Two University of Denver students and a recent graduate shared stories of following their passions and personal journeys on April 14 at TEDxDUSalon, a student-organized event devoted to “ideas worth spreading.”
Julie Markham (BSBA ’10), founder of Greenlighted, a company that raises money for nonprofits by offering deals from socially responsible companies, told the crowd of about 200 people in DU’s Craig Hall that she never had an aha moment to find her passion. In fact, she wasn’t certain many people have aha moments.
“You can’t always have a plan. Sometimes life interrupts,” Markham said. “I think a lot of people thought I had it all figured out. I was voted by USA Today as one of the top-20 undergraduate students in the country. But I don’t have it all figured out.”
She said she feels her life has been more like a journey. “So I’ll just share a couple of travel tips: Don’t be shy and ask the damn question, especially when you’re lost.” She said she had to ask lots of questions as she began building her business.
Her second tip: “Don’t get lost in the minutia of what you’re trying to do. It’s a big deal that it’s a small world.” She said that concept hit her hard when she realized her guide bought a Coke in an African slum she visited. “I thought, ‘you can buy a Coke here.’ The large corporations are everywhere and I hope they’re doing the right thing to make this a better world.
“Life, for me, is a work in progress. There’s no prescribed formula, and finding your passion doesn’t come easy. I think it’s your experience that leads you to your passion.”
Andrew Steward, a junior music major, changed the tone of the night when he spoke of his harrowing encounter with mental illness.
“I’m here to tell you about how my life fell apart,” he said plainly.
It was the first time he’d ever told so large a group his story.
Mental illness hit him when he was about 20 years old, and doctors couldn’t (and still can’t) decide exactly what it was. Schizophrenia? Bi-polar? Whatever it was, it sidelined him for nearly three years. And it was ugly.
“When it first hit, I was sitting in class and I suddenly felt that I knew Jesus was coming back. So I left class and drove five hours looking up in the sky looking for Jesus.”
He eventually ended up in a hospital. “This all didn’t sit well with my father. He’s a trained psychotherapist,” Steward quipped. The crowd laughed.
But entering the hospital was just the start. “My roommate told me he was God and the he was going to kill me. And I began seeing things. I remember seeing a snake that was on my chest and it was eating my heart. I thought the snake was Satan … it was torture — a living hell.”
Steward said medicines didn’t work but eventually an injection did help relieve his symptoms.
“I think I finally started feeling better when I learned to love myself, really for the first time in my life.”
Steward then talked about how mental illness is treated and regarded in society today.
“When you break your arm, people sign your cast,” Steward said. “When you have mental illness, people often run away from it because they’re scared of it.”
He added that Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemmingway all had mental illness. “Are you afraid of them? Are you afraid of me? Fight for those you know with mental illness. And when you get a chance to help them, do it, because when you do, you’re helping someone like me.”
Steward received a standing ovation.
The night ended on a musical note.
Molly Cottrell, a senior music major who’s planning to move to Los Angeles this summer to take her shot at a musical career, sang two songs from her new debut album, titled Molly Cottrell. Picture Norah Jones with an attitude — spot-on pitch with a deeper, throaty voice. Her music is available on iTunes.
Cottrell said she agreed with Markham about aha moments.
“People stress out and worry about finding that moment,” Cotrell said. “To me, I think you should do what comes easy and that you’re always happy doing. And don’t have a plan B. That just gives you an out, an excuse.”
The gathering was the third in a series of preview events leading up to TEDxDU on May 13. At TED conferences, leading scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs and artists present their ideas in 18 minutes or less. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.