What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
With rendition switcher


Question: Who are you?


Ezekiel Emanuel: Ezekiel Emanuel.


Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?


Ezekiel Emanuel: That’s a very difficult question to ask. I work in Washington and I live in Chicago.

Between 1967 and 1970, and literally spend all day out on the beach as three brothers. And so being there did shape us – actually considerably. And they were very important years between the age of 10 and 13. So I would say that it turned out to be a very important shaping experience. And a large part of that shaping was simply being in a country that was . . . had terrorist attacks and struggling but was very vibrant; but also having no agenda and just spending two months at a stretch on the beach playing with your brothers, and talking with your brothers, and doing all sorts of stuff.


Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?


Ezekiel Emanuel: As a young person? A very dominant influence on my life was my maternal grandfather, Herman Small. He came here in the early 20th century. Escaped from Russia, actually a smuggled-in illegal immigrant. He worked in the meat packing industry in and around Chicago. He was a union organizer very early on. Built a synagogue. A very big man. Very heavy. Very big hands of a manual laborer. Very committed to trying to make everyone’s life better.

We used to spend a lot of days riding in the back of his station wagon as he delivered; he eventually got into specialty food stuffs; food imports from Switzerland, and Sweden, and Denmark. And he used to deliver them to specialty food stores way before the sort of gourmet food craze. This was in the 60s. No one had heard of gourmet cheeses. He was doing that. And we used to sit in the back of his car for hours just driving all over Illinois, all over Wisconsin, all over Indiana and talking to him. And he was a very, very caring person. And then for a couple of years he moved into our house. He sold everything.

And then at the age of, I think, 72 he was going to immigrate to Israel; but it turned out he was an illegal immigrant in the United States, so he had no passport to leave the country. And he had sold everything, so he moved into our house. And he used to wake up at, you know, 4 o’clock in the morning. And when you got up, he would make you this breakfast that was unbelievable; of double-yoked eggs. You could get double-yoked eggs from these specialty farms. And all sorts of fresh squeezed orange juice, all this stuff. And what he did for other people; the fact that it was very important for him to care for other people and make sure everyone else was being cared for was a very, very important thing.

Second important thing was my mother was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, way before; and we were a family that had a lot of black friends. We spent a lot of time on the West side of Chicago with African-American people. And probably one of the most formative experiences there too, one my mom – I wouldn’t say every day, but not infrequently – got arrested and would not end up being back home at night. And so that was a very interesting experience.

And the other was that we marched; when Martin Luther King came to Chicago and marched to Cisaro, we were on that march as kids. And we were pelted with rotten tomatoes and eggs. A very searing experience. You never forget that kind of stuff. And we were able to her Martin Luther King as well in person. And those are, I would say, among the many formative experiences; or at least people who were formative to me.


Question: What explains the success of you and your brothers, Rahm and Ari?


Ezekiel Emanuel: I love this question because everyone asks things like, “What did your mother feed you?” You know,” What is it about the family?”

No one – even though that we’re in the age of molecular biology – says, “Gosh, there must be something in the genetics of that family.” Which I always find interesting being a doctor and a sort of scientist myself why people think it’s environment and not naturally genetics. It’s a really good question.

I think that there are lots and lots of things. I think we did have very committed – socially committed – parents, socially committed grandfather. That was one element. Very important. We had a verbal family, you know. If you didn’t talk and if you didn’t get in there with your opinion, you were nobody. We had a very competitive, but loving; and this is, I think, is one of those very complicated things to arrange in the family. Anyone who’s been a parent understands.

So my brothers and I were very competitive, but we were also loving. For example, as I mentioned, in Israel we spent all summers together. And it was really us three. And so we had to get along, and we had to struggle with each other, and we had to “out prove” each other. And so I think that also creates a bond. I think one of the interesting things that defines all of us is people who work with us and for us are very loyal and feel like we’re very, very committed to them and to their success. And so I think that’s something that we have . . . the sort of very interested in promoting people; very interested in having people work hard, but also recognizing their contribution is very important. And I would . . . I would think that in our family, public affairs was very important. My father was born in Israel. American sports meant zilch to him, absolutely nothing. He never took us to a baseball game, basketball game. We never, I would say, wasted our time in a lot of energy that was directed ________.

I would say the other thing is success is unpredictable in the following sense. I was a very successful student in school; the eldest and all that crap that goes along with being the eldest. But my other two brothers were not so successful in school. And it’s not because they ain’t smart; but they were in my shadow and they needed, you know, their own platform and their own stage. And it really wasn’t until I left college that that became possible.


Recorded: July 5, 2007



Who are you?

Newsletter: Share: