Clynes offers a lesson in how to change the world with ‘Art of Audacity’

Through photos and personal accounts, journalist Tom Clynes tells Elon's Liberal Arts Forum audience the attributes and actions he's seen lead to world-changing advancements.

Viewed from a wide angle, the thought of changing the world is daunting and vaguely terrifying.

But in close-up — at the zoomed-in level Tom Clynes has witnessed first-hand in a career traveling the world as a writer and photographer for publications as prestigious as National Geographic and The New York Times — changing the world looks simple.

You only need the audacity to believe you can.

Tom Clynes tells stories of the people he has met and places he has been as a writer and photographer for National Geographic.

“Audacity is the propensity to take a risk to do something bold,” Clynes said. “Most of us have the capacity within us to do amazing things, but we often don’t believe it. When we do, when we believe we can actually change the world, that’s audacity.”

Clynes’ program for the Liberal Arts Forum Lecture, “The Art of Audacity,” spanned the globe and his career. From the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in Uganda, to the melting glaciers of Greenland, to the unspoiled jungles of the Congo and Gambon, Clynes took the audience gathered in Whitley Auditorium on Thursday into intimate personal moments with men and women around the globe.

Skeptical of one of his subjects, J. Michael Fey, a man bent on raising awareness to the importance of Africa’s last true wilderness with a 1,700-mile trek through the jungle, Clynes asked him: “What do you hope to accomplish from this trip besides attention?”

Fey looked at him for a moment. “I don’t know, but I get the feeling something good will happen if I do it.”

Within a few years, Fey raised millions of dollars and had the president of Gambon as an ally in buying back 13 percent of the country’s wilderness from logging companies for national parks and wildlife reservations.

A formula began to take shape for Clynes. They read like platitudes, but he’s seen the markers too often to ignore them. Follow your heart. Go with your instinct. Be less selfish. Use setbacks as signs you’re doing the difficult work the world needs.

Tom Clynes tells stories of the people he has met and places he has been as a writer and photographer for National Geographic.

“I’m not brave,” the South African real estate developer who traveled into the Iraq war zone in spring 2003 to rescue animals in the Baghdad Zoo at the frontlines of the U.S. invasion told Clynes. “I’m just a person in utter denial of my own limitations.”

Illustrating his points with breathtaking, sometimes heartbreaking, photos, he elicited gasps, “oohs” and “ahs” from the crowd.

A photo of a whale shark — “as big as a locomotive” — with a diver floating alongside appearing as small as a toy soldier was the first to capture an audible reaction. The face of an inquisitive gorilla peering through the jungle grass at Clynes, close enough to touch, was another.

Some wiped away tears when he showed a photo of what was later realized as the moment Matthew Lukwiya, a heroic African doctor, caught the Ebola virus while caring for his dying medical colleague. Lukwiya’s early actions to stop the spread of a mysterious virus — Ebola had never surfaced in Uganda before — saved thousands of lives and helped contain an epidemic.

“Something I’ve seen in kids and certain people: This idea of your future self as something else,” Clynes said. “Then there’s this road-mapping they do. ‘OK, how do I get there to that future I want?’”

He then told the story of Taylor Wilson, the subject of his book “The Boy Who Played With Fusion,” who set out to build an affordable nuclear fusion reactor in his garage after his grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. He wanted every hospital to be able to have one for better cancer detection. Wilson accomplished his goal at age 14.

So, what do you think? Is it possible for one person to change the world in a big way?” Clynes asked. “You know where I stand, obviously.

“This is a thank you note to the people … who took these wild ideas not knowing where they were going to go and made them work for the benefit of humanity.”