Preface: This post is part one of two. Kit Kieser wrote a guest post on this blog for the second piece of the discussion. She talks about reforming the way we think about, present, and implement ideas. You can read that post here. Additionally, this specific post is not an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, it is a personal reflection on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. My assertions here do not necessarily represent Kit Kieser’s beliefs and vice versa.

I paced back and forth in my head, wearing circular paths in the mush. The pressure was mounting. Our local TEDx had just wrapped up, and a big-deal marketing summit was soliciting submissions for talks. I picked up my brain and shook it fiercely like a child trying to wrestle a shiny piece of change free from a piggy bank. As I throttled it in the hopes that some grand idea might jiggle loose, I wondered to myself, “What if there’s just nothing in there? What does that mean?”

Everywhere we look today, people are presenting on this and talking about that. TED/TEDx talks, conferences, symposiums, ad nauseum (henceforth known as Idea Conference, Inc. in this blog post). We’re lured in by the premise that these ideas will be shiny and new, offering some value we did not have previously. And, often, there’s the rub: the product does not live up to the hype.

I struggle to take away anything more than a confirmation of my own values or beliefs (tinged with a slight air of self congratulation for being “right” in the first place, because, after all, this really smart person on a stage just agreed with me) or a message that gets me high on feelgood vibes for a few hours but fails to make a lasting impact. For me, it’s the equivalent of Pinterest syndrome: people pin things to make themselves feel good, and the very act of pinning produces the same effect as doing/making/buying whatever the pin is (without the effort or investment).

For Idea Conference, Inc., spectating is as good as doing.

Research has shown that it’s even better because idea forums like TED give us a false sense of confidence in ourselves–our understanding of the ideas presented and our ability to execute those ideas. But are the folks sitting in the audience really there to change the world (on a bigger or personal scale) anyway? If you’ve been to an Idea Conference, Inc. event, count on your hands the number of concepts that changed your life for longer than a week. Be honest with yourself: not concepts you enjoyed learning about or agreed with–the ones that truly impacted you and how you interact with the world. I’m betting you have few, if any, fingers extended right now.

What is an idea worth without execution?

What is an idea worth without execution?

Further down the rabbit hole, there’s this expectation that we all have (or should at least want to have) a great idea within us–one that we can neatly package for consumption by the masses. Ideas have become social currency for inclusion/exclusion in a room full of people all saying the same thing and then applauding each other for it. With so much pressure to be labeled an inspiring speaker at Idea Conference Inc., people scramble to present just for the sake of it rather than waiting for that really great idea. Ability supersedes quality. Instead of letting that great idea ferment into something uniquely theirs, they imitate past ideas in a rush to “just get it done.” And so the cycle of lackluster ideas begins anew.

Or, as Nathan Jurgenson said in his essay against TED:

What began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself. What was exceptional and emergent in the realm of ideas has been bottled, packaged, and sold back to us over and over again.

Idea Conference, Inc. has given birth to the “Idea Industry.” The word “industry” implies that we’re manufacturing ideas, churning them out like widgets. This mindset dictates an immediate usefulness of these idea-widgets, which Umair Haque speaks against: “The idea of our age is that Great Ideas can be simplified, reduced, made into convenient, disposable nuggets of infotainment — be they 18-minute talks, 800-word blog posts, or 140 character bursts. But can they — really?” Ideas are to be nurtured over time, to be experienced–not consumed in 10-20 minute talks resulting in a “climactic epiphany,” as Haque calls it.

photo credit: tubagooba via photopin cc

photo credit: tubagooba via photopin cc

If we are, indeed, manufacturing ideas, perhaps this provides insight into why they are so formulaic–so cookie-cutter. This is ironic in that Idea Conference, Inc. typically promotes “outside-the-box” thinking. These forums have become the box. And what is a box but a containment unit–walls that include and exclude, neatly compartmentalizing what’s inside?

Reject the box. Blow up the walls. Don’t fall into the trap that only “ideas worth spreading” are shared via these types of forums. Don’t let these things constrain you, your way of thinking, or the impact you make.

After combing every lobe in my brain for an idea that fits the mold, I realized the system itself is the issue. Am I less intelligent for not having a concept worthy of a TEDx submission? Is my idea less valid if not presented at Idea Conference, Inc.? Is my self-worth compromised if I don’t feel I have any novel topics or lenses through which to view them for the next big idea symposium? Absolutely not. But in a world of “everyone else is doing it,” it’s easy to get sucked into that trap of misplaced self-efficacy.

And this isn’t to say that just because I don’t have that great idea today I’ll never have it. I could be experiencing that idea right now, only to see it for what it really is after the experience is finished. But for today, I don’t have a big idea, and that’s ok.


