Curating a TEDx (or, from Arrogance to Humility)

Arrogance is an enormous turn-off in personal relations, but sometimes it's a pretty good motivator to do good work. It's what turned this music fan into a critic and producer: the (sometimes quite incorrect) belief that I could do something better. Arrogance is one of the two dueling ingredients of ambition, which is, after all, a combination of arrogance that you can do something better and humility in the face of so many people who inspire you. One of the best places to witness that combination of arrogance and humility is TED. I've been lucky enough to attend the TED conference several times and I've been intrigued by how the organizers are trying to extend it via videos and independently organized events, collectively know as TEDx. (I've been thinking about both the elitism and openness of TED and will publish an essay on it early next year in HBR.) TEDx_Boston-email-banner.gifThis year I served as one of the curators of TEDxBoston, along with four tremendous colleagues. It was a chance to step out of the audience for a change and see what it might be like from the other side. Like many who spent a lot of time in a particular audience, I had ideas on what I might do differently if given the chance. It's the same impulse that leads people to call in to radio shows to say how they would have handled that 4th and 1 situation better than Bill Belichick did. It was a thrill to help develop and organize the programming, but what struck me most, after we picked the speakers, all of them enormously ambitious, was how humble the best of them were. They inspired people by telling stories about what inspired them. Some of my favorite talks from the day:
Bill Walczak, a Boston legend, showed how a new model for urban healthcare and education can change a culture of despair into a community of opportunity. Plenty of TED speakers talk about how they want to change the world; Bill showed us how he actually did it. Vibha Pingle of Ubuntu at Work told how microfinance doesn't help women out of poverty; it merely helps them cope with poverty better. And she pointed toward a real way out. We've covered previously Eric Mongeon's work to bring Edgar Allan Poe back to life. Here's his talk on how he did it, with a hat tip to Boing Boing. There's plenty more. In particular, I was moved by Ann Christensen, whose talk, as well as some recent work by her father, Clay Christensen, I'll celebrate in a post later this week. (If you like these and want to sample some more, you can see 'em all here.)


  1. Will there be more TEDxBoston events? Checked the site and couldn’t find any info, or a mailing list. (I don’t want to follow you on Twitter, I just want an email if there’s an upcoming event.) Looking forward to watching all the videos!

  2. TED is an interesting beast. On the one hand I want to say, of course it’s elitist and it better be if it’s a conference about the biggest and best ideas. On the other, I’ve been following TED for a long time and have seen some of the most uselessly arrogant people in the world there, often presenting their “art” rather than anything particularly useful or interesting. Not that art is useless or boring… but THEIR art is useless and boring.

    #2, in regards to the male/female ratio, I agree that it’s a problem but I think it’s one to address at a lower level than TED. TED is a little like an award show. It’s a matter of recognition. While there are absolutely some wonderful female scientists out there, there are MORE male scientists. That’s a problem with how we raise and educate our children and how we utilize talent. I think we should probably address the problem at that level rather than give the TED organizers a list of quotas they must meet. Especially since some female scientists, including some who have been on TED, are much more interested in science than talking about femininity and feminism and what it’s like to be a female scientist. As if they became scientists because they love science, not because they wanted to prove a woman could do it, you know?

  3. Glad to see the emphasis on humility. Breathless exuberance for technology and science related topics is usually an indication that critical faculties have been shut off. Plus it is annoying.

  4. Apparently, guitarist Robert Fripp was sent an application to speak at TED, but he turned it down. The application asked why the applicant felt he was specially qualified to speak or else was somehow particularly interesting and important. Fripp (in his blog) said that he had declined because he didn’t feel uniquely qualifiednor had he any inclination to try to prove this to anyone.

    It’s TED’s loss: Fripp is a really interesting dude and has no doubt influenced (directly or indirectly) countless other TED speakers.

  5. it’s rare thing when someone who has interesting stuff to say ALSO has the ability to say it effectively and interestingly. here’s how it usually breaks out for me:

    uninteresting stuff / ineffective speaker: stop at about 2 minutes and don’t think about it.

    uninteresting stuff / effective speaker: stop at 4 minutes and feel mildly bamboozled.

    interesting stuff / ineffective speaker: stop at about 6 minutes and feel guilty.

    interesting stuff / effective speaker: yay, this is why i love ted!

    here’s one that fell into the interesting stuff / effective speaker that i never in a million years thought would have:

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