The Thought Lounge: Interview with Axel Cramer

Collin Walker/Courtesy

The Thought Lounge is an on-campus organization founded by Axel Cramer. Axel sat down with the Daily Clog to discuss the Thought Lounge’s origin story, goals, memorable moments and future. 

Desiree Diaz/Staff

Axel Cramer. Desiree Diaz/Staff

The Daily Clog: How did the Thought Lounge start?

Axel Cramer: In my freshman year, I was looking for entrepreneurial ideas. … I brought together the five smartest people I know and I had them talk about what they thought was most important, most urgent. In the end, we connected all the topics and we came up with many new perspectives. It was really cool, and I realized how much good could come out of this. … This last fall, I realized every single person at Cal and anywhere has at least 12 minutes of material that can blow your mind, so I wanted to do it with anybody, not just people I knew. I came out on Sproul and invited people, waited for people to come up, and within three months we had more than 300 people doing thought lounges and it just spread like crazy.

CLOG: In three sentences, how does it work?

AC: Four to six people come to a designated place organized by a host and each bring a topic of utmost interest and urgency to him or her. Each participant is given 12 minutes to facilitate a dialogue on that topic and then, after each person has gone, there’s a connection section where we write all the topics on the board and see how they connect. Facilitated dialogue would mean either writing a question up on the board and letting dialogue run, or it could mean doing a presentation with music involved — basically you have the podium for 12 minutes.

CLOG: Where did you originally see this project going?

AC: I originally saw it as a means of allowing people to ask each other the question, “What most interests you?” I didn’t think there was a place to do that — I’d usually get the response, “why are you being so deep?” and I’d have to somehow communicate that this is actually what I want to talk about. … I just wanted it to be a safe space for dialogue at first. It was a way to get to what’s important through your peers.

Collin Walker/Courtesy

Collin Walker/Courtesy

CLOG: What are some of the weirdest topics you’ve heard get discussed?

AC: One of my favorites was poop stories. It was brought up in relation to what things you can say or do that make people originally feel uncomfortable but in the end, feel comfortable about it. After you talk about poop, you’re both on the same level.

CLOG: How does a general session go? What is the atmosphere like and how does it develop as the conversation continues?

AC: It opens up with what I like to call the one breath ritual. Each person goes around and says how they’re feeling and why they came. This allows people to admit that they’re not all in an intellectual space and people should simply express their emotions. Each person is also admitting that they want to listen. Then the five agreements of dialogue are read by the host, so everyone knows what environment they’re creating. The five are: listen to everyone as if they’re the most important person in the world, ensure equity among voice, speak from your heart and from experience, don’t seek harmony at the expense of creative conflict (if someone’s attacking someone’s idea, they’re attacking the IDEA and not the person) and have neutral body language (don’t let your body show how you feel). That’s the atmosphere that’s created. It’s really rather informal — people come and some haven’t even thought of their topic yet, which is fine, but as long as you come with something really on your mind, it’s so much more relaxed and fun.

CLOG: Have there been any particular tense sessions, perhaps with very different opinions on the same topic meeting halfway?

AC: Honestly, it has yet to happen. We have yet to have people that cannot separate when someone’s attacking their idea and attacking the person. The host is really good about making people aware that that’s the environment being created. Certainly people are getting offended, but anyone being genuinely mad … that hasn’t happened.

CLOG: What have you learned from this experience?

AC: My intuition that people want to connect with each other and have the potential to do it has been validated, over and over and over. I’ve just learned a shit ton about leadership. Organizing people is really hard — there’s a balance between giving people power and getting the task done right. It’s really hard for me to trust people to do things because I’m a perfectionist, but at some point the workload becomes overwhelming and I have to let go.

CLOG: What do you hope people will take away from the experience?

AC: I want them to be able to see diverse perspectives on their own field of interest and allow innovation across fields to happen. Inevitably, people will become much more socially adept. You start learning how to listen really really well, and one of our core assumptions is that people want to know why, that we all have an intuitive desire for rationality. Their eyes are lighting up in the thought lounge about what they really love to talk about and think about, not just their classes. I love to see people’s public speaking skills boost like crazy, starting out really shy and nervous but ultimately opening up in front of six people talking confidently. I hope people make friends from it.

CLOG: What’s your best memory from the Thought Lounge?

AC: One of the best ones is when we were at UCLA and hosted a bunch of thought lounges, there was this one kid who saw our table and said, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole college experience.” He came to my thought lounge that I was hosting and loved it. He hung out afterward and told me that this was the kind of thing that would change the world, and it’s not there, and it takes us to start it. He’s completely on board now. That’s a general memory, but it’s so cool to see that this potent idea can be found in other people already.

Collin Walker/Courtesy

Collin Walker/Courtesy

CLOG: Where is Thought Lounge going?

AC: Every school in the United States in the next couple years. It’s going to be an NGO in the next month. What’s going to happen is that we have an expansion team and we’re gonna figure out a way to fund ourselves next year to go to 35 colleges around the U.S. and start communities. No one does shit like this — people don’t really go sit down at campuses and talk to people and then leave. We’re gonna have people come to a conference where they can learn the leadership skills to lead these.

Contact Linsha Qi at [email protected].