In Defense Of TED

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TED is the most important conference out there. TED is so much more than a conference.

News was announced this week that the annual TED conference would be moving from its current home in Long Beach, California to Vancouver, British Columbia. As a Canadian, nothing could make me happier or prouder (plus, now I won’t have to deal with the unpleasantries that is the airport border crossing). TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. While it has been called a "conference," it is much more than that. The origins of this annual get-together took hold in 1984, when Richard Saul Wurman (famed architect, book author and renaissance man) decided to pull together an exclusive group of guests for his vision of the ideal dinner party. Today, TED is curated by Chris Anderson through a charitable foundation, and is best known for the TED Talks that gobble up audiences by the hundreds of millions via online video channels (their own, YouTube, podcast and more) and their 18-minute presentations on topics as diverse as creativity and education to how video games can save you and why every adult needs a LEGO collection. The event/gathering/conference now has a global event (held outside of North America) and is also associated with TEDx events (local organizers leveraging the TED brand and blueprint to create their own event around a specific geography or topic). The tagline for TED is, "ideas worth spreading," and while I’ve done my own, fair share, of doing just that in past blog posts, I am truly an unapologetic TEDster who has been going to the event since it was last held in Monterey, California, and will move mountains to ensure that my schedule is clear, so that I can attend the annual event and not worry about my other commitments.

TED is not about sharing (to me). 

While I do share TED Talks and share my experiences about the event with anyone who will listen, TED is a completely selfish act. I take two moments out of my year (the other being Google Zeitgeist), to not be Mitch Joel. To not be the President of Twist Image. To not be the author of Six Pixels of Separation or CTRL ALT Delete. To not be the blogger and podcaster of Six Pixels of Separation. To not be an active volunteer in many community initiatives. To not be a family man. But, instead, to empty the cup… to become the student. When I attend TED, I am nobody and I don’t want to be anybody. I want to mix and mingle with people who are way smarter than I am. I want to sit, listen, learn, think and provoke myself. I want to hear about areas outside of my area of expertise by people who have something to say. It’s a selfish act that enables me to be a better person at home, work and in my community.

That’s the thing, TED is what you make of it.

In today’s Globe & Mail, there was op-ed piece titled, TED: Ideas worth spreading, or mumbo-jumbo? that completely misses the point. From the article: "…enthusiasm for TED needs to be tempered with the reality that, while it may be a special conference to host, it can also be a fountain of new-agey, mumbo-jumbo futurism that promises far more than it delivers."  Here is a true experience that I had (not at TED, but at another conference I was presenting at). A few years back, I spoke on the same bill as Anthony Robbins and former US President, Bill Clinton. Close to 8000 people were on hand for this full-day leadership summit that was being held at a convention center. Tony Robbins closed the day and spent nearly two hours pumping this audience with the oxygen of life. They were laughing, clapping, dancing, hugging complete strangers and more by the end. There wasn’t a single person who didn’t leave with a smile on their face and a new zest for life. By the time the attendees were back in their cars, they were honking, screaming and scowling at one another. They were back in a general regressive state of loathe as everyone attempted to get out of the underground park lot, which only had two stalls working. All of that work, re-thinking about how we think and positive energy was tossed out of the window. Whose fault is that? The mumbo-jumbo of Anthony Robbins or the mumbo-jumbo that we each, individually, feed ourselves each and every day through our own internal dialogue and habits?

Life is what you make of it. 

It’s true, every TED Talk will not change your world. Some presenters are better at crystallizing an idea than others. Some presenters do a TED Talk with ulterior motives (sell a book, sell a product, sell a service, sell another speaking event), but the vast majority do have an idea worth spreading. The challenge is not in how TED vets these ideas, the challenge is in what we – as individuals – do with those ideas. Go down the list of innovations that have made our world a more interesting place, and you will find one consistent theme from the entrepreneur who originated said idea: they had a vision for the future that did not exist and that no one was doing anything about. TED is a petri dish for these kinds of ideas. Individually, you may not think that a marketing professional like me would get anything out of a talk about physics, disease, medication, book cover design or whatever. Holistically, exposing myself to others and their ideas are where true inspiration and education have come from (for me).

In defense of price, admission and more.

TED is also chastised for it’s price ($7500) and how how to get in (you have to fill out a request to attend and you’re then notified if you are accepted). The price is expensive (no doubt). It is an investment. That being said, I do about 70 speaking events every year, and on top of that, I attend a handful of other events. TED lasts over four days and the price includes everything (except hotel and airfare). I have attended/paid for conferences that are $2500 and that last half as long, where nothing is included beyond the sessions (no meals, no real conference loot bag, etc…). TED is a five-star event that includes amazing parties, meals and a loot bag that would make just about anybody jealous. So, while it’s expensive, it’s actually not all that expensive as a comparable to other events I have paid to attend. In terms of being "accepted," it’s hard to deal with. Each and every year, I hope that I am one of the lucky 1000 people chosen to attend. But, that’s life, isn’t it? They have a limited amount of space, they would like the event to be exclusive and this is one of the best ways for them to do this. We don’t like to admit it, but life is one big pecking order. There are always those with less and always those with more. While I would love to have a more Utopian and egalitarian world, it seems like I’m constantly finding myself (and others) trapped in this pecking order. I like the exclusive nature of TED. I like the fact that each and every person who attends TED sees it as a privilege and extends to it that type of deference. In truth, this is the magic of TED. Anyone can watch the presentations at some point online, but what those who criticize fail to understand is that TED is all about the relationships, networking, conversations and more that happen before, after and in-between the talks. While this type of experience does happen at other gatherings and conferences, TED is just different. Knowing the selection process, understanding what other attendees went through to get there, makes the group more intimate, connected and open to learning more about what we’re expecting while we attend TED and what we’re hoping to do after the physical event is over. It’s profound, it has deeply affected my life in more positive ways that I can illustrate, and the ideas that it generates for me are worth a million times more than the price tag, admission process, online banter and cynical journalism that comes from those who either wish they could get in or simply don’t understand the process of positive self-actualization. Don’t even get me started on how much of the TED conversation is about charity and making a difference.

TED is an idea worth spreading. TED is a model that almost every other conference, get-together or event should do their best to replicate.


  1. It’s a free country and as much as I hate the idea of exclusivity I think its mandatory to keep the content worthwhile for lack of a better word….. keep on rolling TED !!!

  2. Mitch – do you think that TED is leaving money on the table, with their $7500 price tag? How much would you be willing to spend.
    Methinks they could pull another couple million out of it with a bit more courage. People who drop $7500 would happily part with $10000, yourself included, it seems.
    And those who can’t/couldn’t afford the price bump, would be easily and quickly replaced.

  3. Mitch: As a Vancouverite, I am super delighted that TED will be coming to Vancouver. Just being in the vicinity of that energy and karma –– yes.

  4. There are different levels, so you can pay more, which gives you more access, etc… I do think the price is worth the ticket, but I couldn’t say – definitively – how much more I would be willing to spend. It’s still a chunk of change ๐Ÿ˜‰

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