To Be A Candle Or The Mirror That Reflects It: Experiencing Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar

February 5, 2019  • Josh Miller

There is something refreshing that comes with being reminded that for countless years, humans have been grappling with the big, timeless question, “What is a good society? And can it be created in a world of conflicting values?”

Whether it’s the 1647 An Agreement of the People, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Darwin’s Descent of Man, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, or Analects by Confucius, each provides a lens into how we got to where we are today. Illuminating the debates that sought to define “the good society” – described by James O’Toole in The Executive’s Compass as a concept that is “abstract and subjective.”

“Unless we understand the dynamic tension of the values that underlie the politics and economics of democratic culture, that culture will be threatened from without while it suffers from decay within. That is, enlightened leadership must have the conviction that comes from understanding timeless values, while possessing the humility to adapt to changing circumstances,” said Aspen Institute Managing Director of Seminars Dr. Todd Breyfogle.

And that understanding, or rather, finding a balance in understanding how the values of liberty, equality, efficiency, and community show up in our work, in how we lead, and in how we calculate tradeoffs and make decisions in an increasingly complex world, brought together 20 of us from six countries to learn, debate, and, in the words of one of the Aspen Institute’s founders Walter Paepcke, access our humanity by becoming “more self-aware, more self-correcting, and more self-fulfilling.”

The readings for the seminar, sent in advance, were punctuated by ads created in the 1950s-1970s by the Container Corporation of America, fusing historical and contemporary written and visual works by artists. “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it,” read one, quoting Edith Wharton’s poem Vesalius in Zante. For years, we have seen how artists – and leaders – have played a role in eliciting and reflecting back what they see in society, providing a way for us to look critically at what has been, what is, and creating space to imagine what could be.

As artists and the co-founders of IDEAS xLab, both Theo and I have explored the roles of artists, and of culture, in seeking to find meaning that builds on our past, as we move into a future where new questions are being formed. It seemed fitting that artistic works bridged each section, and that our readings culminated in Maya Angelou’s Surviving, a poem on hope, resilience, and the importance of building our lives, and society, on a solid foundation.

The Aspen Institute Executive Seminar reminded us that our response to “what makes a good society” can be one that evolves over time, changing based on how we relate to the world, and each other. It’s impacted by how we think about liberty, equality, community, and efficiency – and is informed by our willingness to listen, to learn, to grow with new information and cultural contexts.

During our opening night, sitting around the circle at the Wye River Conference Center, we talked about power. A group comprised of straight and LGBTQ+, of mixed ethnicities, races, and backgrounds, we recognized that knowledge and life experience impacts our power, which operates on a spectrum, changing depending on what room we happen to be in. “Do you have someone who can speak truth to your power?” we asked.

Paddling back to Wye Island in our neon kayaks, we sat along the river’s edge, discussing Billy Budd and applications of the law – and when it was appropriate to disregard enforcing a law because your personal beliefs – your values, saw it as unjust. Returning home, I began to see these conversations about a good society, about challenging laws considered unjust, all around me. In cartoons like The Incredibles 2, where the parents sit over the kitchen table, debating whether or not to utilize their superpowers even though it was illegal.

In a world of division, where the discussion so often migrates towards the far left and right, I appreciated the messiness of our interactions throughout the week. “No, we are not here to come to a consensus,” said one of the moderators at the opening of the seminar. We’re here to debate, to listen, to seek understanding.

From MLK’s Letters from Birmingham City Jail, we talked about the need for strategically exhausting the legal process, as the foundation on which to build the argument for later actions that have no alternative. There is not a convenient time, we noted, to make change happen. Yes, we should be strategic, but we cannot – and should not – wait forever.

In Letter to My Son, Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “My wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” As I read that line, sitting with my coffee before our morning session, I was reminded of why I continue to show up as I do, a man in makeup, androgynous – challenging the notion that code and culture-frame switching are required to be successful in a corporate world built on the notions of straight white men. Our analects, shared during our last dinner together, were inspired by the readings of Confucius, mine reiterating that belief. “Being visible can shift culture, often requiring that we trade comfort now so that future generations can excel beyond current limitations,” I wrote.

“It is only when art and nature are harmoniously blended that you have a gentleman [someone who occupies themselves with the Way, not with their livelihood],” said Confucius. The combination of art and nature – for me – photography and running explorations outdoors, is one of my ways to recharge, think, dream. It is during my early morning miles that I mentally connect pieces of information and ideas through a form of moving meditation. And, miles from the artificial lights of a city, the Wye River Conference Center provided a new challenge. Running in the early morning along pitch black roads, I experimented with the longest shutter speed my L16 camera could offer – launching a series of photographs capturing not me, but my running light, as it moved while I ran through the darkness.

