Notes from the International Achievement Summit, 2008

Reposted from the MSFS Summer Blog:

Fellow classmates,

Ben Turner here. From July 2nd to the 6th, Rafael Bellón Gómez and I attended the 2008 International Achievement Summit at the Four Seasons Hualalai in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island in Hawai’i. We were selected earlier in the year (he was the primary choice, I was first alternate) by the MSFS administration after an open call for essay submissions.

The Academy of Achievement web site has posted a rather thorough summary of the itinerary for the several days, so you should check it out first.

So once you read that, read these bullet points for the experiences that I remembered the most:

-While I was on the phone with Jen Hoar, also from our program, during a layover in Maui, I asked her, “Umm, is General Wesley Clark short? You’ve seen him before, right?” She responded yes to both, and I said, “Er, I’m pretty sure I see him sitting over there. Should I go talk to him?” She said I should, and later after hanging up, I went up and said hello and told him I used to be in the Army and that I respected him and hoped he was on the short list of Obama VP candidates. He thanked me warmly and then promptly had to take a phonecall.

-Maria would be proud: from the baggage claim area until our departures, we students were talking non-stop with each other, networking.

-At check-in at the Four Seasons, we received a cup of nectar juices, a moist towel, and schwag including unique Timbuk2 messenger bags and Academy bag tags. Most students were down the beach a ways at the Kona Villages so they had to walk to all the events at the Four Seasons, passing beached sea turtles along the way. Their rooms were more like private bures, with no air-conditioning. The Four Seasons rooms had wide-screen TVs (which I used to watch the epic Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal before my flight) and my favorite touch, an outdoor shower in the bathroom. We also got a choice of aromatherapy scents for the room and Hawai’i cookies, with daily water bottles.

Benjamin Carson, the famous neurosurgeon who was the first to separate siamese twins, gave a speech on the triumph and sadness of a separation operation that went well and then went very wrong. He also talked about the importance of being nice to people, and how that is an effective form of preventive and humane treatment. Everyone was touched by his speech and indeed some speakers in following days would refer back to his speech. By the way, I did not know this but I was watching “Stuck on You” on TV the other night and Dr. Carson was the head surgeon in the film.

-A great performance from Josh Bell (YouTube vid), the young violinist who you might know as the guy who participated in the Washington Post experiment to see if anyone in a DC metro station would recognize world-class violin-playing when they heard it. He played a slow piece and then a fast piece, which the audience loved.

-At the various events, we got free mai tais and wine, ceviche in a champagne flute, luau pig meat, sushi and desserts for after-dinner receptions, and delicious buffet breakfasts with a Hawai’ian fruit bar.

-The first morning, another classmate and I were looking for the breakfast restaurant and a guy came up and showed us the way. My friend asked what the man did and he said he was the mayor of Chicago! So we ended up eating with Richard Daley and he’s very passionate about education initiatives in his city. He gave some talking points but was also very warm to us.

-David Doubilet has taken some absolutely amazing photographs under the sea. Check them out.

-Naomi Judd is pretty wacky in person. Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, is hilarious. My favorite line was when he said that Irish never say anything plainly, citing that most men propose to women by asking, “You know, I love you. Would you marry me?” Irish people say, “Mary, how would you like to be buried with my people?”

-A panel on city politics with three mayors, Willie Brown, Richard Daley, and Antonio Villaraigosa was fascinating because they’ve decided their cities couldn’t rely on traditional power structures to help them, so they began to operate as independently as they could. As a result, they all believe in consolidating a lot of local power.

-Bill Russell said that if you get paid 5 hours but work 7, thus working harder than you’re expected to, then your boss needs you more than you need him. You can also tell anyone at that point that they can go to Hell. One of the most bizarre images I’ve ever had was walking to lunch afterwards and seeing the extremely tall Russell, black with his distinguishing grey beard and hair, walking and talking with a short and stubby George Lucas.

-The war historian Rick Atkinson said that General David Petraeus asked him before the Iraq invasion, “Tell me how this ends.” Quite a prescient comment to ask a war historian on the eve of a massively questionable action.

-Archbishop Desmond Tutu did a fist-pound. I thought of Gyude when Madame President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf spoke at one of the panels.

-After dinner one night, I talked with Kevin McCormick, head of production at Warner Brothers. He lamented the success of Marvel Comics in the box office. Universal owns DC Comics, a rival comic book brand that tends to have darker, more mortal heroes than Marvel does. He’s a very smart guy, very engaging, and obviously he’s enjoying The Dark Knight’s success currently.

