Erika Ebbel Angle – TRANSCRIPT
Good morning everybody and welcome. I’m very excited to be here today to talk with you about this idea that cool things do happen at the edges.
Here it is. I’m going to jump right in. So for starters, what are the “edges”? I’m just going to preface this talk by saying that really depends on each individual. So the examples that you’ll see in this talk obviously pertain to me, my life and my story. And I hope that by listening to this you’ll be able to take some of these examples, and apply them to things that are relevant in your life.
“Edges” are uncomfortable places and thus, we don’t spend a lot of time there. They’re less explored. Discoveries are made here. So you’ve probably heard the terminology, if it’s easy it’s already been done before. So the theory is, discoveries are made as a result of people trying to solve hard things.
Innovation also happens here. Those who live on the edge, they “push boundaries”, they “break the mold”, often are called “ahead of their time”, and “start very young.” I showed this image because as I read more and more about the types of people who live on the edge, you start to see that they started pushing their limits when they were very young. And then by the time they were our age, I think they’d gotten so used to it that they were willing to push even farther. To the rest of us, they’re often dubbed as being crazy, or insane.
We tell them: “This stuff will never work.” But in reality, these are inspirational people, they’re envied people, they’re successful, they’re well regarded, impactful, and insightful. Here’s a general question for the audience: Who here would like their legacy to be “I was called a visionary for my work”, or “My research contributed to an awesome scientific discovery”, or “I changed the world”, or “I helped change someone’s life”? Show your hands. Who here would love right! Exactly. The slightly more complicated question is: How do you actually do that? And there’s a problem. So let’s talk about the problem. Everybody wants to be unique.
Yet, we’re encouraged to take safe paths. So again, think about growing up. You go to elementary school, middle school, high school, college, maybe graduate school, get a job. It’s the safe path. It’s effective. You can have a comfortable lifestyle, you can be content, and feel very secure in this. Nothing wrong with that. However, my opinion is, we’ve been taken this too far. Why? Well, more and more of you’re hearing that kids don’t keep score. There’s no winner, there’s no loser.
In school contests, in athletic games, there are no winners. Companies have this strategy where they’re promoting people every 6 months with really pointless promotions. They don’t have anything to do with merit, just so that people can feel good about themselves. Parents acting as agents for their kids. Your kid goes and doesn’t get a job.
The parent goes and call the company to find out why. This was a term that I heard recently, the last few days, called “The Trophy Generation.” We’re focused on comfort. Nobody wants to take risks. We’re all winners, right? Wrong.
As a result, we’re really less likely to spend time pushing our edges. I’m going to give a brief synopsis of my life in 90 seconds. When I was 11, I started working on an independent science fair project. It involved looking at a plant which was able to treat the herpes simplex virus, the virus that causes cold sores. Now, as you can imagine, in middle school, if you were studying anything having to do with herpes, it definitely made me unique, and not necessarily popular in the right sort of way, but I loved the science, it didn’t matter to me.
As a result of this research, I had the opportunity to meet really cool people who pushed edges themselves. That’s Glenn Seaborg. He had discovered one of the elements, seaborgium, on the periodic table. I also enjoyed music, always have. It’s been the one thing that has kept me sane throughout my entire life when things had been crazy. It was probably my most natural talent. Everything else I had to work really hard at, music came naturally.
I went to MIT, I got my degree in Chemistry, and my minored, Music. I started from Science from Scientists, which is a non-profit, which sends real scientists into the classroom every other week to teach curriculum-relevant material to kids. We had about 30 employees, work in 22 schools here in Massachusetts. It’s about 5,000 kids per year. Then something else, a little bizarre, happened.
Right after I finished MIT, I ended up as Miss Massachusetts, in the Miss America program, I did it on a dare. I’m going to talk a little bit more about that. Later I got my PhD from Boston University’s Medical School, just finished last year. I ended up meeting my husband, who is the CEO and co-founder of iRobot, Colin Angle.
