License article

X marks the philosophical spot

It was a revelation, a moment that changed his perspective and shook him out of what some philosophers might describe as a miserable ease.

When Stephen Collins was 35, he realised he hadn’t been leading a passionate life.

Life was good but there was something lacking in the comfortable existence he’d carved out for himself. Despite affluence and opportunity, he hadn’t embraced the lived experience.

“I did stuff that I liked and I did stuff that got me through my day and was busy, but I wasn’t super engaged in what I was doing.

“I think the day I saw that talk in 2006, that was the trigger, that was the thing that said ‘You’ve got to get off your arse and you’ve got to do something.’’’

That talk was at a TED conference by little known academic Ben Dunlap. Dunlap spoke about a Hungarian holocaust survivor that had deeply influenced him.


It was through this Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference that enabled Dunlap to connect with a worldwide audience, share his ideas and inspire listeners.

The first TED event began in 1984. The simple aim was to promote ideas worth spreading by inviting and challenging some of the most fascinating and innovative people on the planet to cram the talk of their life into 18 minutes or less. The belief was, and continues to be, that powerful ideas have the ability to change attitudes, livelihoods and the world. And this conference would give voice to that idea.

Since then the TED concept has taken off around the world with a variety of spin-off conferences, events and programs operated under the TED banner.

One of these spin-offs is the TEDxCanberra program initiated by Collins in 2009 after he attended several TED events overseas.

“Last year we had 300 people in our theatre and we had more than that on our waiting list that we couldn’t get in the theatre,’’ he said.

Educated in journalism and a self-professed rugby tragic, Collins, who is better known around Canberra as “Trib”, moved to the ACT more than 30 years ago as a 10-year-old.

Graduating from the University of Canberra at a time of mixed fortunes for media entities he moved away from journalism to pursue work in government.

But after a dozen years in the public service he faced a crossroad. With frankness his boss laid out his career options.

“He said to me ‘Stephen you’ve got two choices – you’re full of great ideas, you’re creative and you’re good at articulating ideas, but they scare the pants off everyone and they don’t suit this organisation.

“You either need to figure out a way to fit, or decide not to fit and do something about it.’’

Collins chose the latter. He went on to build his own business and began to realise his creative potential.

Along the way he imported the hugely successful TED program to Canberra. In part, to give residents in the capital and beyond a chance to engage with ideas that can change perspectives and potentially enlighten their social, intellectual and financial worlds.

“I’m never going to be a millionaire and jet around the world and that sort of stuff. But that doesn’t matter,’’ Collins says.

“What matters is that I’m stimulated and excited about what I do and the people that I’m connected to are equally stimulated and excited about what they do.’’

Ultimately the TED concept is a challenge to meet ideas head-on and then positively engage with them by doing something that improves your slice of life and the people in and around it.

For Collins the challenge of putting on the event is the reward as much as the inspiration and engagement the events produce.

“It doesn’t matter how small you are take on that optimistic challenge,’’ he said. “Do something that makes your world a bit better.’’

A talk by an academic on the other side of the planet about an old Hungarian was the kickstart Collins needed. That kick-start might be there for others in Canberra who are also ready to engage.


Canberra Theatre Centre – The Playhouse

Saturday, September 8, 2012