Big and Small at the Same Time

Friday, February 19, 2016 - 8:20am
Photo by Marla Aufmuth

Big and Small at the Same Time

As you read this, I am likely giving a TED Talk.

To a certain, admittedly narrow swath of the country and the world, that’s a big deal. Giving a TED Talk has become a sort of shorthand for success in our modern media age. It’s a form of legitimacy, as if standing in front of those iconic red letters and spouting off about your professed expertise automatically means you’ve “made it.”

Here’s the thing, though: it’s a rare chance to say something that matters to you in front of an audience of disproportionately influential people, and furthermore, to have that thing you’ve said then be put online with the potential of reaching millions of people all over the world that you would never be able to meet face-to-face. It’s an ancient phenomenon — the power of the campfire, of storytelling, of human exchange — magnified by the scaling magic of the Internet.

The other gift of giving a TED Talk is the challenge of the exercise itself. Being forced to distill your most passionately held ideas into 12 or 18 minutes (the usual length of TED Talks), is clarifying and cathartic. It’s like having hair down to your butt and cutting it to your chin one thoughtful, and sometimes painful, snip at a time; at the end, you look in the mirror and realize you can see the beauty of your own face for the first time.

Here is what is not special about giving a TED Talk: everything else. It doesn’t mean that you’re smarter or more articulate or, God forbid, more deserving than anyone else on the planet. This is the part that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the lead up to this anointing experience. I’ve already given a TED Talk, technically, but it was at TEDWomen, which has slightly less hype surrounding it than “big TED,” as the annual event in Vancouver is often referred to.

In moments of stress, I will often grab my pocket Pema Chödrön book and randomly flip to a page and read it in hopes of gaining some serendipitous insight. I did that last week, and landed on a page in which Pema Chödrön writes about a time when she was co-leading a meditation retreat and couldn’t quite figure out if she was a “big deal” — one of the teachers, deserving of exalted status — or if she was just “ordinary” — one of the participants, not entitled to special treatment:

“This was a painful experience because I was always being insulted to and humiliated by my own expectations.”

She told her teacher about her suffering and he answered:

“Well, you have to learn to be big and small at the same time.”

“Big and small at the same time” — what a profound instruction for how to live a dignified, proportional life. I’ve been repeating it to myself as I walk around the convention center where TED is taking place. As you might imagine, in a place like this there are a lot of very heavy egos being dragged around. People glance at one another’s nametags, looking for last names that signify outrageous fortune or fancy job titles. To be fair, many, many people — even here at one of the most elite conferences on earth — don’t operate like this. They sit for genuine, fascinating conversations with strangers and friends alike. They have compassion for the speakers, some of whom soar, some of whom stumble. They put their cell phones away and really listen, a sacred TED tradition.

My ego, like Pema Chödrön’s, has been swelling and shrinking as the days go on. I’m observing it with a sort of good humor, laughing at the ways that even small comments can make me feel puffed up and others can make me feel like an imposter. Sometimes I feel giddy with the acknowledgement. Sometimes I want to crawl into a cave. None of it is real.

What is real is this: I’m a person who cares about an idea and I want to say it to other people in a form that moves them. I want to share something that’s inside my head and heart so I can feel the thrill of human connection. It’s why I spent two years poring over obscure studies and interviewing generous people and tapping away at this keyboard (resulting in a published book, available in August). It’s why I’m tolerating the personal risk that comes with standing on a stage and sounding naïve or unpolished or uninteresting.

“Big and small at the same time” is a constant human condition, not an exceptional paradox. It’s made even more obvious at moments like these — when we get a promotion at work, or an honor at church, or just a compliment from someone we respect. In these kinds of moments, our challenge is to be fortified by a moment of recognition, without giving into the temptation to climb that recognition like a ladder and look down on others. It’s a precarious vantage, a fleeting and false psychic safety.

I’m trying to keep my feet on the ground, to acknowledge the bigness of my ideas and my passion and the smallness of my knowing. And, of course, I’m trying not to faint on stage. I’ll keep you posted…

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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Thank you. I understand. I battle this demon also. I find your voice helpful as I work on deciding what the purpose of my voice should be.

Thank you Courtney for beautifully capturing the reality of whole hearted living through the gift of feeling big and small at the same time. You are a beautiful writer and a superb human being. I can't wait to watch the TED talk. Much love....

Thank you. You perfectly expressed my feelings whenever I give a talk, that up and down, I'm real/I'm a fake, why am I doing this? and yet loving doing it. But...."I'm a person who cares about an idea and I want to say it to other people in a form that moves them. I want to share something that's inside my head and heart so I can feel the thrill of human connection." Big and small at the same time. I got it.
Please let us know how it went.

Thank you so much, Courtney. As usual, you get to the human heart of the matter with candor, grace and style! I'm very eager to see and hear your talk, so please give us a video link whenever possible. I was holding you in the Light as your time on stage came and went...

It's beautiful when humility and boldness go hand in hand. I'm just back from a Women's Alumnae weekend at a prestigious university, and all the featured speakers/panelists were the CEOs among us-- little glory for the moms, the nonprofit EDs, the untitled but wise and well-lived women who shine in the smallness. Love your reflection on what is real -- that you care enough to want to share about what you know and believe. I'm sure it'll make a difference. It already has.

Courtney, I just watched your first TED talk. Awesome and inspiring! Thanks for challenging us to both stay grounded in our smallness and strive for our highest ideals. Can't wait to see your next talk!