Column: Leaving the Comfort Zone

At Friday's Ignite Ann Arbor, we get to watch
Jo Mathis

Jo Mathis

I don’t willingly leave my comfort zone. And don’t tell Oprah, but I’m comfortable with that.

I don’t skydive. I don’t sign up to melt in a Sedona sweat lodge. And I do not speak to big groups of people if I can possibly help it.

It’s not that I mind being the occasional center of attention. This picture of me, for instance, was taken on my last day at The Ann Arbor News minutes after my boss had left the building.

I am lying on my belly on his desk.

But I was among friends. It just sort of happened. And I didn’t actually say anything. (Unless you count: “If this had been my desk all along, this paper would not be closing!”)

All this is to explain why nothing within me wants to be among those speakers at Friday night’s Ignite Ann Arbor.

And why I already admire the 15 people who will.

Ignite is an event started three years ago in Seattle that’s slowly creeping across the country. It’s a chance for people to speak on any topic for five minutes, using 20 slides that rotate every 15 seconds.

Electrical engineer Ryan Burns was surprised Ann Arbor was Ignite-less when he moved here from Chicago 18 months ago. So he helped start the first one in June at the Neutral Zone, and looks forward to the next Ignite Friday night at UM’s Ross School of Business Blau Auditorium.

So who are these participants?

“They’re people who are passionate about what they’re doing, or what their interests are,” says Burns. “And they want to tell the public it.”

He says foodies often talk to foodies, academics to academics, and tech and music and creative types talk amongst themselves.

Ignite, he says, is a chance for all sorts of people to get together.

What’s not to love about that? And as one who believes no speech should ever be longer than five minutes anyhow, I give the whole concept a hearty hip-hip.

Ignite Ann Arbor is free for participants and attendees alike. Nobody makes anything other than a bit of publicity in some cases. But strong commercial pitches are not allowed. Nor will anyone be talking politics or religion.

“We want it to be entertaining,” says Burns.

He noted that Ignite is one of many “open geek-related events” around town – including OpenEverything, ArbCamp, CloudCamp, GoTech Meetup, NewTech Meetup – that help make Ann Arbor a dynamic environment for startups in many fields.

“They are part of the public commons where people can interact in a serendipitous way not available online,” Burns added in an e-mail.


Angela Kujava

Angela Kujava, acting interim director of 826michigan in Ann Arbor, a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization for students, will speak Friday night about the importance of one-on-one tutoring.

She’s a big supporter of Ignite.

“Just the sheer number of people who are able to speak about something they are truly passionate about is incredible, and to be able to do so in front of an audience in your own community is really important, and very engaging for the community,” she says. “The fact that they’re five-minute speeches is very much an exercise in brevity when you’re editing and writing these things. Every single word is important.”

She admits she’s nervous.

“You get to the point where you think, ‘OK, I’ve got it. It’s five minutes and two seconds, but they’ll forgive me for those two seconds,’” she says. “Then you practice for the first time and you read the speech in four minutes and 24 seconds.”

What’s wrong with that?

“Then your speech doesn’t match up with your slides. You have no control over when those slides rotate. It’s every 15 seconds. So yeah, there’s a lot of practice involved.”

I look forward to hearing Angela and the others at Ignite Ann Arbor on Friday. To me, there’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when the lights go down, the curtain goes up, and all you have to do is … nothing.

That’s what I’m talking about.

The doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the event starts at 7. For more information, or to RSVP, go to

Friday’s participants include:

