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No Barriers Podcast Episode 60 & 61: Mission Possible with Mick Ebeling

Mick Ebeling has sparked a movement of pragmatic & inspirational innovation. Ebeling is a film, television, and commercial producer, philanthropist, technology trailblazer, author, and entrepreneur.  Ebeling founded Not Impossible, a multiple award-winning social innovation lab and production company, on the premise that nothing is impossible. His mantra of “commit, then figure it out” allows him to convene a disparate team of hackers, doers, makers, and thinkers to create devices that better the world by bringing about accessibility for all.

This unconventional approach brought to life highly-acclaimed initiatives  – The Eyewriter, Project Daniel, Don’s Voice, and most recently Music: Not Impossible – that brought the ability to draw back to a paraplegic street artist, 3D printed arms to Sudanese amputees, a ‘voice’ to an ALS patient who hasn’t spoken in 15 years, and wearables that let deaf and hearing people alike feel music in a “surround body” experience. 

Ebeling’s book, Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done, recounts his life experiences and projects. 

Named one of Wired’s ‘Agents of Change,’ a two-time SXSW innovation of the year award winner, a two-time Tribeca Disruptor innovation winner, a fellow with The Nantucket Project, and recipient of every major creative and advertising award, Ebeling is on a mission  to provide “Technology for the Sake of Humanity.” By tapping into a community of passionate and talented engineers, makers, idea generators, and storytellers, Ebeling is making the inconceivable, the unbelievable and the impossible, Not Impossible. 

Check out Not Impossible’s latest initiative – Hunger Not Impossible – as part of their response to COVID-19.

Learn more about Not Impossible and follow the movement:

» Hear an extended version of our interview with Mick here

We’ve created the following Tip Sheet to guide your learning experience.

Download the full PDF version here.

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Episode Transcript

Mick: You are the judge of your own value and of what you bring to the table. And if you're not able, if you don't have limbs, so you can't go build PPEs for someone or build things; great! What else can you do? If you're deaf, if you're blind, if you're in a wheelchair, it doesn't matter. All that matters is you did everything that you could do and you didn't take no for an answer trying to get there.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Eric Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a No Barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in, in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

Dave: Welcome to another installment of our No Barriers Alchemy Podcast series, where we explore this extraordinary moment in our lives. Special thanks to Wells Fargo and Prudential for their generous support of this series.

Dave: Mick Ebeling has sparked movement of pragmatic and inspirational innovation. Ebeling is a film, television and commercial producer, philanthropist, technology trailblazer, author, and entrepreneur. Ebeling is CEO of Not Impossible, which is an organization that develops creative solutions to address real-world problems. One of their projects, the EyeWriter, is an open source, low-cost DIY device that enables individuals with paralysis to communicate and create art using only the movement of their eyes. Time Magazine named the EyeWriter one of the top 50 inventions of 2010 and the device is now part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. Ebeling's book, Not Impossible, The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn't Be Done, recounts his life experiences and projects. Enjoy.

Erik: Mick, so you're a hard guy to describe, right? You are an entertainer, a storyteller, a speaker, an author. You dive into science and innovation and engineering. You're kind of like an orchestra leader, right? And so, tell us, have you always been like that? Or is it something that you've learned over the years?

Mick: I think I've always been hungry for life. And I think that Not Impossible has just been a natural evolution for me in terms of, once I discovered the fact that technology is this kind of Excalibur sword that you can wield in a way that truly helps people? And it doesn't necessarily, you don't have to have these massive budgets to go do it. You can get scrappy to at least get something to a prototype state of, phase and stage. That was just this kind of revelation.

Mick: And I think that, because of that now, I just like hanging out with people who are smarter than me and people that are just doing genius stuff. Because I feel like every time we tackle one of our Not Impossible initiatives, we end up grabbing just a little more, I personally grab a little bit more and more information that I can apply someplace else.

