Last month, I traveled to Georgia (the country) to give a talk at the second annual TEDxTbilisi. In that talk, I used stories about shoddy infrastructure to explore the gap between conventional theories and my own understanding of the things that cause authoritarian regimes to persist and then collapse. Called “Why Dictators Build Stuff that Crumbles,” my script was basically a mash-up of a couple of blog posts from the past year: one of nearly the same name, and another on why political activism over threats to public health and safety presents authoritarian regimes with special dilemmas.
The event was terrific—full house, great venue, good refreshments—and the small army of volunteers it took to make TEDxTbilisi happen did tremendous work. To readers of this blog, I’d especially recommend these four talks:
* Dato Gogigchaishvili, a Georgian television host and producer, gave a really smart and funny talk that probed the truth and limits of cross-cultural comparisons.
* Rusudan Gotsiridze spoke beautifully and humorously about gender roles through the lens of her own experiences as the first female bishop in Georgia.
* Educators and parents will appreciate the talk by Mark Rein-Hagen, a professional game designer, about learning through playing.
* The theme for TEDxTbilisi this year was “crossroads,” and Donald Rayfield capped the day with a great talk about Georgia’s long and difficult history as a place squished in between other, more powerful states and empires.
Honestly, preparing for the event was a lot harder than I’d expected. Having a blog where I regularly try to present social-science ideas to a broader audience made the initial task of identifying a relevant topic and drafting a script easier than they might have been. That part, I actually enjoyed. Much harder for me were committing the talk to memory and rehearsing it enough so that it (hopefully) didn’t look and sound too canned.
I’m sure the memory and delivery parts are easier for some people than others, and I suspect they get easier when you do them routinely. They were new to me, though, and I put a lot of hours into it over the two weeks before the event, reading out loud and then practicing versions of the talk. The closer I got to the trip, the more of my intellectual processing power it seemed to absorb. I was a lousy creative thinker that last week, and once in that home stretch I completely whiffed on a phone call I was supposed to make for work, something I never do. Having been through this once, I’m much more impressed with the people who make that kind of performance look natural and effortless than I used to be.
Finally, I gotta say, the process was exhausting. I am a creature of habit who rarely travels for work and almost never travels overseas. My TEDxTbilisi trip was a five-day blast with opening and closing legs of 24-hour travel to and from a city eight time zones ahead of home. During the three days I was in Tbilisi, the combination of jet lag, noise and cigarette smoke in the hotel, caffeine withdrawal, and anxiety about the impending event meant that I slept poorly. I used to race a lot as a runner and then a cyclist, and one of the big rules of thumb in those worlds is to stick to normal routines as much as possible before important races to keep the stress down and energy and focus up. Here, I’d basically done the opposite, shaking up everything I normally do. If I’d had my druthers, I’d have taken my first crack at this kind of thing under less stressful circumstances.
Of course, in real life you take what you can get, and in TEDx Tbilisi I got a great opportunity. If hope you enjoy the talk.