Think of TED as a marathon for your mind. Over the course of a week, roughly 100 presenters from around the world deliver power-packed presentations lasting 18 minutes or less. Topics range from quadrotor flying robots to the abundant future of humanity; basic human rights to next-generation liquid metal batteries. And that’s just the first session.
TED is a brain spa. The main TED Conference hosts 1,500 attendees in Long Beach, California. 600 additional TEDsters gather for a simulcast event known as TEDActive in Palm Springs. So maybe it’s a brain rave. Heavenly perspective with the world’s big thinkers. A little known sentiment among attendees is that meeting other people at TED is the best part of attending – even better than the talks is interacting with the audience.
‘TEDTalks set the atmosphere for you to jump in and engage with people you’ve just met. You can feel like you’ve known for someone for years when really it’s been only a few minutes,” says one attendee.
This is one of many reasons thousands of people shell out thousands of dollars on an annual basis to immerse themselves in the hybrid reality that is TED. Innovation comes alive.
What is it like to walk into TED? Look up and you see a rainbow made of thread. To the right, custom prosthetics printed in 3D via additive manufacturing. There’s a Google Garage; AutoDesk’s history of the universe; Target Idea/Paper Airplane Factory; Music Genomic Sequencing; TEDBookshop, Coffee Commons’ endless espresso and numerous lounges stacked cushily with the latest Steelcase designs. These spaces are designed to germinate ideas. A single conversation, for example, may include Peter Diamandis of XPRIZE, Jesse Dylan of Wondros Films and Jay Walker of Priceline and TEDMED.
Finally, a quick rundown of my favorite presenters from TED2012:
- Peter Diamandis: Our world is fueled with abundance. Rather than lamenting potential future catastrophies, how can we empower the billions of new minds coming online with the priceless treasure that is the internet? A passionate case for optimistic possiblism.
- Ed Glaeser, Harvard: Globalization has increased the value of being intelligent. Cities boast benefits ranging from higher incomes to lower infant mortality rates. Most importantly, cities are a place to evolve culture. As humans, we need to be immersed in innovation – cities allow us to experience and learn from the mistakes, failures, and successes of others.
- Andrew Stanton, Pixar: When you’re telling a story, invoke wonder. Elegance is the ability to tell a story without dialogue and is a central tenet to Pixar’s success in making animated features mainstream. Pixar abides by the Unifying Theory of 2+2, meaning that the audience should put things together. Don’t give people 4, give them 2 + 2. Make people think; make the story worth your audience’s time.
- Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor: Music is a new language and it has something powerful to say about what it means to be alive. Factoids: The earliest recorded music in history is from around 200 BC and was inscribed on a Greek tombstone. Music “notes” were first seen in the 13th century as lines on a page. Recording technology emerged in the 1880’s and forever revolutionized music such that suddenly songs could exist even when there were no musicians in the room.
- Regina Dugan, Director of DARPA: Believe in impossible things. Failure is key to success. Case in point: 6 out of the first 8 rockets blew up on the pad. “There is only time to iron your cape..and it’s back to the sky for you.” Regina shared amazing technology inspired by biological systems such as adhesives akin to gecko feet and hummingbird spy drones.
- Tali Sharot, Cognitive Neuroscientist: Optimism changes subjective reality. It is a motivation to action. If we expect to do well, stress and anxiety are reduced, resulting in positive health benefits. Quoting Henry Ford, “Whether you believe you can or cannot, you’re probably right.”
- Taylor Wilson, 17 year old scientist: At 14 years old, he built a nuclear fusion reactor in his garage. Enough said.
- David Kelley, Founder of IDEO: ‘We’re focused on human-centered design: designing behaviors and personality into products.” Everyone is innately creative. Unlock it and let your ideas fly. Case study of creative success: an fMRI machine at a children’s hospital had to sedate children 80% of the time for them to be still enough for successful scans. The team reimagined design into a pirate cave. Operators were trained by museum guides to bring kids into a game where they had to lay very still so pirates didn’t find them. Results? After the fMRI turned playful, only 10% of kids had to be sedated.
- Joshua Foer, Memory Champion: Remember better by taking information lacking context and creating a framework so that it becomes meaningful. Josh brings to the table important considerations about what we miss by not deeply processing interactions with others. What do we lose when we constantly tweet, text, check facebook etc. in stead of engaging with the person across the table?
- Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Prize Winner: Leymah shares heart wrenching stories of women in Liberia. We sometimes lose focus on the world outside our sphere, a world where, for example, a girl may get a scholarship only to find out that she must repeatedly have sex with the department chair if she wishes to keep it. We have the power to change this world by giving a voice to the silenced and providing education scholarships to girls worldwide.
- Brene Brown, Vulnerability Researcher: Final speaker at TED. Outstanding presentation met by thunderous applause. Rene speaks toward the importance of being vulnerable. She asks “How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness?” In the spirit of TED, failure is necessary. We will fail repeatedly in the process of success. Those who take failure and cultivate courage, compassion and connection are the ones who are able to derive true meaning and joy from life.
And that’s a wrap. Or is it. The notorious “TED Hangover” has come and gone (#firstworldproblem: TED’s wonder seemingly surpasses reality and generally leaves attendees with a sinking feeling – the hangover – of returning home to the real world). The question now is “what’s next?” How do I turn these great ideas and phenomenal interactions into meaningful outputs? How will this year’s TED shape the way I perceive future challenges? I am inspired, invigorated, motivated by the abundance of great minds in today’s world.
As we learned from Ed Glaeser, urbanization increases both the true and perceived value of intelligence. With this in mind, I challenge you to TEDify your life by participating in the 2012 TEDPrize: The City 2.0. Lead your community to the future you imagine.
Now I venture again out into the real world of thought and action, perhaps most inspired by a conversation starter which I humbly acquired at TED. A stranger walked up to me, looked at my name badge and said “Hi, Amy. So tell me, what inspires you?”
This is how I learned it is possible to have a deeply meaningful conversation with a stranger. It is also possible to reconnect with the person you’ve known for years in a completely new way. Today, this week, this year, try something new. Dive straight into who you’re speaking with. Strive to make every conversation worthy of TED. Enbrace with daring courage the potential that someone will shut down your curiosity. Embrace also that that person may tilt her head, be silent for a moment, then share something amazing that changes the way you think for the rest of your life.