Mick: And I think I'm sometimes probably annoying to the geniuses that I'm working with because I'm asking so many questions all the time. But I think that's what has led to, at least to what drives me now, is just how do you aggregate a bunch of brilliant people and brilliant ideas to focus solving one problem for one person. And then, use that to scale it out, to help many people.

Erik: Deepak Chopra said that you were like a template for a new science, like a new kind of science of consciousness. I thought that was pretty heavy, but very cool, right?

Erik: So did you always have that consciousness or you knew, you started out in the entertainment world, right? Doing special effects and all that kind of stuff, right? And then, you kind of had, did you have an epiphany or was it a slow burn that you kind of thought, "Okay, I want to bring some ideas of solutions to the world?"

Mick: Yeah, it was, I had an entertainment, my company was a production company. We made animation and design for films and television and commercials. So my exposure to technology was more on the creative side. And then, one day, my wife and I were exposed to a paralyzed graffiti artist named Tony Tempt Quan. And we discovered he had ALS. And what really appalled us is that he was unable to draw, unable to communicate, unable to do anything.

Mick: Well, we ended up creating a thing called the EyeWriter. And the EyeWriter was a cheap pair of sunglasses from the Venice Beach boardwalk, a coat hanger that we duct-taped to the side, some zip ties where we zip-tied a web camera to the front, focused it back onto the pupil. And that allowed him to be able to draw again for the first time in seven years. And that moment, that experience, watching that happen. And then, the crazy things that started to happen afterwards because of that was this kind of life-shifting moment for me that caused me to start Not Impossible [inaudible 00:05:53].

Mick: And the moment I made that decision, I got an email from the artist, Tempt. And he said, "That was the first time I'd drawn anything for seven years."

Dave: Well as Eric mentioned, you're a complex dude. You've got a lot of hats to cover that head. How would you describe it, if you had to, in a pretty succinct elevator pitch?

Mick: We are a group of dreamers and people that see social injustices, things that we call absurdities in the world. Which is when you see something and you go, "That's not right. It shouldn't be that way. Let's change it." It's not right that there was a dude who was paralyzed and he couldn't afford a Stephen Hawking machine. So we said, "Screw that, let's get him a Stephen Hawking machine." It's ridiculous. There was a young boy who had both of his arms blown off and he was never going to have prosthetics because he couldn't afford prosthetics. We said, "That's absurd. Let's figure out how to make 3D prosthetics for him." So it's all a rebellion of a revolution against something you see where you say, "That's just not right."

Mick: So our company is a bunch of people that see those absurdities and say, "That's not right; let's fix them." And then, we build teams of brilliant people who help us solve those problems. So at our core, we're a bunch of producers and project managers who just have an uncanny ability of aggregating people way smarter than us towards a common mission of solving one problem. And then, our goal, though, is by solving that one problem for one person, then we can scale up to help many people.

Erik: Mick, go internal for a minute and refresh us on what you were thinking. You see this guy Tempt in the newspaper. I think you went to visit him. And you just blurted out, "Hey, I'm going to help you. I'm going to try to fix this or develop something." And so, how do you go from most of us, who are the passive person looking at the newspaper and going, "Wow, that's a bummer," to saying, "I'm going to build an EyeWriter." So that must've been a struggle internally, even if you're super motivated.

Mick: I think, at a certain point, you have to be absolutely disgusted with the fact that people can look, that you, as a person, or the world, can just look away from a problem and say, "Well, can't do anything. Uh-uh (negative)." Just put your hands up. So I think that that's kind of what happens to us is, we just reach this boiling point of disgust, where we're like, "We just can't step away from this." And once we do it, it's like red pill or blue pill? Once you take that pill and saying you're going to do it, your word is your bond. And we can't let up until we actually accomplish it.

Mick: And I have to say, it tortures us. It absolutely tortures us. But not in a negative way. It drives us, right? It drives us to be able to just keep pushing forward when things get really tough. And they always, always, always are really tough.

