Best of the Presidential Conference

The Israeli Presidential Conference was filled with great leaders, brilliant thinkers and pretty faces. Though admittedly, there was some disagreement as to which was which. Here are the best lines and lessons from a great conference:

Best lines

Rahm Emanuel: The public hates the status quo. They’re not too fond of change either.

Tim Armstrong: I hope people shut off their phones once a week and think about what’s really important. I’ve seen the power of that in Israel.

Sharon Stone: I wasn’t born a Jew but my husbands were. So I’m not a Jew, but I’m Jew-ish.

Larry Summers

  • (After a great intro from Stanley Fischer): I’m reminded of what LBJ said after an introduction like that. I wish my parents were here. My father would have appreciated it. And my mother would have believed it.
  • The US and Israel are probably the only two countries where you can raise your first $100 million before you buy your first suit.

Maurice Levy: Commercial big brother is better than government big brother because the worst they can do is make you an offer you don’t like (but can refuse).

Ed Morrissey: When I started blogging, I wasn’t trying to change careers, I just wanted to write, and my friends were tired of listening to it. [Been there, done that]

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The Islamic parties hijacked the Arab Spring because they were the only organized movements when the Arab Spring hit. Sharia government is not really what the people want. And now they’re realizing that when you elect the Muslim Brotherhood, you get Mohamed Morsi, not Allah Almighty.

Dan Ariely:

  • We analyzed data from an online dating site. Women really care about men’s height. How much more would I have to earn a year to be like somebody an inch taller? $40K / year. The interface exaggerates the superficiality because we filter our searches.
  • What do men care about? BMI. They like 19, which is slightly anorexic. How much do women have to earn more to make up for one point of BMI? Men don’t care. You can’t. [Everybody laughed, but the truth is this is really unfortunate]
  • As we learn more about people we like them less. Because our brain fills missing gaps in overly optimistic ways. He likes sports, probably same sports as I do. Then we meet them for coffee and get disappointed.
  • If you give people compliments , they will think higher of you, even if they know the compliments are insincere.

Yossi Vardi: 73% of statistics are made up on the spot [I heard 42.7%. Weird]

Aluf Benn: After decades focused on print newspapers I had to start learning about a paper online. You have to think of your traffic numbers as a conversation with your users. Over time you realize what people click on, share. They click / share on What would I do if I were the protagonist. That’s what the Greek dramas were. Good storytelling never changed, just the framework changed.

Natan Scharansky: We spread the idea of Tikun Olam (repairing the world) so successfully that somebody once asked me Do you Jews have a concept like “Tikun Olam?”

Binyamin Netanyahu:

  • You know the old joke about how you make a small fortune in Israel? You start with a big fortune. Well that’s not true any more. There are Waze to create fortunes here.
  • [Regarding the discovery of natural gas sources in Israel] It turns out Moses didn’t have such a bad sense of direction after all!

Best exchanges

Yossi Vardi: Tim [Armstrong], what’s your e-mail address?

Tim: Last time you asked me that, I answered, and the next day it was in the paper. I spent about a year and a half digging out of all the e-mails [You can’t truly understand the definition of Chutzpah – or of the connection between Chutzpah and startup success — until you listen to Yossi Vardi]


Yossi: [After applause for Tim Armstrong] They like you

Tim: I’m only looking for Dr Ruth’s approval.


Yossi: Richard [Gelfond, iMax CEO], are you familiar with social media?

Richard: I heard about it at one of your conferences.


Richard: People should be able to Tweet in movie theaters. One reason younger people don’t go to the movies is they like always being on Twitter.

Yossi: But what about the other people who don’t want to be distracted by the typing and the screens?

Richard: Maybe we’ll find a good Israeli technology that solves that problem


Yossi: I heard that Steve Jobs wanted an iMax version for the iPhone

Richard: That story is more true than you know. Steve called. My secretary asked him to spell his name. She wouldn’t let him through. Otherwise you might have that product today.


Rob LoCascio: I have an Italian mother

Yossi: What’s the difference between an Italian mother and a Jewish mother?

Rob: Can I tell the joke? The Italian mother says “If you don’t eat your meal I’m going to kill you.” The Jewish mother says “If you don’t eat your meal, I’m going to kill myself.”

Mark Benioff: The difference between a Jewish mother and a pit bull? Eventually the pit bull lets go.