And now I just started a biotech company called Counterpoint Health Solutions. I say this quickly so that we can go into more detail. So let’s talk about “edges.” Here’s me. We’ve got Edge 1.
Well, I already told you, I was the “virus girl”, you know, the most popular herpes studier in my middle school. When I first started working on my project, my school said to me, “You know? You can’t do that here. You’re going to have to find some place else to do this work.” I said OK, and I went home. And I pulled out the yellow pages, and I looked through and I was looking for biotech and pharma companies close by, and I’d call and I’d said, “Hi, I’m 11, I’m looking for a mentor to help me with this project about herpes” and nobody called me back. The people who did call called my parents because they were concerned that there was something wrong with me, so they’d said, “Can we speak to your mother?”
“Sure.” So I’d give my mother the phone.
“You’d better be keeping track of what your daughter is doing, because it’s likely that she could be growing things in your basement. You’d better be aware.” No luck. But eventually, after about 20 or 30 phone calls, I found Michael, who was the director of one of the local public health labs, and he offered to help me, and he became my mentor, and he worked with me for the next 6 years on this science fair project. And he’s just the dearest person to me.
Edge 2. To this day, this is the most controversial thing in my life. It elicits a very unique response, usually: “Why?” And I tell you, it was incredibly useful for me. For starters, it took multiple years for me to win. I didn’t win on my first try.
I was sort of a disaster, going into the whole thing. If you can imagine, one black suit, one black dress, one one-piece Speedo, swimsuit. I didn’t know how to talk, walk, do my hair, no presentation skills. It was interesting. I had to be very honest with myself, when I lost the first few times, because I was so used to being this super science geek.
Losing in general, was very hard for me, but the reality was it was something that I needed to do for my own self-betterment. And it took a while, I ended up signing up for Toastmasters, which is a public speaking group, that helps to train you. I hired a personal trainer, I even bought a floor-length mirror, and learned how to brush my hair. You may think it’s not a big deal, but it’s amazing how much presentation skills matter, and how that is just not something that’s is taught. Now, as a result of the combination of both of these things, my life changed.
I met my husband, because we were both judges at the first robotics contest in Boston. That was because I had the non-profit, and because I had been a pageant girl geek. And I met my co-founder, Wayne, on the right, for the biotech company. I was doing an appearance at the VA hospital as Miss Massachusetts, and somebody said, “What are you going to do with your life?”
I said, “Well, I’m probably going to grad school, Med School.”
And they said, “There’s someone you’ve got to meet.” He was a professor at VA medical. And now, we started a company together.
So how do you find your “edges”? Well, you have to start small. I think the tendency is for us to get overwhelmed in thinking about this. So, say you want to get in shape: Don’t go run a marathon tomorrow. Start by taking a walk. Telling a joke. Telling a joke helps you to practice public speaking. You’re not going to be able to go and stand up in front of 300 people if you’re mortified, but you might be able to tell a joke in front of your friends. The next time you go to Ikea, or Staples, and you bring back that chair, and you open the box, and you think, “Oh my god, I’m never going to be able to assemble this!” You are, and you should try.
Don’t outsource that to someone else. Even programming your TV. It’s hard. But if you can prove to yourself that you can do it, through a combination of all these small steps, you’ll gain the confidence to do bigger things. How will you know it’s working? You won’t be able to judge yourself by looking at others, because nobody else’s done the stuff.
Just like for me, there were no pageant girls from MIT who were geek scientists. So I knew something was working. You will learn to set your own limits and standards, and push those rather than looking at others. Those will become your “edges.” So very briefly, a great poem.
I don’t know if you guys have seen it or heard of it. I couldn’t spend the time to go through the whole thing, but if you have a chance, go and look it up when you get home “The Road Not Taken”, by Robert Frost. The last 2 lines state:
“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Thank you very much.
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