  • Mary Lemmer: I Scream for Gelato
  • Garrett Scott: Rosicrucian Barber-Orators, Humanist Doodles, and a Bible Dictionary amid the Cherokee.
  • Patti Smith: The Braille Embossinator: Technology for the Visually Impaired and Disabled
  • Carl Wright: How to Spin a Rope
  • Linda Diane Feldt: There Is a Free Lunch – and Twitter Helps to Find It.
  • Devon Persing: Ambient Librarianship, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Job.
  • Aaron Worsham: Why Geeks Love Wood.
  • Aaron Santos: How Many Licks Does It Take?
  • Brenda E. Bentley: These Buns are Made for Walking
  • Angela Kujava: The Uprising Behind the Robot Store or, Why One-On-One Attention Is Crucial for Our Students.
  • Bill Van Loo: Are Our Kids Technologically Literate?
  • Jack Zaientz: The Silver Age of American Jewish Music is Happening Now! And Why We’re Missing It.
  • Bilal Ghalib: Hacker Spaces and PBLE’s – American Re-education and the Importance of Making Things
  • David Bloom: Why Sex Is Great

About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer.


  1. November 5, 2009 at 11:24 am | permalink

    A big thanks to Ryan Burns for getting this started in our community. I missed the first event, but am excited to attend on Friday!

  2. November 5, 2009 at 11:36 am | permalink

    Thanks for writing about this! I am a speaker and while I am kinda nervous, I am excited to talk about my topic! Looking forward to seeing everyone there :)

  3. By Joan Kauffman
    November 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm | permalink

    Dear Jo,
    I didn’t know I missed you until I missed you!

    As I read your wonderfully clear, informative, witty, and entertaining article, I was flooded with feelings of intense grief and loss. I realized I had lost a wonderful friend who just knew how I felt and just how to say it. For instance, “To me, there’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when the lights go down, the curtain goes up, and all you have to do is … nothing.” Amen, sister!

    But in the celebration of once again reading your words and the validation of someone completely getting me, I am overwhelm with grief. In this moment i realize I have never truly mourned the loss of the Ann Arbor New in my life.

    Please keep writing!

  4. By Susan Montgomery
    November 6, 2009 at 7:42 am | permalink

    Jo is back, Jo is back, Jo is back :)

  5. By Jo Mathis
    November 6, 2009 at 12:24 pm | permalink

    Thanks so much for those kind words, Joan and Susan.

    As a big fan of this site, I look forward to playing a small part now and then. When The News was still around, Dave and Mary were seen as our biggest competition. I was especially in awe of the way Dave – one of the smartest, hardest working people I’ve ever met – would dig into a story and not let go. And nobody doesn’t love Mary.

    So I root for their continued success, and will see you back here next time.

  6. By yet another
    November 12, 2009 at 7:16 pm | permalink

    The thematic idea in this column of leaving one’s comfort zone brought back to mind an interview I read a few years back. The magazine piece, Walking Through Fear, is a Q&A with author and activist Frances Moore Lappe.

    It doesn’t specifically discuss trying to stay calm while making a presentation in front of an audience about a personal interest one wishes to share. But, in a different context, the article touches on similar emotional terrain — what it can mean to take a personal risk and nervously step outside one’s ‘zone’ of familiarity.

    A few relevant quote snippets:

    I think that fear of embarrassment is the essence of the human challenge. On the one hand, our social nature is our greatest beauty — it means that we have natural empathy and sympathy. But our social nature also means that we may let ourselves be controlled by the judgments of others….

    You suggest that sometimes we think fear is telling us to stop when it actually means “go!”

    …[social psychologist and philosopher] Eric Fromm takes Descartes’ statement, “I think, therefore I am” and changes it to “I effect, therefore I am.” Humans need to feel effective — to feel that we can “make a dent,” as he puts it.

  7. By Linda Diane Feldt
    November 13, 2009 at 1:02 pm | permalink

    One of the reasons I wanted to be an ignite speaker was specifically to try a challenging and unfamiliar format. It was a great experience. And one reason why is that the audience was excited, responsive and kind. I imagine it is partly due to the the fact that if you are in teh audience and aren’t particularly interested in what is being presented, you have to wait just a few minutes for something else.
    The format seems to be best dealt with by extensive practice. I rehearsed my presentation more than 25 times.
    I would encourage those who have a passion, who are very excited about what they are doing, to communicate it through Ignite. It was a really great experience, both the preparation as well as those five minutes of enthusiastic attention.