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The Positive Power of Selfishness

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Growing up in Calgary, I witnessed an overwhelming example of the power of volunteerism. At the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, over 10,000 ordinary Calgarians from across the city came together in an unprecedented manner, donating countless hours towards the games. Ostensibly, these volunteers were inspired by a sense of civic duty or selflessness. Certainly my parents taught me that this should be one's reason for taking up a cause.

While I believe one needs to have altruistic tendencies to commit to a volunteer position, I just as firmly believe that some of the most awe-inspiring and powerful examples of volunteerism are often rooted in selfish motives. I believe this because I have witnessed it firsthand.

In 2009 I was part of a small team that came together and organized the first TEDxToronto conference. We started with a small handful of organizing team members and just 150 delegates. In the two years since, the conference has expanded to encompass approximately 40 organizing team members, over 700 delegates and has amassed an online viewing audience of 26,000 and counting.

When people ask me how we were able to grow as quickly as we did, the answer is always the same: "We have a great team." And it's true: our team consists of top advertising directors, non-profit executives, entrepreneurs, experienced event producers and students -- just to name a few.

What many people may not know is that everyone involved in bringing the TEDxToronto conference to life is a volunteer. In many cases, members of the organizing team spend as much as 30 hours a week on TEDx related activities -- on top of their already demanding day jobs. These volunteers don't sacrifice their time and energy (and often sleep and personal lives) just because it's the "right" thing to do. Certainly this plays a role, and it may be what sustains them, but it's not the catalyst.

People volunteer because they're passionate. And they're usually passionate when it's personal. Maybe the cause has touched their lives in some way, or maybe they feel compelled to stake a claim in an organization that has great relevance to them. Regardless of the entry point, it's the result that really matters; passion induces a call to action.

The best thing about a team of volunteers is that they want to be there. Money can only provide a functional benefit whereas passion provides an emotional one. When people are motivated by passion, it results in a contagious energy. The personal nature of their contribution reinforces a sense of ownership, fostering the need to do more, to do better and to do it all.

As well, it's passionate volunteers who tend to become the best ambassadors for a cause. Over the past two years, I have watched the incredible growth of the TEDxToronto community and I attribute it, primarily, to word of mouth. Our volunteers and viewers have forged friendships and networks, creating a community within Toronto so passionate about TEDx that we often cannot satisfy the need.

In fact, because of this, our team wanted to extend TEDx's mandate to spread "Ideas Worth Sharing" through additional, mini-TEDxToronto events (a first for TEDx worldwide). The connections built from these events have resulted in new community projects and, in some cases, new businesses -- all due to the power of bringing passionate people together.

My parents were right that volunteerism requires a social conscience, but they were only right in part. Benevolence or duty alone cannot compel the kind of action I saw at the 1988 Olympics, or that I have witnessed among the TEDxToronto organizing team. Nor can money. Only passion can generate this incredible combination of drive and creativity and only passion can bring about the accompanying results.

Given this, I remind myself all the time that it's OK to go out and volunteer for the things you're passionate about, and to feel good about what you're doing. In the end, your selfish desire to accomplish something great results in the kind of civic engagement that can redefine communities -- and possibly the world.

The third annual TEDxToronto conference will take place on September 23 at the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto.

The event will be available on free live streaming at www.tedxtoronto.com.

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