I’m at the airport waiting for my flight home from TED 2011, my third trip to TED. TED is an amazing conference and community – every time I’ve been it’s been different but also a little bit the same.
I’ve watched the videos for several years, of course – they’re a monumental source of inspiration and erudition and passion and intellect – not to mention sort of a master’s class in presentation skills. So when I was able to attend for the first time in 2009, it was a little mind blowing. I was overwhelmed with everything. The content, the experience, the caliber of attendees, everything. Browsing the bookstore with Peter Gabriel. Sitting behind Paul Simon for one of the sessions. Using a urinal next to Bill Gates. (it seemed notable at the time. Now not so much.) Everything was overwhelming. I spent the week just soaking it all up, attending most every presentation and just loving it all.
My second time, in 2010, was really different. I had decided I was going to leave Mozilla, and so a lot of what I was starting to work on was figuring out how to make that happen in the best possible way. That meant I was working more – doing email, talking with people to brainstorm about potential candidates, etc. TED is structured physically in a really interesting way – there’s the main auditorium where many people watch the talks, but there are also many spaces around the auditorium and even in tents outside where the talks are simulcast and provide spaces to work without bothering other audience members. It’s a way to watch but with a little less investment; it’s also a way to be more social as you process the content. And of course it’s a way to watch with friends. So I didn’t connect with as much of the speaker content then as I had the previous year, but a couple of talks were revelatory, and I noted a bunch of them to watch later (which I did for the most part.)
This year felt different yet again. It was my first time here that I felt, more than anything, like it was a gathering of my community, of my friends, and I felt like part of it, rather than attending a conference. I happened to know a few of the speakers and got to talk with them both before and after their talks. Instead of just being excited to be around folks, I got into really, really interesting conversations with them about areas of their expertise, of my expertise, and then a bunch of areas where none of us knew much of anything. (I felt particularly lucky to spend time with Mohamed Nanabhay head of Al Jazeera English online – and to hear him talk about what it was like in the Doha newsroom when Mubarak left. Inspiring.) Like last year, though, I worked quite a bit, whether it was talking with other technologists and investors or paying attention to my e-mail. As a result, I again felt a little distanced from the content unfortunately, except for a few of the sessions. That’s something I plan to change next year – I’ll still have plenty of work to do, but I’m going to work hard to make sure that when I’m around the presentations that I let myself engage, focus, and let the content surround me more.
Even so, TED has a way of sneaking up on you, and the last day was tremendously inspiring. Was great to hear Jack Horner talking about building dinosaurs out of chickens (and I’m excited to visit him in Montana this summer). Was amazing to hear General McChrystal talk about leadership, and Kathryn Schulz talk about being wrong. But the last two talks were the gems for me. John Hunter, a 4th grade teacher from Virginia got up to talk about his “Peace Game,” which he’s been using to teach for 30 years. (there’s a documentary about him called World Peace and other 4th Grade Accomplishments). Hard to summarize, but take my word for it: watch it when it’s released online. We need more teachers like John getting their voices heard by folks more often. It’s very very easy to be discouraged and cynical about the state of education today – I often am myself – but that glosses over the fact that there are thousands – tens of thousands – of minor miracles happening every day in our classrooms. There are thousands of incredible, inspirational, talented teachers who are helping our kids understand, and build, and become. The system is busted, sure. But there are teachers like John who are revelatory, and they should get more chances for their voices to be heard and inspire us all.
The conference finished up with a Roger Ebert, who talked quite literally, about losing his own voice and finding it again. As he noted himself, it’s a little tough to look at him – he lost his jaw to cancer several years ago, nearly died several times, and can no longer eat, drink or speak. But the guy has always been an incredible communicator, and still is. When they were setting up for his talk, they put 4 chairs on stage, which had me scratching my head. He came in and sat down and (of course) played a movie clip from 2001 of HAL being shut down. Then 3 people joined him: his wife, Dean Ornish, and John Hunter (who I mentioned above). And they brought out his MacBook for him. He used the voice synthesizer on his laptop to start his talk – and he provided a sort of narration on top by using his (very expressive) facial expressions as an accompaniment. Then, as he noted that synthesized voices tend to put people to sleep, he had his wife, Dean, and John each read parts of his talk for him, again, adding his own visual expressions as they went. The talk was about, in the main, his journey of losing his voice to using technology like voice synthesis and blogs and Twitter to find it again. It was a wonderful meditation on what it means to literally lose your voice, and to look disabled but not to think that way. The most emotional part of the week was experiencing his wife reading his words about how others see him now, disfigured, and the assumptions that he sees them make. She had to pause for part — it was the most amazing thing to watch. Because Roger had written very matter-of-fact words about how people perceive him present state – they assume he’s broken in other ways – and he seems to have come to peace with it. But watching the emotion from his wife as she tried to read those words – what was incredibly, incredibly clear is that she doesn’t seem him in that way at all, doesn’t think that others do, that she hurts that he feels this way about his relationship to the world, whether he’s at peace with it or not. And mostly that she just really loves him in a profound way. It was a beautiful, touching thing to experience – I was pretty much a wreck, and I’m sure that most everyone in attendance was.
So that’s the thing about TED. Every time I go, there are at least a couple of experiences that I have that change the way that I look at the world, the way that I want to be when I go home. TED makes you want to be better, smarter, more present, more thoughtful, more impactful, more human. To be a better citizen and a better professional and a better dad and a better husband and a better friend. That type of inspiration doesn’t happen all that much, and it’s worth the price of admission every time.
And that’s why June Cohen and Tom Rielly, on the TED team are two of my true heroes. They both have chosen to spend their lives working on building up TED outside of just the week of the conference every year. Tom has built the TED Fellows program, which started out pretty damn great and at this point is starting to move into basically ass-kicking-terrifyingly-awesome territory. And June, who put TED Talks online for everyone to see, including subtitling into 80+ languages.
That, my friends, is how you change the world.
That’s how you take this beautiful, wonderful experience for a few people in California each year and turn it into something that anyone — anyone! — can use to make themselves, their community, their world better themselves.