Ted Gonder kicks off the GES 2016

by Becca van Stolk-Cooke

Ted Gonder is an exhilarating speaker to say the least. We were asked to give standing ovations for others, hug our neighbors, sign petitions in the air with our fingers, and yell out answers to his questions. These actions were very indicative of the passions he himself had and wanted to spread through the room. He admitted that it was  a type of sleep lacking, slightly coffee induced, passion, but nevertheless infectious.

He started by saying that he was “overwhelmed because there is so much purpose in one room, the supernova of humanitarian intent… What do supernovas, flowers, and cocoons have in common…anyone? Bueller?” Hesitant responses at first but eventually we came to our conclusion: they all grow and explode. The supernova was our main metaphor of the night, a supernova that is an explosion from the center and doesn’t let outside influences transform its trajectory. As Gonder aptly stated, the ills in the world often represent the ills in our own head. No one ever judges the growth process of a flower or a supernova the way they judge the growth of a person. No one calls a flower a sell out if it grows in a different manner than expected; it is simply natural. This is how we should view other humans, without letting all of our insecurities get in the way. The moral of this first lesson, as far as I could tell, was that everyone here at GES is on track in our own way. We are freshly blooming, hatching or exploding and this is our inflection point.

However, Gonder also warned us to be cautious about our self-expectations especially as social change makers. We can be unintentionally arrogant in thinking that we can change everyone’s lives in a few months with a good plan. Being young and creative is so appreciated in this day and age, but now we almost underestimate the beauty of what once was most appreciated: being old and wise.  The idea that you are going to tie your identity to the degree of impact you are personally able to make can be unsustainable and unproductive. The funniest part of his speech for many of us was when he made us think about David Guetta. David Guetta hit stardom at around 40 years old with his first platinum album. He started by slaving away at clubs and putting the work in, and by his 50’s he was an experienced artist. That is still success. Taking time is not always the wrong path. The takeaway? We need to be in this for the long haul.

Gonder asked us if our most selfish desire was not to regret how we had spent our lives. He had us raise our hands for this point; many of us share this fear, in fact nearly all of us. Gonder prompted us to confront mortality and recognize that all supernovas go out. We as social change makers have to figure out how to spend our days and allocate resources. So how do we do this?

First and foremost, use that fact that you are young and a student while you still can. We are allowed to make mistakes, we have stamina and we are allowed to ask questions to our hearts’ content.

Two: We are young, the first step is to recognize that and to have the humility to look inward and change ourselves.

Three: Bond with people, especially in the 4.5 days of GES. It is grueling and we are in the trenches; find those who can make it less lonely.

Four: We gave each other more hugs and were told to recognize that this could be a place to fall in love.

Gonder then dove into the real GES 101. Starting with the statement that our most important asset for our projects is time.  Time is currency that can be exchanged for important things such as:Mentors and friends- Everyone in this room is a resource; they will accelerate your life. Life is a rope, those above you can reach down to help but you have to reach out and ask. Go up to the speakers, don’t harass them but get in there and get their business cards and get them first. Differentiate yourself!

  1. Motivation: Be motivated to stay motivated. This will help keep you on track.

  2. Money: Get money out of your time, it shouldn’t be a bad word in social impact circles. Personal finance can be crucial to your social work as well.

  3. Reputation: Always be aware of your reputation and the ways it can help you with your goals.

  4. Character: Continue building yourself up as a person, and when you do not meet your own expectations, just keep trying. This is what differentiates good character from bad.

Then he took a step back and told us It is important to think about all of this advice critically. When you hear the word “should”, start thinking about the motivation behind that word, and whether it truly is what you “should” be doing.

What most empowered me was Gonder’s wish for us to be truly vulnerable. “Go deep and be vulnerable. Stay up super late every night throughout the GES but also try to be engaged during the day. Talk and expose your brain to the other supernovas. Do not hide, we are all suffering and should own it.”

Gonder asked the members of the Global Engagement Summit to open our minds to improvement, be vulnerable, go crazy, fall in love, stand up for ourselves, keep our LinkedIn updated and of course be gentle with ourselves. He asked us to feel the fear and accept it, as well as fight against the current. He had so much to say with so much excitement that you could feel it in every motion and beat between words. Overall, it was a thrilling speech to kick off an amazing Summit.


Becca van Stolk-Cooke is a member of the Global Engagement Summit staff's Campus Relations Committee. A full video of Ted Gonder's Opening Keynote speech will be available online following the Summit. Follow the GES blog and social media outlets for summaries, recaps and reflections on all Summit events.