Tony Blair: Chicago sounds great [compared to Syria, I guess], I’d like to move there and vote for you

Rahm Emanuel: You don’t have to move there to vote for us, we’ll take care of that

Best satire (from Twitter)

Esther Kustanowitz: BREAKING: AOL to bring back the “You’ve Got Mail” voice lady in series of commercials w/”Can You Hear Me Now” Verizon guy.

Noah Roth: After lunch: Dan Ariely to debate rationality against The Square Root of 2.

David Wiseman:

  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Yemen has never been the same since Chandler Bing moved there
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Everyone was so glad to see the end of Gaddafi because no one knew how to spell his name
  • Daniel Kahneman: winning the Nobel was cool and unlike others, I didn’t have to share mine 😉
  • Yossi Vardi: Everything that can be invented has been

The rainbows and unicorns conference

A common theme was that we needed to be more optimistic and audacious.

Rahm Emanuel: Nobody ever elects the less optimistic candidate.

Dana Weiss: We need to think about what a leader has to do to join the pantheon of great leaders.

Tony Blair:

  • Shimon Peres once told me that a leader in office has to decide. Does he want to be in the history book or the guest book?
  • He may be 90 but he has the spirit of a 30 year old, and that’s the spirit we need today.
  • People can always give you 1,000 reasons for doing nothing. What you often need is a good reason to do something
  • You don’t want to see a depressed pilot.

I don’t want to see a depressed pilot, but if I see that the pilot is – well, some of the “great leaders” on that stage — I’m getting off and hoping my next pilot is more humble and risk averse, less obsessed with making a name for himself, and more committed to his responsibility to avoid catastrophic failure. We should be more concerned with giving young leaders the humility of old leaders than giving old leaders the spirit of youngsters.

Sharon Stone: Everybody’s truest need is to love and be loved. If you approach somebody in conflict your chance of getting what you want is very low. But if you reach out with love than your chances are maybe 100%. Am I right, ladies?

Sharon’s comments captured the spirit of much of the conference for me.

I’m part of a Facebook group called Delusional Mets Fans. A bunch of us obsessive addicts of a very bad team get together and convince each other why next year will be awesome. It’s fun, it’s harmless, and it doesn’t get anybody killed. We kind of hope that the Mets aren’t being run by fans like us, but by responsible adults. Which may be our biggest delusion, but I digress.

Actors and actresses can be vacuous. Sometimes it’s better that way. But I sometimes wish world leaders were responsible adults more concerned with avoiding catastrophic failure than with winning prizes and a place in history books.

Some at the conference, most notably Oren Nahari and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, provided a nice counterpoint. Nahari read a list of prominent dramatically wrong statements by experts.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I’m an optimistic realist. Not a Utopian. The future won’t be perfect. It will be better.

This provided even more perspective

Daniel Kahneman:

  • Foresight and long term thinking aren’t the traits that get leaders selected. They’re selected for other reasons, not long term vision. … We know a fair amount of what makes a leader charismatic and most of that is superficial. People want a leader that looks decisive. They want somebody quick and spontaneous not reflective and thoughtful. We prefer people who seem to know what they want to do. Who induce passion and strong emotions.
  • A politician must exaggerate. They must speak in the language of solving problems. Reducing the problem by a little bit is what you’re likely to achieve, but that rhetoric, the truthful rhetoric, isn’t what you need. So to get elected you have to promise people things that you can’t deliver.

And if a politician must exaggerate, how much more so former politicians that are now inspirational speakers.

Best defense of men

Udi Segal: Shimon Peres said that the biggest problem in the Middle East is male chauvinism. If men would view women as equals our problems will be easy to solve.

Sharon Stone: I respect President Peres but I would not say it’s appropriate to simply blame men. Mothers make men. We need to create men who don’t think that anger, resentment and revenge are the answer. Teach them that there is a better way.

Thanks Sharon, that’s much better. And if we’re going to focus on the most dangerous failures typical of men, let’s remember hubris, impatience, and acting rashly in the hopes of being remembered by history.

Thriving on failure

Though sometimes it felt that some of the leaders and thinkers lacked a healthy respect for their own fallibility, there was also talk of humility and the importance of embracing failure.

Tony Blair: It’s a lot easier to give the advice than to take the decision. So I speak with the humility of a former decision maker.

