Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioral economics, opened this year's TED Conference (www.ted.com) with the observation that our "experiencing" self is often very different from our "remembering" self. After my 16th TED Conference that ended this past Saturday, I'm struggling to pull together the overwhelming infusion of stimulating intelligence, spirituality, entertainment, and relationships formed during these past few days into a cohesive commentary that shares with you the actual experience rather than simply the memories. But TED is no longer just an experience either. It has transcended the event and become a global movement. TED is more than 100 speakers over a five day period and an audience of 1,400 gathered in Long Beach. It's also a satellite event in Palm Springs and thousands of online simulcast viewers around the world. It's the several million video downloads just during the conference itself and more than the 200 million video views of TED Talks in the past two years. And it's more than 40 independently organized TEDx events that have sprung up organically around the world in the past few months, with hundreds more planned. But mostly TED has evolved into a platform for recognizing achievement, sharing visions for the future, and engaging with a global community of uncommon interests, needs and hope.
Almost every conference you and I attend concentrates on common interests – whether they be common business focus, common passions or common causes. TED is all of these, plus a cognitive overload of the unexpected and the uncommon. From a high point of Sir Ken Robinson's call for a shift from an industrial model of education to an agricultural one (creating an environment and circumstances that allow people to flourish), to a low (albeit funny) point of Sarah Silverman's plan to adopt "retarded" children who are terminally ill (to avoid for the need to arrange for their care when she dies), TED is a gestalt that cannot be evaluated based on its individual pieces.
Robinson pointed out that human talent is incredibly diverse, and so are the speakers and attendees at TED. Epidemiologist and AIDS expert Elizabeth Pisani brings insight and relevance to how real world behavior is impacting AIDS prevention as she tosses condoms into the audience. Games designer Jane McGonigal points out we spend 3 million hours a week playing online games and that 6.93 million years have been spent playing World of Warcraft alone. Biochemist Mark Roth explains how suspended animation has become a medical reality and has advanced to human testing. Bill Gates tells us that his single most important wish for the future is his vision for an enhanced nuclear solution to the world's energy crisis. David Rockwell shares how his father's untimely death in an airplane crash and his mother's suicide were formative in his architectural vision and brilliance. Songwriter Natalie Merchant brings forgotten nineteenth century poetry to life with songs from her first album in six years. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot completely befuddles me with his explanation of fractals and forms of roughness, yet receives a standing ovation from audience members who apparently understand him. Legal activist Philip Howard challenges the U.S. legal system and offers practical solutions that make us wonder why the system is not acting on them. 12-year old Adora Stivak challenges teachers to learn from their students. Joie de Vivre Hospitality CEO Chip Conley re-imagines Maslow's hierarchy of needs into a new hierarchy of survival, success and transformation. Sarah Silverman shocks many but is beloved by many more for staying true to her own brand of comedy. Google's Sergei Brin speaks about Google's challenges in China and also delivers a new Nexus One phone to every TEDster.
The TED experience and my memories from TED 2010 are a composite of the main stage speakers (who each have either 18 or three minutes), the TEDU speakers (who have six-to-nine minutes each), the many entertainers (Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow, David Byrne, Andrew Bird, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuru, ETHEL, Thomas Dolby, Legion of Extraordinary Dancers), the off-stage activities, and the attendees. From 7:30 AM to 1 AM there is not a moment that cannot be occupied with official and unofficial TED experiences. More than any past TED, the advertising and media community was well represented this year, with several marketer and media agency executives joining for a single introductory one-day experience as TED reaches out to attract new partnerships and marketing relationships. (Contact Ronda Carnegie at firstname.lastname@example.org).
What none of these executives could expect – or comprehend without actually being there – is that TED is far more than the sum of its parts. It is simply not sufficient to view TED Talks, read blogs and stories about TED, review TED speaker and attendee lists, or to understand the impact of TED Prizes (this year presented to chef Jamie Oliver). I may incorporate the cancer research learnings of William Li into my own research on the media and advertising business and I may comprehend his work on the relevance of inhibitors and stimulators to my own work. But I'm unable to explain it coherently. I may apply Chip Conley's observations on self actualization, social belonging and physiological safety to my consulting work with companies that are seeking to better monetize their relationships and the emotional connections of audiences, but I can't fully describe how or why it applies.
My memories of TED will ultimately emerge into a composite of its 2010 theme, "what the world needs now." But the experience cannot be fairly represented in any description. Each year, I leave TED spiritually uplifted, emotionally and physically exhausted, intellectually challenged, and with many new friends. A few years ago at TED, Tony Robbins taught me that I should focus not on achieving success but on how I would use and apply my success once I achieved it. It changed my professional and life focus. Last year, after flying home on a redeye in the middle of TED for my grandson's bris and then immediately returning, TED became for me a symbol of hope and promise for future generations. This year, I came to understand that my lifetime work, which has always seemed fractionated and disconnected, has been singularly and consistently focused on the economics of relationships. At first, I credited this to Chip Conley's 18-minute talk, but after reviewing my notes and my memories, I now recognize the epiphany was a culmination of multiple talks, experiences and conversations. That Conley was scheduled on the final-day was simply good fortune. Or was it Chris Anderson's planned curation? I expect many others who lived the full five days of TED also experienced life impacting vision.
I expect all those who consider TED to be a part of their life, whether they have attended all 26 conferences or just this one, came way with a new understanding of both themselves and the world in which they live. Like anything and everything in which we immerse ourselves, we have our experiences and our memories. With TED we not only learn others' "ideas worth sharing" – we also discover our own ideas worth living.
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