-I ended up having lunch at tables with Naomi Klein, Sally Field, and Kevin McCormick. I pitched my social business idea to all of them and they were skeptical, but asked questions!

-An overarching theme in the advice given to us is to follow your dream and to take risks as a young scholar. For students going to the best schools, if we’re afraid to take big risks and follow big ideas, then who else will? We have no excuses. Entrepreneurship and innovation is what all these older, wiser people always regret not pursuing more, even if they’re famous.

-Most of the students were from Oxford and Harvard, and had medical backgrounds. Many were Rhodes scholars. At the formal banquet, I sat between three Rhodes scholars. One was just out of the Naval Academy, another was a PhD candidate in economics at Stanford and told us about pricing models for electricity in California and what it really costs the power companies to service their regions. Rafa and I represented Georgetown MSFS by explaining what our program involves and where our competitive advantage lies. But there were a lot fewer international affairs types than I was expecting. That said, the students were absolutely brilliant and funny and type-A to the extreme. Some were running in the morning and conducting business late at night.

-Michael Spence was the lone economist of the distinguished guests, and he appropriately gave a slideshow on development statistics. Of course this was right up my alley. His key measure was that only 13 countries have sustained 7% growth over 25 years consecutively, and the only thing common to all of them was strong political leadership. I feel this measure is underemphasized when discussing how to lift countries out of poverty.

-Greg Mortenson talked about how he built schools in Pakistan for girls, saying that educating women will make that region more sustainable. Nicholas Kristof, the NYTimes journalist, met up with Mortenson at this Summit and I assume this meeting was the basis for Kristof’s article about Mortenson. Mortenson gave away free copies of his book, but I stupidly did not get one.

-On the last day, we broke up into small groups focusing on separate topics. My first panel was on Afghanistan, and it had Kristof, General Clark, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite-Runner), and Greg Mortenson. General Clark spoke the most of all and led the discussion. One person behind me whispered that he was doing his presidential talking points a bit too much. The other panel I sat on was for writing, and had Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Jonathan Spence (Chinese historian), W.S. Merwin (Pulitzer poet), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), and A. Scott Berg (Pulitzer biographer) talking about how they go about writing books. McCourt is just a total trip and being around these writers really made it feel like writing a book could be possible.

-A panel with premier scientists such as the head of NIH and the former head of the Human Genome Project was perhaps the most intellectually interesting. They are wrestling with the future problems of genetic engineering and cosmetic babies and the ethics of genomics. There was also a large desire for mass collaboration and online sharing of information, which of course I identify with.

-There was a banquet outside near the beach one night, and all the sudden there’s a disco floor and a band set-up and Chuck Berry comes out and starts playing all his hits! Everyone gets up to dance, and then suddenly Berry finishes and fireworks go off behind him out at sea. What a Fourth of July!

-One panel was about the upcoming election. Chris Matthews moderated; Ralph Nader, Andy Stern (head of the largest US union), Richard Daley, Willie Brown, General Wesley Clark, and Villaraigosa participated. The best moment was when a student asked Chris Matthews why the news covers dumb news stories instead of the big pressing issues that we’d been talking about throughout the whole summit. Matthews asked, “Well, what do you watch?” The student replied, “Daily Show and Colbert Report” and everyone busted out laughing. Then, Chris Matthews to the student, later: “I thought you said you only watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Now you’re telling me that you watch CNN and the BBC. So which is it?” Student: “Well the Daily show comes on at 8 AND 10. I have an hour in between to watch other things as well.”

-The final formal banquet involved Kobe beef, very expensive wines being continuously poured by a great waitstaff, and sorbets for dessert which melted because Brian Wilson came out and played all the Beach Boys hits for us while everyone danced in the middle of the room, including Desmond Tutu, Sam Donaldson, and a bunch of drunk scientists! Earlier, Taylor Swift played. Having lived in Nashville, I loved her down-home country songs, and she’s a great performer for being so young. We also got free albums.

-Upon leaving, at the Kona airport, I went through the TSA screening line behind Ralph Nader. His friend introduced me to him since she and I had eaten together earlier. It was an awkward conversation and I’ve never thought I’d be talking to Ralph Nader while taking my belt off in front of him.

I didn’t get many photos of the whole Summit weekend, but there’s a Facebook group that has open photos, so if you’re curious, check them out!

Thank you to the MSFS administration for nominating me to go — it certainly changed my life and opened up my eyes to the possibilities for innovation out there. And it was good to hear these successful people tell you that you should pursue your passion and that it will work out for you.