Dave: Yeah. How many of these do you have going on at any one point? And let's back up pre-quarantine, if that helps. But I mean, do you have a hundred irons in the fire at any given point? Do you have people working on multiple projects? What does that look like?

Mick: Yeah. It feels like a hundred projects, but. So our first project was the EyeWriter. Our second big project was Project Daniel, which was about 3D, we launched the world's first 3D printing prosthetics lab in Sudan. Since that time, we've worked on different ways, different ocular recognition solutions, like the ones we did for Tempt with the EyeWriter. We started creating a thing called Music: Not Impossible, which is a way that transferred the ability to "hear music" through the vibrations against your eardrum that gets sent to the brain. And then, we actually use the skin as the signal receptor for music that would send a signal to the brain. So we've got something that we're doing in the vaccine space. We've got something we're doing in the Alzheimer's and dementia space.

Mick: And our whole point is, we'll go down these rabbit holes and we'll do it with corporate partners. We'll do it with partners that help us fund it to that final prototype phase with the hope that, then, we can spin something off and turn it into a real company. And it's a tool that can really scale and help people, so.

Dave: The thing that I'm fascinated in hearing is that you probably started with a core group based on your previous professional relationships. But then, based on each of these issues that you identify as a group, do you collectively get together as you're identifying the elements of the problem and say, "We could use a specialist here, somebody that's really knowledge-based here." And did you go out and recruit those people? And then, continue to bring and make your entire team bigger relative to each project?

Mick: Yeah. The beautiful thing about, if you think about the heritage of kind of where I came from? If you're going to make a science fiction film, you go out and hire a science fiction team to do that. If you're going to do a period piece from the 1920s, then you hire a team that knows how to do that. So horses for courses; producers are used to hiring and staffing up around a particular need, right?

Mick: And so, we've just taken that way of thinking and created it so that if we're doing something in the Alzheimer's, dementia space? Great. Let's go aggregate a bunch of brilliant people who make us feel stupid in that space. "Oh, we're going to do some work in the Parkinson space?" Great. Let's get a bunch of brilliant people who have dedicated their lives to work in that space that are going to make us feel stupid over there.

Mick: Where we act as that conduit is, we don't care that we're not the smartest guy or girl in the room. In fact, we relish it. Because sometimes, knowing too much about something is what cuts your ability to foresee what new possibilities might be. So that rut that we get caught in with our "expertise" sometimes is a detriment and is a liability. And we're able, with our perspective, to aggregate these brilliant people but not let them get rutted because we refuse to have people tell us it can't be done. That's the only F-word that you get in trouble for dropping at Not Impossible is if you say that, right? You can't say the I-word, that something is impossible.

Erik: So that kind of leadership is a bit rare, right? But I mean, you have to be vulnerable in that process, right? I mean, you have to be okay being the dumbest guy in the room, in that expertise, right?

Mick: It's really hard to try to be the smartest guy in the room because someone's always going to be smarter than you. It's a lot easier to be the dumbest person in the room and really own that, that's for sure.

Dave: Now you're getting to the point where you know if you [inaudible 00:12:54], you know it. It's baked in to this, the development of the project. You know that if you take this one person, this one concept, this one thing that needs to be fixed, and you do it, you do it right, that it can be replicated.

Mick: One of our mantras that we live by here is, "Help one, help many." So part of our design thinking? And I never used the word design thinking until, years after, someone told us, "You guys have a process. And that process is your design approach." Is to really focus on that one person and blow it out for that one person, knowing that if we can solve it for that one person, and then tell a really powerful story about that person? That's what gives rise to many people being helped afterwards.

Erik: So you're very motivational, right? You're a doer, for sure. How do you motivate people in COVID?

