a stick), lemon juice and saffron (softened in warm water)
  • Chicken thighs rubbed with za’atar, garlic, olive oil and salt, oven roasted (at 370, to get them crispy at the edges), cooled slightly, chopped and tossed with cilantro
  • Cucumber (peeled, seeded, chopped), white onion (very thinly sliced), green beans (lightly steamed and chopped), and cilantro, all tossed together with lemon juice, salt and the oil from the chicken pan

Roasted Onion Salad with Arugula and Walnut Salsa

Turkish Eggs (note: My daughter introduced me to this delight when I was in Portland earlier this month. The coffee shop she frequents prepares the eggs differently from the linked recipe, namely with a sprinkling of smoked paprika instead of a heavy drizzle of pepper-infused brown butter. I’ve made it both ways, and actually prefer the no-butter version, but you do you.)

Steel-cut oat “risotto” with mushrooms and herbs. Listen, I know this sounds weird. It does. And it’s possible that when I try replicating an unbelievably divine dish that I had in Portland (not at the Turkish egg place, but at an ultra-fancy dinner), mine won’t be anything like the treat I enjoyed. I mean, it won’t be like that anyway, because the dish I enjoyed was prepared with fresh dungeness crab, which is not an option here. But it was so, so, so good — and not just because of the crab — and I’m inspired to try something new.

Life’s a trust fall, especially in the kitchen.


The Cave We Fear to Enter
(draft script – not the final transcript)

In September 1940, a few months after France fell into Nazi control, a group of teenage boys from the village of Montignac, in the southwest part of the country, stumbled into an astonishing discovery. One of the boys, 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat, had a dog named Robot, and when Robot chased something into a large hole and disappeared, the boys had to crawl in to get him. Inside the cave they found larger than life, vibrantly colored paintings of horses, stags, bulls and more.

They kept the discovery a secret, reportedly setting up a vigil at the opening of the cave to protect it, until they finally decided to confide in a teacher they trusted. The teacher helped them make the discovery known to the world. It changes the boys’ lives and altered the story of human civilization.

There are different accounts of that story, but whether it was first one boy’s discovery alone or the four boys together, on the same day, doesn’t really matter. The throughline is that the caves had been sealed for millennia, likely exposed only because a tree had fallen in a summer storm and created an opening to the cave, and the boys found that opening.

For all of that time since that September day in 1940, the caves have been a source of both mystery and excitement.

There were, and still are, spirited debates about the paintings, mostly about their meaning. They initially dated them for about 20,000 years BC. We’ve since discovered that they’re a little bit younger, but not by much.

They are not the oldest of all the cave paintings that have been discovered. They have some things in common with others that were painted either a little earlier or a little later, namely, that they used materials that weren’t immediately available to the artist.

The subject of their meaning, though, is still up for debate..

Are the paintings decorative? Were they a room for rituals? Maybe they were the marks of a tribe, who wanted to establish that this was their place, they are hunting ground and not someone else’s. Perhaps, as more recently suggested, they charted the lunar calendar.

The truth is that we will never know for sure. It’s unknowable, which is part of the enduring allure of this, and other, cave art.

What we do know, with reasonable certainty, from the archaeological record is that, around 50,000 years ago, our current model of humans – homo sapiens – emerged as the predominant human form in the populated world. You might think of us as an upgraded version of earlier models.

One of the big differences between our model and earlier versions was (is) our brain.

We also know that, around that same time that homo sapiens took the lead in human development, there was an explosion of what we now call art – paintings and sculptures that served no obvious practical or utilitarian purpose.

Like the meaning of the cave art, this connection between the dawn of art and our development as a species is still the subject of spirited debate.

One theory is that we – humans, because of our brains, are uniquely able to produce and look at art as part of how we make meaning of the world around us. That the story of humans and the story of art are the same story.

I discovered the cave paintings of Lascaux when I was around the same age as the boys who discovered them in real life, only I was sitting in a high school art history class, learning one story about how we humans make meaning of the world around us through art.

I was hooked — so hooked, in fact, that when I entered college a year later I abandoned my best academic subject – math – to study of art history. Or, as my father put it, to get the world’s most useless college degree.

I devoted hours studying the differences between Rembrandt and Reubens, the techniques and color applications that define happy Matisse and contemplative Rothko, and, more broadly, the narrative thread that connect Botticelli to Basquiat, thinking about how different people, in different places, at different times, and under different circumstances have used art as a way of interpreting their experiences and sharing them with the world.

