TED Is Bizarro World

Mitch JoelPosted by

TED. The one conference that everyone talks about. 

I’ve been attending the actual TED conference since their last event in Monterey. That was about seven or eight years ago. This week, I’m here again at TED in Vancouver. When I first applied, I did not think that my application would be accepted. I filled it out as part of a grander plan, in the hopes that I would be accepted a few years later. Why? It was twofold:

  1. It is very expensive, and it is both a financial and time commitment (the conference runs for a full week, and it costs several thousands of dollars). 
  2. I wasn’t sure if I was ready back then. I wasn’t sure that I had accomplished anything worthy of sharing, and if I had anything of value to add beyond warming a seat and priming my own brain to the TED community. My application was accepted, and I have not looked back since. 

TED is not TEDx.

I see this a lot, when I mention that I am going to TED or see post from other TEDsters on social media. People will often say, “yeah, I’ve been to TED,” or “yeah, I watched a TED talk by so and so.” TEDx are local community events that are licensed by TED, so that individuals – in their local community – can hold events in a similar style. While many of the TEDx talks do find their way on to the TED website, and gain a ton of traction, these events are vastly different from the TED conference. It’s not that TED is “better” than a lot of the content at a TEDx event, it’s that those who have never attended the TED conference, miss the most important component of it.

TED is a community. A very different community.

There are two major components that make TED the incredible event that it is. It’s also two, super critical factors, that the vast majority of event organizers don’t understand, when they say that they’re trying to make their event more like TED.

  1. The audience member selection is as important/if not more important than the speakers on the stage. When we think of TED, we think of the TED talks. The 18 minute presentations that get millions upon millions of views. If you were to ask me, I would say that the presentations are only five percent of the overall TED experience. To use an analogy: the TED speakers are the kindling, but TED (the event) is a campfire. TED is actually Bizzaro World. It’s a place where every person in the audience would – in the regular world – be the keynote speaker at any given number of events. The high level and quality of each attendee (all working in different fields at different levels) are all incredible human beings, whose stories are featured at a myriad of industry association and other events. I have never sat next to an individual and not thought to myself that this person should write a book, tell their story in public, etc… And, more often than not, these people are doing just that. That’s a unique dynamic that creates an environment where every break, meal and get-together is more fascinating, powerful and educational than anything being said on the stage. That content from the stage only further enhances all of the other conversations and meet-ups. And, I don’t say that lightly, because the content on the stage is always pretty staggering. That combination of high quality of attendees, and these speakers is something that doesn’t happen very often.
  2. Serendipity is magic. Someone, and I wish I could remember who, leaned over at one of the parties and said to me that TED is “serendipity on steroids.” At first, it made me laugh. But that line stuck in my ear… and it’s true. It’s also the best way to describe the TED experience. When you have such a high level of curation – in everything from the speakers and attendees down to the types of snacks being served – it creates raging brushfires and not just sparks (to stick with the analogy). It’s hard not to have a conversation – with just about anyone – and not see some way to improve one’s own personal, community and/or work life. There is something that happens in these moments that create breakthroughs. From as grandiose as a new business idea, down to something you can do in your own community, or just a handful of notes based on something someone said that will make you a better spouse. It’s nothing forced. It’s nothing expected. It’s just… serendipity, but it’s intensely packed into five days and nights with a massive ratio of people to new idea that I have never experienced anywhere else.

Critics of TED be damned.

It’s easy to be critical of TED. The price point, how it can seem elitist, if you have never been, and more. I don’t see it like this. At all. I’ve spoken at conferences that are way more expensive and offer way less. I’ve been to conferences where being elitist is its raison d’être (many of them that you don’t even know exist, because they are so elitist). None of that matters, because – for me – TED is a special time of the year that allows me to center, focus, be open, push myself, meet new people, think about new ideas and – in general – force myself to think differently. Personally, it’s amazing to just float through TED and meet people. To stop people. To talk. To take notes. To focus on what can be. To be inspired by everyone from the speakers on the stage to way the way that the TED team handles the attendees. Lessons are everywhere. 

I’m sorry that most people think that TED is about watching those TED talks live, instead of waiting to see them for free online. It’s not.