Mick: Let's just say that in, if you base this moment of COVID and you base that on a time continuum of the history of our planet, it probably wouldn't even get, in a time lapse, it probably wouldn't even get a quarter of a second, right? So let's everybody just take a f'ing step back away. And let's put this into perspective that this is going to be such a quick blip on the radar in terms of our species that we all need to keep that, just keep ourselves in check.

Mick: The question that I would ask everybody that you need to be able to answer for yourself is, when this moment is over and the majority of us will be alive, did you do all you could? And if you can say, "Yes, I did all I could," and you can look at yourself in the mirror, then you did it. Then that's the only, you are the judge of your own value and of what you bring to the table. And if you're not able, if you don't have limbs, so you can't go build PPEs for someone or build things; great! What else can you do? If you're deaf, if you're blind, if you're in a wheelchair, it doesn't matter. All that matters is you did everything that you could do and you didn't take no for an answer trying to get there. That's really, I think, what people are going to need to measure themselves by after this is over.

Dave: That is a solid way to wrap it up. I'm cranked. Because that gets me fired up. I want to go out and hammer a piece of wood or something right now, just get going and doing something.

Erik: I'm so motivated, I'm going to change out of my pajamas right now.

Dave: Dude, you're phenomenal. And I can only, and I'm not talking about you, Eric; I'm talking about Mick. Yeah. Thanks so much for spending some of your time. Because clearly, after listening to you today and knowing what you do, you are a busy dude. You've got a lot on your plate. So thank you for cutting out some time for us today. I know you've impacted a lot of people that are going to listen to this. So we really appreciate you.

Mick: Thanks, guys.

Dave: And I'll tell you, man? I mean, I knew a little bit about Mick before, just from conversations you and I have had. But I really had no idea the depth and the scale and the talent that that guy brings to the table. And what I gathered from just listening to him? It was a privilege to be able to just listen to him. You can tell, as he's speaking, that this is a guy who eats, sleeps, drinks, breathes it, right? It's all-consuming for him. And I love the fact that it seems like he is completely based, he's ingenuity based, right? Like it seems like he's, just his thread count is all about ingenuity. He sees a problem. And then, through a creative collaboration and an aggregate of smart folks, which he kept saying, "Bring a bunch of people in and make me feel stupid." Like you reach a solution.

Dave: You've known him for a while. So what'd you learn differently today?

Erik: This is a guy who allows himself to stumble upon things that need to be solved in the world that give him outrage. And then, use that outrage as fuel to go and make some progress in these areas.

Erik: And I also love the idea that he's vulnerable, right? Like he loves being the stupidest guy in the room. I think that's a super great trait. Because most of us are too scared to be vulnerable, right? Like it's my soap box, but I love this thing called metacognition, this idea of what is it that I don't know, what are the things that I don't know? And so, when you put yourself in that vulnerable position, you learn so fast. You surround yourself with incredible people, experts in that realm, and bam! Solutions start popping out that are unexpected. But are some that will be people like Mick and incredible innovators, incredible no barriers pioneers, who are thought leaders, but also who have learned on the bleeding edge.

Erik: So if you've liked our summits in the past, you've been a participant, you're going to love the virtual one. Or maybe you're new to the summit and this a great way for you to test out getting a little taste of this No Barriers life.

Dave: As usual, I learned a lot.

Erik: Yep.

Dave: Sitting down with you and a guest. So grateful for the whole process. And Mick is another great asset for all of us as we try to navigate this crazy landscape we're in.

Erik: But I also want to say thanks to Prudential and Wells Fargo, our two sponsors here for the podcast. And if you love No Barriers, if you like the podcast, support the folks who support us, right? These are great companies.

Erik: So thank you very much. And hey, No Barriers to everyone.

Dave: See you next time.

Dave: The production team behind this podcast includes Senior Producer, Pauline Shaffer; Executive Producer, Diedrich Jank; Sound Design, Editing, and Mixing by Tyler Cottman; Graphics by Sam Davis; and Marketing Support by Megan Lee and Carly Sandsmark. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us.

Dave: If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

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