Rundle College Society
Faculty, parents, board directors, special guests, students and graduates:
A couple of weeks ago after dinner, I was sitting on the deck with my family. From nowhere, a red balloon drifted over our heads, just out of reach, and gently rose into the evening’s sky. My boys, both under age 3, were crushed that someone would have let go of a balloon and that their daddy couldn’t reach high enough to grab it. As you can imagine, there was excitement, then concern, then full blown tantrums. All I can say is that I am happy we live close to a Safeway that sells Red Balloons.
The balloon brought back a flood of memories, and I suspect that some of you are like me in this respect. When you see a balloon, you may picture the Disney Movie Up or perhaps you think of a circus clown, Pennywise, or of Curious George floating away while holding tight to hundreds of balloons. Since becoming a father, I have spent my fair share of time thinking about balloons.
Within a day or two of what is now known as the ‘red balloon catastrophe’ at the Rogers household, I happened to be reading ‘The Culture Code’ by Daniel Coyle. In his book, Coyle describes a high-profile research project which includes 10 red balloons.
You see, in late 2009, while each of you were studying diligently in elementary school, the US Department of Defense announced that it would hide 10 red balloons in random locations all over the 3.1 million square miles of the United States. They called it The Red Balloon Challenge.
The Department of Defense wanted to know if it were possible for anyone to locate all ten balloons and report their exact locations back to Defense headquarters. The reason they decided to run this experiment was that they wanted to mimic real-life dilemmas such as the outbreak of an infectious disease or a terrorist attack.
They offered $40,000 to the individual or group who first located all ten balloons. Many in the department believed the challenge was virtually impossible, and as result it was likely they would never need to pay out the prize.
Hundreds of groups signed up. The groups were wide-ranging: technologists, research universities, entrepreneurs and tech companies. Many of the top minds in the country were working to solve this problem.
As expected, these groups leveraged satellite photography, tapped into vast networks of technological solutions and built open-source software. Many groups spent well beyond the $40,000 prize money just in their preparations.
As the contest date drew closer, one last group joined the challenge. On December 1st, just four days before the start of the challenge, the MIT Media Lab, fielded a team. They didn’t have time to tap into advanced technological systems or create custom software - so they did about the only thing they could do, they leveraged the power of human connection. They encouraged everybody they knew to tell everybody they knew to tell everybody they knew that they were about to start looking for random red balloons – all the while offering to split the prize pool with anyone who assisted in finding the balloons.
The challenge started at 10AM eastern time on December 5. Department of Defense experts estimated that it might take a week or even weeks for the winning team to complete the task. Much to their surprise, in just under 9 hours, the MIT Media Lab and their network had located all ten balloons.
Which brings me to the point of today’s talk - what did we learn when the MIT Media Lab won the Red Balloon Challenge and more specifically, graduates, what does it mean for you and your future?
What I take from this victory is that although the future may be filled with advancements such as artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, travel to Mars, augmented reality and cryptocurrencies - nothing will supersede the advantages arising from human qualities such as empathy, kindness, compassion, curiosity, connection and teamwork.
The Red Balloon Challenge is a real-world example of how connected humanity can often solve problems more effectively than raw technology. Together – the MIT Media Lab friends proved it!
MIT Media Lab’s win was a powerful example of how teamwork and cooperation can work.
To close, consider the floating red balloon as a metaphor. You, Grade 12 students, can be represented by the outer layer of the balloon. Before you reach your potential, you are small and uninspired.
As you fill with hot air, I mean, Helium, you expand and begin to rise. This Helium is really anything that inspires you or stokes your curiosity. It can stand for your passion for a topic, a powerful friendship that serves to make you a better person, a personal practice that creates balance and wellness or bit of wisdom that nurtures your soul.
The string represents your parents and your loved ones. No matter how high you rise, they will always be there to connect you to your roots. Take care of the string. Without it, you can potentially float away without direction or control.
And finally, if you look further down, you’ll see that your red balloon is anchored by a bit of Rundle stone, the rock you can always count on. Graduates, my wish is that you see your time at Rundle as the foundation for your future successes. Please remember that we will always be here for you, whether it is tomorrow or 40 years from now. Be sure to come back and let us know where you have gone and what you have achieved.
Much like the winning team at the MIT Media Lab - you too will go forward to achieve the impossible if you nurture your close relationships and use your human network to reach your potential.
Perhaps after today, you will never again look at a red balloon the same way.
Congratulations and best of luck!