Technology was an ever-present theme within our discussions, from learning to co-bot (learning how to work with your robots) to the impact of virtual reality experiences – which can create proximate understanding of homelessness and immigration – and change how you feel and if and how you need to act. The “task at hand, [is a] new model of coexistence among various culture, peoples, races, and religious spheres within a single interconnected civilization,” wrote Vaclav Havel.

From the way that technology is shifting how Gen Z creates meaning, and relates to information, to our personal understanding of democracy, we were reminded by O’Toole that, “Just societies are dynamic, complex, and multidimensional as they seek to respond to the many and changing needs of all their constituencies; the process of governance in unjust societies is static, simple, and one-dimensional.”

This seminar was one I sought out fervently. As a young leader who bridges various sectors through our work at IDEAS xLab, focused on leveraging the power of arts, culture, and the creative industries to support health and wellbeing innovation, I wanted to be challenged by new questions, to better understand how people view the spectrum of humans as naturally good or bad, and to see where my leadership could be improved, could be informed by thousands of years of text, debate, and change. I’m grateful that a partnership between the Aspen Institute and ArtPlace America facilitated and supported our participation. It is not often, and quite frankly, I’m not sure when I’ll next have the opportunity to unplug for a week to focus on personal growth as a leader, as a human, who has a role to play in what the future holds.

Embarking on an early morning run in the days following the seminar, I mentally wove together facets of my experience as I transversed the bridge and trails connecting Louisville and southern Indiana, while continuing the photo series started before our hours of dialogue.

Back at our apartment, I jotted down my reflections written while running…


I arrived clad in chainmail
And left in a cluster of pearls [of nature and wisdom]
Challenged to step beyond preconceived notions
That a “good society” was easy to define, and create

Your wisdom that travels across time zones and continents required I ask new questions
With generational and cultural experiences all informing the way we saw our connected future
I sought out this seminar fervently
I longed to be pulled out of my head
To be required to respond quickly
And at the same time, was told my silent presence offered a safe haven

I realize now how much the busy had gotten in the way of the work, of reflection
The blur of time limiting my ability to show up as the best person I could
For you, for us, for a future built on dynamic values and evolving realities
Of leadership and management my thinking expanded

Reflecting on what I had let slip because my expectations were built on an unstable foundation
I saw more clearly where generalizations were getting in our way
Causing us to assume of others what we repeatedly called out as wrong

I recounted the leadership trials that took place
Watching as you and I each navigated scenarios while trying to find balance in a week full of ideas and debates
I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything
Even if Billy Budd continued to be a required reading
For even in that text I’d been reminded how much we insert context as a frame for laws and what is and is not acceptable

Running in the morning, I explored longer shutter speeds and experimenting with light
The creation and taste of s’mores reminded me of simpler joys, ones not predicated on the limiting factors of calories and a lack of time to build a fire outdoors
The feeling of being a child once again… do you remember?

I thought of your words, from Mexico, Spain, Fiji, the U.K…
And pondered how I could translate the breadth of these thoughts into practice
Before they dissipate as I re-enter a chaotic season of change

Our analects were a challenge, a fervent reminder
For it takes small strides to make systemic change
And passing the torch as if it’s not my problem just won’t due

In departing you called me “son” during a warm embrace
I cried, not knowing how that single word would pierce the barriers contrived for self-protection
You said, “you’re amazing “
And I wondered what things were invisible to me that you saw

We left, some by train, by car, by plane
Traveling hours and days to enact our new-found reality
As a politician or a leader-manager, as a bridge builder between networks

Driving down the winding roads away from Wye River,
I thought of liberty, equality, efficiency and community… of the good society
And my role in striving toward balance
Toward hope, as Maya Angelou said
Rebuilding through resilience time and time again
A future worthy of our efforts, and our lives.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Aspen Institute or the Aspen Executive Leadership Seminars Department. 

Josh Miller is the co-founder and CEO of IDEAS xLab. Recently honored as part of Louisville Business First’s Forty under 40, he is an artist with a background in business, art administration and editorial production – and explores the world through photography (and a lot of running), documenting his journey through Josh is the Co-Chair of the Louisville Health Advisory Board‘s Communications Committee, a TEDx speaker, and an advisor for the Derby Diversity & Business Summit. He graduated from Indiana University with his MBA in 2013 after completing his undergraduate studies at Bellarmine University in 2011.

Josh Miller participated in the October 2018 Aspen Executive Leadership Seminar.