TED2008: John Francis walks the walk

And then there was one. Bruno is sitting upstairs, so we can see him onstage later this morning. Mark left yesterday to take care of family matters. And as we head into the bottom of the ninth at this year’s TED, I was worried I’d be all alone here at blogger alley. And then some grey-haired dude came and sat down with me. He’s not bad company.


He takes the stage playing the banjo, greying hair pulled back in corn rows. John Francis is not your everyday TED speaker. In fact, he’s someone best known for not speaking. For seventeen years, he didn’t speak a word. He spoke for the first time on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, and thanked his family for coming to hear him. “I didn’t recognize my voice. So I turned around looking to see who’s saying what I’m thinking.”

In 1971, Francis witnessed two oil tankers collide underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. He was so concerned, he decided to stop riding and driving in motorized vehicles. This isn’t an easy thing to do in California, and people argued with him about it. He argued and argued, and got pretty sick of arguing. He argued a great deal with his parents about his decision not to ride. His mother said to him, “If you were happy, son, you wouldn’t have to say it.”

That simple statement triggered an amazing reaction. On his 27th birthday, he decided to stop speaking for a single day. What he discovered was the value of actual listening. He tells us that he had been listening just long enough to figure out how to respond to these statements.”It was very sad. I was 27 years old and I thought I knew everything. And I realized how much I’d missed. And I decided I’d better do this for another day.”

One day became 17 years. He walked, he played the banjo, he wrote in his journal. He read environmental books and eventually decided to get a degree in environmental studies. “So I walked up to Ashland, Oregon – it’s only 500 miles.” He brought a newspaper clipping explaining his unusual decisions, and the university allowed him to get a BA through a special two-uear program.

After graduation, he walked to Washington, built a wooden boat and sailed and walked to Missoula, Montana. “I’d written them ahead of time and said I’d be there in about two years.” The University of Montana accomodated him to an extent that seems unbelievable. They gave him $150, registered him for a single class, and then allowed him to use all the university’s resources. He audited classes, but the professors kept his grades, and when they were able to find sufficient cash for him to pay for credits, they gave him a Master’s degree.

As a Master’s student, he taught, without speaking. His class began with 13 students – when an interpreter came in for the first session, most students wanted to leave. Two weeks later, everyone wanted into the classroom. His decision not to speak meant the students had to try to interpret what he was saying. In the process, they often said things he wasn’t trying to say, but should have been. “If you aren’t learning, you probably aren’t teaching very well.”

He walked next to the University of Wisconsin and spent two years writing on oil spills. No one cared, until the Exxon Valdez disaster, at which point his work became quite influential. Finally, his father began to understand his decisions: “Your sister says I should leave you alone – you seem to be doing better when you don’t talk.”

It took him seven years and one day to walk across the US. When he came to DC, he finally decided to speak. Why? He realized that the environment is us. We need to care for it, by caring for one another, and by listening to each other. To find ways to spread this message further, he decided he needed to speak. He became a UN goodwill ambassador and started working for the US Coast GUard, writing oil spill regulations.

After a year, he decided to go further, sailing to the Caribbean and to Venezuela. Something odd happened in Venezuela – he was walking through a prison town and was asked to show his passport. For reasons he didn’t understand, he refused, and walked off into the jungle. “I didn’t get shot. Instead, I said out loud, ‘Free at last, thank god almighty, I’m free at last’. And then I asked, ‘What was that about?’ It took a hundred miles to figure out -in my heart, in me, I had become a prisoner. I was a prisoner and I needed to escape. The prison I was in was that I don’t drive or use motorized vehicles.”

Every birthday, he asked himself about his silence, but didn’t ask about the decision just to use his feet. “I realized I have a responsibility to more than just me. I was going to have to change. And I was afraid to change, because I was so used to the guy who only just walked.”

It’s important to “leave the security of who we are and go to the place of who we are becoming. I encourage you to let yourself out of any prison you might find yourself in. Because we have to do something now. We have to change now.”

He ends his talk with five seconds of slience, then is given a standing ovation.

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2 Responses to TED2008: John Francis walks the walk

  1. Henok says:

    ————-wow.

  2. Pingback: The John Francis Story: A Silent Crusade to Protect the Environment - AfricanLoft

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