Protecting TED from the HMS Inspire


When I was a sophomore in high school, I was invited to attend the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Conference, or HOBY with the best and brightest from the region for a weekend seminar on leadership, service and innovation.

What do the best and brightest do when they are broken into groups and dispersed around a gymnasium with their enthusiastic counselors (read: kids one year older than them who had such a good time the year before that they wanted to come back and do it again)? Ice breakers. Team building exercises. Cheers and chants. And they kept telling us that the people around us would be our lifelong friends and that this weekend would change our lives. Truth is, they needed our loyalty and vulnerability up front in order to create this magical environment.

I stuck it out at HOBY for about 7 hours before calling my dad to come pick me up.  I just wasn’t feeling the magic.

I had a similar reaction to the Welcome Week activities in college, but I had to stick it out as this was the front door of my education…which would be the front door of a career. Yes…the portal to success lies behind answering the question “boxers or briefs?”, making animal noises, and dorm-olympics.  I entered adulthood with a big orange “S” painted on my face.

I remember thinking, “I came here to go to school. Why am I doing call-response chants with the Student Life staff? I don’t even know if I like it here.”

One of the best parts about being an adult is that, for the most part, there’s no more chanting. I still dread public participation. Whenever a speaker, pastor, or teacher says, “say it with me…” or “everybody stand up” I want to start shouting vulgarities just to ruin their demonstration.

Just give me what I came for, and let me give back on my own.

Which is why I love TED. In many ways TEDx conferences are the kind of grown-up, skeptic-friendly, purpose-oriented events I’ve been looking for my whole life. The day is jam-packed with “talks” and most of the exploration is left up to the individual.


TED’s appeal and vibe is in its DNA. Technology, entertainment, and design are not the fields of group-think chanters or dispassionate couch potatoes who need to be roused from their inertia. The crowd is given to creating the experience they want, approaching the people they like, and engaging on multiple levels in order to make connections. The curated audiences offer some front-end engineering of this environment as well.

However, I think TED is in danger of drifting from what makes it great, at least in the TEDx events. The emphasis on general inspiration has broadened their appeal and I’ve noticed that a TED-culture is percolating. A cult of TED, if you will. The cadence and tone of the speakers and emcees is distinctly TED. A lot of the talks center on someone bottoming out and stumbling upon their calling. The extroverted interpretations of themes like “FearLess,” and “be Bold” engineer vulnerability and joinerism.


TEDx Austin is exactly the kind of exemplar event that you would expect from that city. The speakers were visionaries. The interactive art exhibits were professional. The lunches were innovative and attractively packaged. Even the snacks were superb. It was exceptionally inspiring for all the right reasons.

But also in play were more overt attempts to inspire, rather than simply spread ideas. There was an obvious effort at creating a community around the event, rather than creating an event for a community. So it felt like we were being asked to find ourselves, to become something in this manufactured environment. This was made most obvious in the interactive elements, which included a room for hanging anonymous love letters on the wall, and two wigwam-meets-teepee type structures called confessionals. In the darkness of the wigwam was a phone, which connected to the other wigwam with voice distortion technology. The confessor was provided a safe space to tell their deepest secrets.

The cone of confession
The cone of confession
The wall of love notes
The wall of love notes

There is no doubt that in our over-mediated world people are hungry for community, safety, vulnerability. But it felt a little too reverent. A little to sacred. A little too religious for me.

TED is brain candy. When the occasional Brene Brown pops up to challenge your heart, it’s great. But if the theme of Technology, Entertainment, and Design is replaced with Heart, Mind, and Soul, I cannot help but wonder if “TED: be daring” be replaced by “all aboard the HMS Inspire?”

Again, at this moment, TEDx Austin is still a great example of getting that for which I paid (handsomely, in this case). Invisibility cloaks, slack rope walkers, urban cable, sociological linguistics, and experimental jazz. Yes, yes, and yes. It did generate spontaneous contribution and conversation. And I was deeply inspired by many of the talks. A lot of the social Post-Secret-esque environs  could be due to their correct understanding of what gets millennials jazzed. We want something that means something.

But the exact opposite of what millennials want is meaning –so naturally generated by TED and  TEDx events– packaged and sold as a brand-name experience. That’s when the satire kicks in. Be careful TED, SNL is coming for you.

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