Earlier this week, I wrote about how, outside the hallowed halls of its own eloquent echo chambers, TED is largely irrelevant. Part of that irrelevance has to do with the conference’s general inaccessibility to non-elites (it’s invitation-only and prohibitively expensive for most people), but much more sinister is TED’s selection criteria for who gets to attend – it basically implies that regular people, no matter how smart, capable or extraordinary, need not apply. This paragraph from Part 1 sums it up nicely:
“And so here is TED’s dirty little secret: It’s not really about how exceptional or extraordinary you are. It’s that TED doesn’t really want to include regular people in the conversation. Implicit in TED’s selection criteria is the belief that if you haven’t made extraordinary and extraordinarily visible achievements, if you aren’t already elite in some way (whether through birth, luck, hard work or some combination of the three), then you aren’t fit to join the conversations at TED. Rather than acknowledge that great ideas come from everywhere, TED’s mindset invites only snobbery and close-mindedness, a self-congratulatory gathering of outliers.”
In other words, TED is ignoring and dismissing vast swaths of human potential. This isn’t just problematic. For an organization that claims to be about “Ideas worth spreading”, it actually undermines TED’s broader goals and renders it completely irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people. And yet, I see so much potential in TED. Events like TEDx, along with programs like TED Fellows, TED Talks and the TED Prize, all demonstrate ways that potential can be shared with the world, but as long as the main TED conference – the center of gravity around which all these other things revolve, the heart, soul and spirit of TED itself – remains so exclusive and restrictive, TED’s potential can never fully be realized.
As long as TED remains, essentially, a playground for the privileged, it will not, indeed cannot be relevant. Yet if TED really is about “Ideas worth spreading”, then it must become relevant or crumble slowly into obsolescence, like dust on the walls of the ivory tower. And so I challenge TED to unleash its enormous potential, to bring that potential out into the world where it can begin to bear fruit. In the following ways, I challenge TED to finally become relevant:
Radically rethink the meaning of “exceptional”
Note that I’m not proposing to eliminate selection criteria altogether. Part of TED’s enormous potential comes from its goal of bringing lots of different people together to discover and share ideas, and ensuring a diverse, intelligent, inquisitive audience (not the same as an elite, exclusive one) can actually help further that goal. But rather than limit that audience to all the usual suspects (business leaders, celebrities, high-profile authors, thought leaders), try looking for them in unexpected places. Rarely do gatherings of elites result in more than mutual pats on the back and self-congratulatory chest-bumping. But gatherings of diverse, intelligent, inquisitive people? That could be a world-changer.
A friend of mine, for example, mentors a poor young woman who comes from many disadvantages yet had enough courage, ambition and drive to sign herself up for a high school mentoring program. Another friend, by day a restaurant server, sews incredibly ornate costumes in her spare time and talks about Heidegger for fun. Still another dropped out of school, started a duct-tape wallet company, could have sold out to Walmart but chose not to, watched his investors pull the rug out from under him, and now works in technology sales. None of these people are well-known or considered “thought leaders”, but they are all exceptional. Think of the ideas and perspective they could bring to the conference!
Make TED accessible
This doesn’t have to mean free, or even cheap. It just means accessible. TED can never hold genuine relevance if it remains not just out of reach but out of even the wildest dreams of most people. TED Fellows is not enough. Holding separate, cheaper conferences is not enough. TEDx and TED Talks aren’t enough. Simulcasting is not enough. Make the main event accessible. There are many ways this can be done without compromising TED’s profitability. Here is a non-exhaustive list of a few things to try:
- Charge on a sliding scale.
- Give discounts to attendees who work in education and non-profits.
- Give out more free passes.
- Create more opportunities to volunteer at the conference.
- Offer discounted one-day passes to members of the local community.
- Let art students build the famous handmade stage. Use the money saved to let others attend for free or less.
- Expand TED Fellows, dramatically.
- Make the conference donation-only (I bet wealthy attendees would still make it attractively profitable).
Make every TED talk actionable
Require every speaker to end their talk with something actionable. It can be as simple as a way to continue the conversation with an email address or Twitter handle. It can be asking TED attendees to join and help grow an online community. It can be empowering them to arrange meet-ups for a cause in their own neighborhoods. It can be standing outside the auditorium doors at breaks and inviting people to converse with you. It can be buying a few drinks later in the evening to keep the conversation going.
The possibilities for doing so are virtually endless, but make building action into every TED talk a requirement. Ask speakers and attendees to follow up with one another after the conference is over. This will help ensure that the ideas born at TED don’t wither as soon as it ends.
Just 3 suggestions, far from an exhaustive list. Some might have you believe that such changes would compromise the spirit and feel of TED, but I say it’s quite the opposite. These changes offer TED a way to harness the untapped human potential that simmers in the hearts of ordinary people, to bring it forth into the world where it can actualize. Just imagine what might be possible if TED unleashed its “Ideas worth spreading” on the world! And I mean the real world, where ordinary humans live and work. In the end, I bet only the elites will complain.
Other thoughts on how TED can become relevant? Please share them in the comments.