Rahm Emanuel: The first thing I think about regarding leadership is failure. Every person in leadership fails. Do they learn from that failure.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Western civilizations’ success comes largely from its encouragement of trial and error. In Muslim countries there is a culture of shame and honor. Same with China. But in the US and in the Netherlands [where she now lives] mistakes are almost encouraged. A culture that encourages experimentation will outgrow the others. As long as we keep trying and failing we’ll be on top of the world.

My complaint was that the talk of failure and humility didn’t cause the natural next step, the constant awareness that a leader was often wrong and therefore should always temper his boldness with an awareness of his responsibility to avoid catastrophic failure, and to respect those who thought differently.

The context of peace and honesty

Dan Ariely discussed how they ran a novel experiment to test dishonesty, and all countries and cultures that they tested proved equally honest / dishonest. We all have the same base level of honesty. The difference between cultures is in what contexts we demand honesty. When he went to Tel Aviv University cheating on tests wasn’t considered dishonest, it was just a poker game between the teachers and students.

Expanding on this concept:

Everything has a context. Is Islam a religion of peace? Of course. But in what context? That’s the key question. The people who are the most tolerant in one context (race, orientation) are often the most intolerant in others (diversity of ideas and values).

The light side vs the dark side

Bill Clinton’s presentation was about:

“Whoever is in our group is us. Everybody else is them.

“The whole of human history has been a constant battle to redefine who is us and who is them. …

“We must continually expand the definition of who is us and to shrink the definition of who is them.”

But that’s nonsense and the path to totalitarianism. It is a rejection of all concepts of group identity and group responsibility. Building a world view on that idea sounds nice and smart but is a recipe for evil, totalitarianism and catastrophic failure.

There’s always an us and a them. The people who expand it in one context often shrink it in another. Anybody who doesn’t agree with Bill Clinton on certain issues is set aside as the them.

It got worse.

“Every day in every person … a battle begins as the morning breaks. Every one of us when we wake up have inside our hearts, our souls, our spirits, a scale. You feel it every morning. Your hopes and dreams and best impulses. The world you want to make for your family, for your community, for people everywhere. On the other side all those fears and resentments and angers and disappointments. Every day the balance between our bright side and our dark side is a little different. Some days we just can’t let go of anger and heartbreak.”

Those beautiful sounding words contain the Jedi stupidity of fear leads to the dark side. That fear isn’t a healthy protection mechanism, but something to ignore so that you can do what sounds good.

Us are the people with the audacity of hope. Them are the people whose fear and negativity stand in our way.

Though of course it’s context-based. When it comes to climate change for example, the forces of light are the dystopians who are guided by fear and the dark side is represented by those who reject the fearmongerers.

Larry’s optimism

Larry Summers gave the strongest argument for optimism. He quoted Ben Bernanke that the central irony of financial crises is that it is caused by too much confidence, borrowing and spending, and it can’t be solved without more confidence, borrowing and spending.

Summers attributed his optimism for the US to the following strengths. As Summers noted, they’re pretty true of Israel as well:

  1. Demographics, especially percent of young people.
  2. Immigration
  3. Tech & economic innovation.  “The Zuckerbergs, Jobs Gates, Bezoses come naturally from the US. It’s the legal systems, the culture, the openness, the education, and the willingness to fail …
  4. We will benefit from what’s happening in energy.
  5. Capacity for audacity.

I give Larry Summers credit for a self-aware, intelligent and coherent argument for optimism and audacity. Perhaps it sounds smarter to me when it comes from somebody grounded in analytics, numbers, and the dismal science.

Closing thoughts

It was a great conference. It was good for Israel. It had an amazing group of brilliant people who have devoted their lives to deeds good and great.

My problem is that Shimon Peres is the poster child for the boldness and audacity that we fear in mad scientists but seek out in world leaders. Peres is larger than life and regarding his resume, one doesn’t know where fact ends and legend begins. The man has succeeded greatly, and failed catastrophically. The only part of Teddy Roosevelt’s great speech that he seems to have internalized is the wrong part, the part that says that it is better to fail greatly than not at all. The conference was too much an extension of that philosophy. It’s great that it encouraged boldness and optimism. But that message must be balanced with a healthy fear of catastrophic failure, not a message that fear leads only to the dark side.

I’d love for Nicholas Nassim Taleb to give next year’s keynote, about the need for a context and culture of embracing limited failure.

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About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.