My father was correct in thinking that my ability to talk about Diebenkorn’s shifts from abstraction to figurative work and then back to abstraction would have no direct, tangible application in the world of business. That study of how people change over time, however, has come in handy more often than not. And in a larger sense, working to understand how humans express, connect, and communicate is integral to my work, and my life, every day. Creative expression is part of who I am as a person, and I cannot imagine a world without art.

Education policy and modern curriculum development have long been on my father’s side of that argument, however, promising that concrete, unambiguous fields of study build a better, stronger, faster generation of learners and leaders who can compete in our complex world during a time of accelerated change.

It’s an easy argument to buy into, and one that brings, perhaps, a feeling of safety.

So I bought into that, too, determined that my children would double down on the kinds of learning that seemed to be most relevant.

But then an extraordinary thing happened.

My son went on a field trip to see an art show that I – with my snooty art history degree – dismissed as unimportant.

On the ride home from school, what I heard in the back seat, as the children talked about their day, sounded something like:

Why is blue dog blue?

Blue dog’s blue because he’s sad.

No! Blue dogs blue because blue is his favorite color.

I think blue dog is blue because the artist likes blue.

I like blue, too.

I like yellow.

I like dogs.

I like cats.

I’m going to go home and paint a yellow cat!

In all of the time I’d spent studying artists, artistic process, and art history, I’d spent little if any time contemplating the experience of looking at art – what early 20th century art historians termed “the beholder’s share,” the idea that a work of art isn’t complete until the painter finishes painting it AND a viewer has looked at it.

Mind you, this notion of viewer’s share emerged long before we had scans to give us a window into what happens in our brains when we look at art. Before we started mapping the process that has infinite possibilities, unique to each one of us as human beings.

You and I can look at the same painting or work of art and have completely different experiences. That’s happening right now, live, as you look at the images in the slides.

Looking at art changes us in profound ways that are immediately evident. Because it is a different kind of problem solving, a different process for extracting meaning from information, looking at art can give us insights we might otherwise never see.

For tens of millennia we’ve endured, we art-making humans. We’ve survived political, environmental, and societal upheavals too numerous to count.

Through all of that time we’ve used art as a form of expression, made meaning of the world around us through the application of lines, shapes, and pigments.

There’s a new artist on the scene now, though, as artificial intelligence begins to come into its own.

Here’s what AI can do.

AI can generate art for you, can take prompts like “make a painting of two people having a meaningful interaction, and render the image in the style of both cave art and modernism.” That’s the prompt I used to create this image.

But what AI can’t do that you and I can do, is what you’re doing right now, whether you realize it or not. Looking at art is a particular kind of problem solving that brings personal, subjective experience and knowledge together with the visual information right in front of us. When that happens, we, too, are having a unique creative experience. This process is unique to humans and general and to each individual human specifically.

No two people have exactly the same neural circuitry, so no two people process the same information, at the same time, in exactly the same way.

AI will never be able to do that, for you. Nor can AI determine what you’ll do with this insight. What decision you’ll make. What relationship you’ll bridge.

Only you can do that.

We’re in a curious time as a human species.

We’re increasingly polarized, drawn toward absolute all-or-nothing binary thinking at the same time artificial intelligence is beginning to come into its own as a tool for writing, performing research, and making art.

Our response has been to double down on hard fields of disciplined academics – science, engineering, coding – subjects that are knowable, provable, and that have tangible outcomes.

Arts education has been marginalized for decades, dismissed as nonessential unimportant and lacking in the kind of seriousness that is required for human growth development and flourishing.

I believe we’ve made a grave error there, but it isn’t too late to correct it.

The simple thing that we are not doing in this race to achieve in this race to save humanity is something that has no tangible immediate discernible value: looking at art.

Your brain, looking at art, is doing what might be its most essential human work: working to solve unsolvable problems, and finding unexpected answers in the process.

Looking at art, leaning into our native, creative, uniquely human problem-solving capacity, might be the answer to how we humans survive an increasingly complex and divided world.

It’s perhaps a counterintuitive argument – that in the face of technological dominance and the power of AI we humans should devote time studying the unknowable, unsolvable world of art if we really want to improve our ability to solve the hard problems in politics, the environment, and our social fabric.

It’s a scary idea, setting aside practical, prudent fields of study in favor of aimless exploration, pursuing knowledge that has no immediate, discernible, tangible result.

And so I’ll leave you with this question: What cave can we be brave enough to enter, in search of that treasure we seek?


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