The Project on Creativity and Innovation (PCI) is Middlebury’s “launchpad for new ideas.” Through programs such as MiddCORE, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, TEDxMiddlebury and a host of others, PCI fosters a dynamic community of actively engaged thinkers and learners. This is an exciting community to be a part of: it is bursting with creative ideas and innovative individuals.
Alec MacMillen ’14 is one such individual. As a MiddCORE alum, a MiddCOREplus intern and the student speaker at this fall’s TEDx conference, Alec has embraced the opportunities Middlebury offers to expand education in new directions.
I had the chance to sit down with Alec this week to hear about his experience as a TEDx speaker and discuss the message he conveyed through his eighteen-minute TED talk, titled “The Extrovert Ideal and the Best Four Years of Your Life.”
The talk offers a poignant reflection on the pressures and expectations of a high-powered college environment. Alec challenges each of us to not blindly prescribe to the identity you think you should have, but rather to trust yourself in forging the identity that is most authentically you. Whether you identify as an introvert or an extrovert, Alec encourages us to accept ourselves, while still pushing the edges of our comfort zones. Alec’s message is a powerful one, and it resonated deeply with his audience. In the following interview, we learn more about Alec’s thought process and inspirations.
Cate Costley: What prompted you to get involved with TEDx and where did the inspiration for your talk come from?
Alec MacMillen: It was right at the time when I was finishing the book Quiet by Susan Cain. I had seen Susan Cain’s TED Talk at the TED Conference last year, and was totally blown away by it. It resonated very deeply with me. I had kind of thought on and off about the ideas she presented in it. And then I read her book and I thought, “How could I take this as a foundation and apply it to my life and being here in college?” Then the Student Speaker Competition rolled around and I said to myself, “These ideas are something I’m really interested in and here’s an opportunity to talk about them.” It was all very serendipitous.
Cate: How did you prepare and refine your talk?
Alec: I did a couple different things. I would meet with Mike Kiernan [the MiddCORE instructor in persuasive communication] and we would walk around and just mull stuff over. It was very informal, very casual, but allowed me to talk out what I was thinking and he would give his input. He was great because he has such amazing and unconventional ideas that I never would have thought of.
I also spent a lot of time looking back through old things that I had written and just sort of taking stock of my college experience. I began to put it all down on paper in a coherent way that brought in some of the book Quiet’s ideas, but also bringing my own perspective to the table.
Cate: What was the coolest thing about being part of the TEDx Conference?
Alec: Actually giving the talk and being on stage was awesome, although I’ve kind of blacked it out; it’s like an 18-minute gap in my memory. Seeing people afterwards was also really neat. I got feedback from friends, but from also people I didn’t know. They came up to me and said, “That really resonated with me” or “That’s something I’ve always felt.” I appreciated that. My sister was there, so that was also wonderful. Then, that night there was a big dinner for all the speakers, organizers and everyone affiliated with PCI at 51 Main. Getting to meet everyone and talk to them was really neat. That whole day was a whirlwind, but really fun.
Cate: As you said, the day was a whirlwind, filled with people and talking and full engagement. And your actual talk focused on the importance and value of quiet reflection and taking time to recharge alone. How do you reconcile these things?
Alec: That’s a really good point, and I’ve actually thought about that a lot. I think the reason I felt so at ease, so comfortable and so into it the whole time was that I was being very honest. I was saying, “This is how I am.” And simply being genuinely myself made it really easy to connect with people. I didn’t feel like there was any pressure. I felt like I belonged there and had an important message to share.
Cate: You touch on this in your talk, but can you discuss further what ways have you found to nurture yourself in this high-powered college atmosphere where there’s an expectation that everyone is social and constantly outwardly engaged?
Alec: I think a lot of it is just actively trying to disengage from any sort of self-pressure. I think we all feel a certain sort of external pressure to be social, but I think the harder pressure to fight is the one that comes from inside. If you feel like you should be a certain way, it’s a lot harder to fight that internal feeling than the messages you’re receiving from outside.
Getting to a point of acceptance and no self-pressure was a really long process for me. I think I’m a lot better at it now than I was in my freshman and sophomore years. I’m okay with saying, “If I don’t want to hang out with people tonight, it’s cool to stay in my room.”
Ultimately, it’s about trusting in yourself to know what’s best for you and not feeling like you have to meet some externally determined standard of what you should be doing.
Cate: Where’s fine line between trusting yourself and simply staying in your comfort zone?
Alec: Good point. I think if you don’t push yourself and you spend all your time in your comfort zone – whether that’s as an introvert or an extrovert – that’s no good. You’re not growing and you’re not becoming a more capable person. I think the key is being aware of specifically in what ways I want to push myself. If I’m going to step outside my comfort zone, it really has to be for a reason. There’s no value added if you simply go to something because you think you should.
Cate: Do you think MiddCORE promotes the extrovert ideal?
Alec: I think that one of the really central aspects of MiddCORE is making use of every person’s talents in such a way that brings people together. So, MiddCORE is very much about collaboration and outward engagement, but in a healthy way that recognizes everyone’s individual strengths. And I don’t think MiddCORE undervalues anything that anyone brings to the table. So, I would say that MiddCORE promotes the positive aspects of being outwardly engaged. When I was in MiddCORE, I always felt like I was heard and valued.
Cate: Although much of your message is about figuring out what works for you as an individual, have there been people who have guided and inspired you along the path of self-definition?
Alec: When I think about my close friends and my professors, I think the people that I am closest with are those in whom I see something that I want to emulate myself. The first person who comes to mind is obviously Jessica Holmes [Director of MiddCORE and Associate Professor of Economics at Middlebury]. I took a class with her freshman year and she’s been my advisor since sophomore year and then I did MiddCORE with her junior year, so she’s kind of been there through every step of the way for me. She’s a total extrovert, and you just genuinely feel comfortable around her. I definitely look up to her in terms of how she approaches the world and the energy she brings to everything.