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Before There Were TED Talks, There Were Chautauquas

Before There Were TED Talks, There Were Chautauquas

Before there were TED talks, there were Chautauquas. In the late-nineteenth century, Americans looking for cultural stimulation and intellectual inspiration gathered for weeklong retreats of lectures, performances, and conversations. These outdoor fairs started at Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York and quickly became a national movement.

Under the big tents of a Chautauqua, attendees might listen to a talk on spiritual awakening, see a Shakespeare play for the first time, and learn about strategies for improving health–all in the same day. Chautauquas emphasized the development of the self, and in doing so, sparked the adult education and self-help revolution in the U.S. Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauquas the most American thing in America because they celebrated life-long learning and self-actualization.

Innovators can learn a lot from the turn-of-the-century Chautauqua movement. These getaways allowed people to take a break from their normal routines and experiment with new ideas. In our own moment, we desperately need this free time–this space to reflect and create. We live in a post-modern workplace, where we multi-task everything and respond to professional e-mails at all hours of the night. Radical innovation entails deep and patient introspection–slow processes that won’t fit into an already-packed day-to-day schedule.

Those of us with the money and time can attend modern-day Chautauquas: TED, the Omega Institute, the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Santa Fe Institute, the Esalen Institute–even Comic-Con or Burning Man. There are hundreds of these events, conferences, and seminars, but they’re very much oriented toward the leisure class.

What about the rest of us? What about those of us without the means or time to take ourselves out of our daily routines? What can we do to re-engage our imaginations and re-invigorate our spirits? Here are three strategies for hosting your own innovation Chautauquas in your everyday world:

Make room. Innovation requires slack resources and time. It’s a point people often miss: innovation is not an efficient thing. Creative thinkers have to doodle around and test out ideas before they see what works. So make room in your schedule and carve out the space and resources for creativity and flexibility. Look for an off-site near your own site. Coffee shops, churches, museums, and schools after-hours: these are all places usually available for use at a low-cost. Find topics and guests that will give you energy–people who will stir you to action.

Mix it up. Innovation is less like a salon, where everyone talks at once, and more like a variety show, where featured acts share their gifts for a short period of time and then open up the floor for a Q&A. The beauty of Chautauquas is that they’re not transactional–they’re interactive. They depend on a communal dynamic. With our ability to synch things up through social media, we can bring people together at a moment’s notice. Actively seek out new communities. See who’s in town and reach out to them. Pick topics and questions that challenge you. Stretch your thinking to its farthest, unlikeliest reaches. Cross boundaries and consult with experts in fields other than your own. Remember that innovation happens in the white spaces between traditional disciplinary divides.

Act out. It’s easy to talk, but much harder to do something. The show-and-tell phase of brainstorming is crucial, yet the next phase is even more important: enlist-and-act. This means actually running all of the experiments you talk about. The more experiments you run, the better chance you’ll have at creating something new. Experiments don’t have to be big to be effective. What’s important is that they’re diverse. A wide array of small experiments will build the momentum you need to drive your innovation initiative.

By hosting our own Chautauquas, we do the creative work that the organization can’t do for itself. Once we bring our Chautauqua into the organization, it loses that disruptive, flexible energy. So keep it out of the hierarchy of your workplace. Instead of moving the tent into the office, see who you can get under the tent. Invite key stakeholders one-by-one into your creative space.

Chautauquas are not about changing the world–they’re about changing ourselves. The idea is that if we innovate ourselves, then the people around us will be inspired to do the same. What will your lakeside retreat look like?

Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. You can learn more about his groundbreaking University of Michigan Certified Professional Innovator Certificate Program and Innovatrium Institute for Innovation at

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