Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Journey - Day 1

Today I left for a six day seminar at the Aspen Institute. The objective is to help the participants develop into “more enlightened leaders”. I’m not entirely sure what that means. So I thought writing about it may help me figure it out.

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Beep beep beep beep beep. It’s 4:55 am and luckily the alarm has gone off. It also tells me the temperature outside: 63 degrees. I shiver as, bleary-eyed, I get up and squint through the window at the pitch darkness. Is this what Aspen is going to be like – only colder and darker?

Get dressed, kiss my sleeping family goodbye, grab my bag, computer and parka and it’s out the front door to the waiting taxi. Why do I feel nervous – could it be the 100 page binder of pre-readings I haven’t finished yet? I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve been “back to school”.

At the airport things aren’t too crazy – when you arrive at 5:30 you really do miss the morning rush. I’m flying to Vail. As I board the plane you can feel everybody else’s excitement: they’re (as opposed to I’m) going skiing!!!

Finally settled in my seat, I now face my first trial. What to read: the 150 year old “Communist Manifesto” or hot off the press Vanity Fair Hollywood issue? With an in-depth profile of Barack Obama’s formative years! Forcing myself to focus, I open the binder to Herren Marx and Engels. Over the 4 hour flight, between catnaps and interruptions I cram my way through ¾ of the seminar readings. Ok. That’s a good start.

We land atop the world – all blue sky and white mountains as far as the eye can see. Fearing the worst, I bundle up with coat and scarf and gloves and walk down the staircase from the plane. Surprise – the sun is shining brightly and it actually feels warm. (I later discover that this glorious moment lasts about 45 minutes a day—tops).

The bus drives me up steep slopes, through canyons and down winding roads to the Aspen Meadows Resort, “Home of the Aspen Institute”. While I had my doubts about any hotel that belongs to a think tank, the room (or rather suite) turns out to be very cool and comfortable – even by agency hotel snob standards. Evidently searching for enlightenment doesn’t preclude enjoying creature comforts.

Mr. Hair Products, my 10 year old son Gabriel, would be impressed – they have volumizing shampoo AND conditioner in the bathroom.

After using both, I head off to the reception cocktail to meet the seminar leaders and my fellow students. I’m soon non-plussed; I look like a guy from Peoria compared to some of these people. The COO of the New York public school system. The head of Goldman Sachs India. A Brazilian high tech engineer. The founder of an international leadership development organization for minority students. A bunch of South Carolina lawyers. (Quick – do I have my attorney’s number programmed into my speed dial in case I need her?)

Suitably plied with food and drink, we sit down for our first session: a debate based on an anonymous 1647 English text called “An Agreement of the People”. Two Commonwealth noblemen argue about who should be eligible to decide their government: only property owners or everybody (actually every man – this is the 17th century after all). In the beginning the answer seems like a no-brainer but the discussion brings to light a lot of issues that are still incredibly relevant today. One of the main themes of the seminar emerges: given the same information, reasonable people can come up with completely different opinions.

With that thought percolating in our heads we go off to bed. Tomorrow we start off the day defining human nature. But human nature being what it is, we are already celebrating the evening’s best news. After tomorrow our afternoons are free, so we can all go skiing after all!

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