This past week, I had the enormous privilege of being invited to Washington, DC to attend the Academy of Achievement summit. This event – of which I knew nothing before receiving my invite – is an annual gathering of roughly 80 delegates (whose careers have shown some promise) from around the world, along with about an equal number of honorees (those whose accomplishments, in the arts, the sciences, politics and business are widely recognized).
At times, the privilege bordered on indescribable: dining at the US Supreme Court with Justices Sotomayor, Kennedy, and Ginsberg; being invited onto the floor of the House of Representatives to ask questions of Tim Berners-Lee; conversing privately with the a president of one of the world’s most prestigious universities about online education; having no fewer than 5 Nobel laureates explain their research; or enjoying a private concert with Aretha Franklin. And I have probably described less than 5% of the programming.
In many ways, the Academy of Achievement is like an event the capital’s architects might have designed. Washington, DC was famously built to so large and so grand that it would awe visitors into submission, and the Academy – with its access to the most celebrated minds of not just the US, but of the world – is almost a social equivalent to DC’s architecture. The itinerary and the access are hard to imagine anyone else in the world organizing. To be on the receiving end was always mentally stimulating and, with some of the speakers and guests, humbling to the point of tears.
That said, as striking as the impressive lineup was, the program nonetheless had the greatest impact not when it dwelled on America’s strengths, but on its weaknesses.
David Brooks – the New York Times columnist and an honoree – opened up the event with a moving talk about several of the men and women who had become the capital’s most famous and successful figures. In each case, Brooks chronicled how life in the capital forced each one to confront their own internal weaknesses, and how the country’s greatest leaders were those who both constantly engaged in self-criticism and developed the capacity to constantly check their deficiencies.
The theme of this speech hit home more deeply the following day. After dinner, we gathered at a monument dedicated in part to commemorating the terrible cost incurred when leaders fail to do exactly what Brooks described. Here, in the dark of night, we huddled tightly around Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who received and wrote about the Pentagon Papers – the documents that chronicled the full cost and failure of the war, and the publication of which tested the limits of free speech in America. Sheehan then proceeded to give a moving talk about the terrible cost of the war and its consequences for the soldiers, the Vietnamese, and the fabric of American society. Behind me, an elderly passerby who happened to stop to listen, started to weep.
And this, for me, was the most powerful moment of the conference. It was also the most awe-inspiring. There are few countries that would invite leaders from around the world and would explicitly take them to a memorial that, in many ways, commemorates one of that country’s darkest hours. Perhaps Germany? It is hard to imagine even my own polite country doing this. Indeed, I couldn’t even tell you if we have a major monument to commemorate a national tragedy of that nature. There is no monument I know of regarding the treatment of First Nations, or to the residential schools program, or to the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War.
This may also hint at why America can be so polarizing to so many people. It is not only that the country matters so much: there are few countries where the leaders’ decisions have consequences to so many outside their borders (a fact that Canadians have a comparatively benign, but nonetheless acute, awareness of). But it is a country that has demonstrated capacity for real introspection – the ability, as David Brooks pointed out, to be self-critical about its actions and its adherence to its ideals. Knowing the capacity exists makes it all the more striking and concerning when it is not exercised, and down right terrifying when – such as during George Bush’s presidency – its absence is encouraged and celebrated.
I don’t know what the future holds for America. But the whole program – in addition to being enormously enriching and motivating (it is impossible to walk away from meeting the 20somethings behind the protests in Russia and Libya and not have your perspective broadened) – has served as an important reminder about the nature of influence and relationships. You don’t get to know someone by seeing their strengths. Deep relationships are cultivated when someone has the confidence and trust to share their weaknesses. There are many choices America has made, and is making, that I vigorously disagree with (#drones, #warondrugs) but it is hard not to be moved when a country is willing to open itself up to you, to not just be great but to also be vulnerable. When it happens it is hard to not want to engage and help it make better choices, not out of anger (or worse hatred) but out of respect.
A country should count itself lucky if it can foster such thinking from those who visit its shores. It could do much, much worse.