I think it’s been firmly established in previous articles that I’m a TEDxNashville super-fan. This explains, at least in part, why when hundreds of people were filing out of the TPAC lobby after sitting in the auditorium for two days I was fording the crowd to find Ross Scott: host of TEDxNashville 2017. Ross is what I would call a modern southern gentleman. His sunny southern drawl, engaging smile, and quick mind poetically illustrate the juxtaposition of the innovation and Tennessee neighborliness we enjoy here in Nashville. He was standing in line at concessions, waiting on a well-deserved glass of wine, and I felt a little bad for interrupting. But not that bad. I introduced myself as the blog editor for TEDxNashville, and then after telling him he was basically my hero for the weekend I asked if we could find some time to talk about his experience behind the scenes. Fortunately, Ross is also a TEDxNashville super-fan and graciously gave me his contact info so we could connect. “Don’t email me tonight, though,” he said, picking up his wine. Fair enough.
It took a few weeks to align our schedules, and in the end we had to set up a phone interview because he was down in Florida. The first thing I had to confess after exchanging pleasantries is that I really didn’t know who he was or why he was even a part of TEDxNashville. “Oh about a decade ago,” he said, “I had the opportunity to go to TED – you know the big TED – as a treat for a job well done with my company.”
I could hear him smiling through the phone. For the first time I realized that his persona on stage was exactly what he is in real life. Even-keeled, funny, and able to make even a simple autobiographical account compelling.
“The whole thing had to be approved,” he explained, “They had to pay quite a bit of money for me to go, and honestly it changed my way of thinking and being.”
Something I didn’t know until that moment: In order to get a license as a TEDx entity, the organization applying must have a member who has attended “big” TED before. “So that’s how I got involved,” said Ross. “They needed my name for the application and then later on they asked me to host.”
I also didn’t realize that Ross has hosted numerous times since TEDxNashville started.
“But this year was significantly different,” he told me, “The host-team have it down to a science. Speakers were so prepared and so calm and knew step by step what to do. My job was really easy….The host committee, the board, the volunteers, and Leslie [Leslie Belknap, Executive Director of TEDxNashville] are on the ball! It is basically a professional organization run by volunteers.
“Honestly,” he went on, “I felt my skillsets were partially unnecessary because of how good the volunteer staff members are. I am used to being their partner – helping them understand how willing and fun the crowd is – but this year speaker after speaker knew exactly what to do. And Nashville is able to attract a level of talent that other TEDx cities don’t have access to. Over the last six or eight years – to see what it has become – it is a real source of pride.”
“To be clear,” Ross made a point to say, “it is no thanks to me.” I didn’t comment on that, but anyone who attended TEDxNashville 2017 will probably have at least one fond anecdote about its amiable host. And I could tell Ross loves it. “I break the rules,” he admitted, laughing, “but i do it in such a friendly way that people can’t help but put up with me.”
And there are rules. The TEDx host isn’t there to politicize (and Ross really only barely did…) or play favorites, which is why every time Ross addressed the crowd the last speaker was his new favorite speaker. But for the interview I asked him to bend the rules one more time and tell me who he found to be most memorable.
“Ken Paulson,” Ross said immediately. “His talk was multiple things: inspiring, informative, contextual, but you know what is also was? It was also practical. He made out in this era of fake news exactly what we can do to combat it. I have been feeling frustrated about fake news and the hordes of people buying into it. I’ve been feeling really un-empowered. The fact that he actually gave it context and gave us all very practical steps – man I was eating that up! I have followed by subscribing to real honest-to-God news sources instead of getting everything online for free.
“I’m always inspired by speakers,” he continued. “Some are more professional, some more creative. But they aren’t always practical. Oh but I also loved watching Dr. Steven Schlozman. He was fascinating both on and off stage. That is a guy I would totally enjoy hanging out with. It is unfortunate to get the last-dance card. People are tired after a couple days of this. So [at the end of the show] the house wasn’t still packed, which is totally a shame because his talk was super cool. Who has ever asked the question, “What can the horror genre tell us about humanity? Oh my gosh, who spends their time thinking about that? He did not disappoint.”
For those who didn’t catch it, the theme for TEDxNashville was “Illuminate.” I gave my own take on what that means in my article posted a few weeks ago. I find the concept intriguing and I wanted to hear Ross’s take on it I didn’t prep him for any of my questions, so he took second to think about it.
“Okay,” he said. “So I had a professional mentor – well she was my boss who said something that i didn’t catch on to for years, but it kinda stuck with me. Basically what she said to me was, ‘You need to use your gift at connecting people because we are all interconnected in this universe. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t ever get psyched out by people who are richer, smarter, more powerful because we are all interconnected’
“As we age,” Ross continued, “you really do start to understand how interconnected how everything in this universe is. In this day and age of hatred/judgement/picking people apart as different, I feel like we have lost that sense of interconnectivity as a universe. The fact that she taught me that principle at an early age has helped me always view people as part of me and us.”
I loved that response and I told him I was contemplating that very principle as I was publishing my own thoughts about TED the night before. Ross told me he had actually pulled up the TEDxNashville blog that morning and was getting ready to read my article.
“Haha, thanks!” I said. We had been speaking for some time and I offered to let him go (and read my article). After thanking him for his time that morning, he left me with a quote I know count as a favorite of my own. It’s taken, of all places, from the acknowledgements page of “The Temple of My Familiar,” by Alice Walker. It reads:
I thank the Universe for my participation in Existence. It is a pleasure to have always been present.
“Our energy has always been present and always will be present,” said Ross. “That understanding helps us tolerate and appreciate.”
We said farewell after those words, and moving on with my day I felt a new sense of pride in what TEDxNashville and Nashville as a whole has to offer. It is a privilege to enjoy a person of that caliber engaging himself in what we do as an organization. So thank you, Ross, for offering your time and talents. We are stronger for having you.
P.S. Get ready everybody: TEDxNashville 2018 is just 3 months away!
Interview and written article by Jeremy Snow