Aspen Ideas Fest: A Place to be Invited, Bewildered, Challenged!

“We have 50 Billionaires”, my Uber driver Han proclaimed as we drove along the beautiful mountainous winding road from Snowmass to Aspen. The affluence of Aspen is the first thing you notice. Rich people do stake out the best views and Aspen is beautiful. It’s also 8000 feet above sea level and the altitude felt like a boulder pressed across my chest. I spent much of the first day both in awe of the beauty of the place while taking gulping breaths and reminding myself that I was not having a panic attack. My arrival in Aspen was overwhelming. It felt a little like an extreme sport and I wondered if I was up for it, but I didn’t come all this way not to try. Then, as I was walking through the Aspen Institute campus, looking like a rapidly welting flower, another Black woman made eye contact, smiled, stopped to say hello. In seconds, she became my impromptu orientation advisor: “Yes, it can be overwhelming at first…” She went on to tell me that she keeps coming back because as a leader she owes it to herself to be in rooms where she is challenged to think outside the box. Ok, I can totally get into that.

Piper at Aspen Ideas Fest 2018

Over the next three days, I am provoked, inspired, humbled, baffled, frustrated, challenged, and activated. I am asked to share my story or why I do what I do more times than I can count. I told the story of founding my company, Create Forward, three years ago. Proudly shared what we have accomplished in the world to date. But I’ve also been pushed to consider just how much greater the impact could be if I thought about our work in different ways. I’ve gained fresh perspectives from people I would never consider contacting if I just saw their LinkedIn profile. But more than anything I left Aspen Ideas Fest with new questions and a commitment to stay on the edge of my own knowing, where I can’t be lulled into the safe complacent place of surrounding myself with people who confirm what I already believe to be true. There are few ideas I packed up and carried with me as I left Aspen to lower altitudes. As a facilitator and experience designer, these are concepts I want to continue to explore in my work.

There is an art to the invitation. In his conversation with Erick Liu, Damian Woetzel talked about the importance of the invitation. He describes the ways his first invitation into Aspen Institute changed his life. An invitation can take so many forms. In fact, getting to the festival was a series of invitations, starting with my friend Marine Biologist Extraordinaire, Ayana Johnson recommending me for the Aspen Ideas Scholars program where I joined 300 leaders from around the world. Once I arrived, the invitations kept coming in big and small ways. I wandered into a cocktail party at the PayPal tent. I was standing outside a circle of very impressive people. Before I could turn and find a less intimidating opening around the room someone turned out and said, “come, join us.” On the walkways along campus, at the cocktail parties, and standing around after sessions, conversations happened easily. Each time I was met with genuine interest and appreciation for what I brought into the world. Each invitation has led to new connections, relationships, people who only in just meeting me became very determined to see me succeed.

A little bewilderment is a good thing. There were over 300 hundred sessions at Aspen Ideas Fest and then lots of tents with spaces to talk, think, meet, write, eat, and nap. Yes, it can be overwhelming and confusing navigating so many options but there are no bad choices here. The entire festival is a lesson in the iterative nature of meaning-making. Ideas collide from one session to the next forging new understandings and awakening dormant creative knowings. The session you attended at 9am will surely take on a whole new meaning the next day after you’ve attended a session with different presenters exploring a completely different topic.

 Be challenged, it’s exactly what you need. “Know your own mind, but don’t define your own reality”, said David Milibrand, President of the International Rescue Committee. He went on to explain the way to avoid defining your own reality is to engage with people who are not like you, who you may not agree with. Aspen Ideas Fest is a place to do just that. The people on the stage don’t have all the answers and that really isn’t the point of them being there. In engaging with their ideas and perspectives you gain something much more generative, new questions to explore.

The day after I returned from Aspen I was in a classroom inside of a maximum-security prison with the twelve incarcerated men I teach in an accredited college program. I teach a course on public speaking. As I was discussing the importance of engaging with counter arguments I shared the quote from David Milibrand that was imprinted on my brain, “Know your own mind, but don’t define your own reality.” We puzzled over this idea together in a classroom inside a prison in upstate New York. It truly is amazing where ideas can travel: from a beautiful mountainous terrain, home to a prestigious think tank, to a maximum-security prison with men preparing for their return to society, and it all begins with an invitation.