"Every one of you is good at something," President Bill Clinton said to me.
Well, he didn’t say that only to me– I was in a room full of people at the Chase Auditorium Tuesday morning when he uttered those words– but I’m positive he looked at me in the eye when he said that.
"Nourish your gift. Don’t quit," he concluded.
This moment was the culmination of an awesome eighteen hours. Because of Chicago Ideas Week, Monday night I had the opportunity to see Thomas Friedman (yes, that Thomas Friedman), Rahm Emanuel, Michael Bloomberg and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (who was relatively unknown in the room before but certainly was the audience favorite after the panel session). Tuesday morning, I arrived at Chase Tower at 9:00am (for a 10:00am lecture, only one hour early; people wait in line longer to get I-Phones) to be one of the first in line to see President Bill Clinton. I sat in the front row.
The former president’s discussion ranged from the middle east’s Arab Spring to ways to prod re-employment in the United States.
The purpose of Chicago Ideas Week is to spur creativity and inspiration within our city by listening to others and then discussing our ideas on everything– from the arts, sports, education, politics, to a perfect cup of tea.
The goal of the 160 speakers over seven days is, quite simply, to make Chicago a better place by making us better connected. And by better connected, I don’t mean free Wi-Fi in every house– but better connected and invested in each other and our city.
"What is your idea to make our city a better place?" I was asked by former Chicago Bear Hunter Hillenmeyer just before President Clinton came out (as I write this, it sounds like a dream sequence. Seated next to a NFL linebacker and chatting about Chicago only to be interrupted by President Bill Clinton, with the latter is seated no more than 30 feet from me. More important than how awesome these moments were for me is that they were available to anyone. I jumped on-line (chicagoideas.com) last Thursday to purchase a ticket to see Bill Clinton. The price: $15.00. I arrived a little early and got a prime seat and a former NFL linebacker just happened to take the seat next to me. It could have been anyone.)
What idea do I have for making the city better? I didn’t get to finish telling Mr. Hillenmeyer because the President came out, but my idea is this: if we all individually strive to make ourselves better, our city gets better. I was initially inspired by reading Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign about Bobby Kennedy’s brief run for the presidency in 1968. My father isn’t Joe Kennedy, so I do not have the resources Bobby and his family had to effect change the way he and his family did. However, I am able to make myself a better person. I am able to make my little area of the world a bit better; I am able to be a good father to my son and more importantly, be a good role model for him and his friends. I am able to work hard to make certain that my little corner of the world is a little better than it was when I arrived.
You can dismiss wanting to effectuate change this way as corny, but ultimately, it’s just living the American Dream. To work hard and create something and leave a positive legacy for the next generation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think people would read my words and be moved enough to either pat me on the back or call me an idiot. I started writing because I wanted to look my son in the eye and say if he has a dream, it can be achieved. Nothing is impossible if you work at it. And thankfully, people actually read my words and call me an idiot pretty regularly!
So Mr. Hillenmeyer, that is what I want to do to help make our great city greater. And if our city becomes a little bit better by having a positive influence on one person because of something I said, something I did or something I wrote, then I have my positive legacy.
When we all strive to make our place in the world a little better, we will remember that the American Dream is achievable.