Teri Orr: The glue of Big Ideas
There were about 500 of us on the Zoom call this week from all over the globe. It was a morning session for me here, but I know there were folks who set clocks to get up and join. It was a gathering of the tribe with some tribal leaders. Even though it was just over an hour it felt like we had entered some portal where time both stood still and expanded.
It was a gathering of the tribe of TED. It featured some of the all-time favorite TED speakers from a variety of disciplines. The chat room had chatter from all the continents, from people who were just as exciTED to see each other online as we would have been in person. It has been too long.
This is about the time TED happens in Vancouver each year. It has been part of my life for the past dozen-plus years. It was canceled as a live event last year — like all responsible gatherings were. The adapted online event was brilliantly put together over weeks of unveilings and it included all the elements of Technology and Entertainment and Design. I was fortunate to be able share some TED moments with folks who came and porch-sat with me and looked at my computer outdoors on the picnic table. They are younger friends who were eager to see — The World According to TED.
This past week TED hosted a live global session for members that included some TED All Stars. Folks whose TED talks dated back to 2008 — the year the first group of TED Active gathered in Aspen. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s remarkable talk launched at that event. We heard from Jill this week about what happened to her life as a result of presenting and being a part of the TED community. Jill was a doctor — who knew in real time — she was having a stroke and was able to call for help and share what was happening to her and then what did happen. Her show-stopping visual was to bring a brain with the stem attached — out on stage on a silver platter.
No one ever had so many negative comments posted on TED after a talk as Monica Lewinsky. She was neither surprised nor shocked at that by the time she gave her talk in 2015. Cyberbullying had been a part of her life since she became patient zero of that disease when her affair with (then) President Bill Clinton was exposed online by Matt Drudge.
Andrew Solomon, New York Times columnist and best-selling author on depression and on being gay and adopting children, spoke. I remember his words reverberating around that wooden (cedar) Old Globe-style theater — carefully created by the TED staff inside the Vancouver Convention Center sitting over the water. (And just as carefully/thoughtfully taken apart each year and stored away until the next year’s conference.)
Turns out being brave looks so different and yet exactly the same — despite what language you speak or the color of your skin or your sex. It always means getting out of your comfort bubble. It means getting emotionally naked in front of strangers.
If it all sounds like a bit of geek utopia the truth is … it kinda is. Nobody is ever posturing in the gathering spaces at breaks or getting into a red-faced argument. Folks are usually just sharing ideas and asking questions. One of the things all these speakers commented on was how everyone was treated the same. You can walk right up to Jack Dorsey or Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg and ask them about what they had just heard or said. There are all kinds of unspoken rules and you would never ask if stock prices at any of those companies were headed up or down. But when you stick to conversation about their Big Ideas —everyone enthusiastically engages.
I learned they warn speakers about this “TED lobby factor.” You are expected to participate. This comes as much as a shock to monied folks with businesses listed on the stock exchange as it does to university professors and best-selling authors and doctors with layers of letters next to their name and discoveries — who are not used to mingling with abject strangers.
And yet — we mingle.
One well-published professor who was a TED speaker summed it up this way — “I am an academic — I’m used to saying things that will have absolutely no effect on anybody. Having people approach me in the lobby and want to hear more about what I had to say on the stage — was shocking.”
In this utopia another thing happens to make certain you can stay focused on the cascade of big ideas that tumble down and then rapidly ricochet around the room. You are fed and watered constantly. Yummy healthy snacks for all those folks who desire those — Cokes and chips and chocolates for junk-ies like me.
There is plenty of everything but never groaning platters of empty food. Perfect measured proportions are served in ethically disposable containers. Ditto the utensils.
This year instead of the group of 1,600 people in Vancouver — assuming the planet and plagues cooperate — we will be just 400 in Monterey, California, in August. Right where TED conferences started decades ago.
We will have sea mist and seafood and that great little Irish pub where Bella Fleck and Abigail Washburn did a pop-up set one night and we sat right at their feet and soaked in their talents and laughed outrageously at their politically incorrect Murder Ballads.
Nothing has ever changed my life so dramatically as my time with TED. Which is more than a conference of talking heads on a stage. It is a global community of curious Georges and Janes who have or are seeking ideas worth spreading. The online touchstone this week was the perfect reintroduction to remembering we are a small planet with people who want make it better in all the places. Places where Sunday in the Park can mean a city or a jungle or a rain forest or a glacier or an island or the space station or just your own state — of mind…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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