  1. Wow. Thank you for commenting on this. I thought I was the only one who felt this way after attending a TEDx event.

    A few years ago, I got on the TED talk bandwagon when I was going through a truly awful moment in my life. I’d given up on teaching because I couldn’t endorse the system, and my boyfriend of three years had moved out of our apartment. I lost my job the month after and was then laid off a total of 3 times in one year. I was looking for meaning and could find none in my own life. So, a good friend suggested I look at TED. It made me feel better and was like watching my favorite TV show–only all the writers were do-gooders I agreed with. The following year, I decided to buy TEDx tickets and went with my roommate. As I was listening, I realized I wasn’t really being challenged. And, as people talked about big problems in my community, I realized we–as a collective were doing nothing to solve that by being there (when we all could have easily brought canned goods or participated in some sort of volunteer event afterward). Instead, we all just milled about and drank organic soda. I found the whole thing unbearably reeking of privilege.

    It’s taken me a long time to accept that I am–in fact–privileged. So, when confronted with it, I get really uncomfortable and try to challenge my own privileged thoughts. I guess I just got really mad. It seemed like such wasted energy–to have all these good, talented people passively sitting in a room listening to all the things they already believe or are apt to believe.

    I think these conferences are interesting as entertainment and networking events. But they aren’t life-changing. You’re right. A TED talk has never prompted me to do anything–even for a week. I might think about doing something, but unless I’m personally connected, it’s all theoretical. We need applied knowledge and connection.

    Funnily enough? Television has prompted me to act. Nightline, of all things, got me to join TFA. But that’s because I was already in that space of needing to act. I already had the passion for the cause. I just needed inspiration.

    Looking forward to Kit’s piece!

    • From what I gather, there are quite a few out there who are disillusioned with the Idea Conference, Inc. empire. You’re definitely not the only one, Alma!

      You bring up two things Kit will likely touch on in her follow-up post: 1) the role these kinds of idea forums play in education and 2) perhaps these feelgood symposiums are a symptom of society rather than a product of it–the “I needed a boost in morale, so I watched a TED talk” idea. But I digress, as I don’t want to steal her thunder.

  2. Great post! I absolutely agree! I don’t know how many TED talks I have watched, and there’s maybe two or three that have stuck with me. The rest are, it seems, a flavor of the week.

    I am a big fan of niches. I think some of the best talks you can find are not big, all-encompassing general ideas, but focused, directed talks that are useful for a very specific thing you are trying to accomplish. I’m trying to put together a presentation about Markdown, which is a particular syntax for bloggers and writers of online content, that I think more people should be using. Is this a big, grand idea about how the internet has changed the way we write and read? Heck no. A million people have done that. This is a very specific tips-and-tricks talk about how to make writing online more efficient.

    So right on! Ironically, your very topic should be a TED (or -x) talk. :D

    PS: As I read your headline, and hit the “and that’s OK” part, my inner voice switched to Stuart Smalley.

  3. This post is long overdue…nice job, Ashley. The drawing: perfect. More ideas are launched and incubated through doodles like that than in major works of art. Why? They are understandable, just as this post completely is.

    I will be brief: I believe that it is not so important that we all have a “Big Idea” so much as we have ideas all the time. Thought is like a knife: You keep it sharp, you use it a lot and it is a great tool. You stow it in a drawer waiting for “the right moment” and it gets rusty. Big idea conferences are convenient, and offer a place to sharpen our thought processes, but one has to wonder how many other ideas are rusting away somewhere.

    One other thing: Not all ideas are worth sharing, and that ought to be OK too. The digital age has wreaked havoc on any thought of privacy or even self-awareness and self-respect. There is so much clutter on the Internet and in conferences and in the media by people who are more spectators than those actually doing good or real work, or by those who are so self-deluded in believing that every click of their synapses is a golden nugget to share with the world that it becomes hard for the average person to discern opinion from reality, and talent from critics. If we are a culture that makes stars of those who revel in snark opinion and half truths, then we deserve what we get. If that is the case, then we as a society needs a collective reality check. There are moments when someone will ask me or others, “What do you think?” about something and when we defer or decline because we are not ready to thoughtfully answer, we get treated as a pariah or anti-social. And that is really unfortunate.

    It is OK to say no to an idea you don’t like, but we need to do so with respect. If you are a professional, then out of love for your fellow human beings, it is your duty to share your best with all, and without fear. But when you are ready to do so and hopefully those on the receiving end will have the respect for you to wait for it.

    Your post here is not only good, but worth sharing.

  4. Bravo AJ! Excellent, cohesive and apropos. I concur with your overall points. We are indeed in such a idea-horny stage of creation. Everyone wants to create the next big thing, but instead we are left with hand me down ideas that have been handed down from conferences and invention-QVC-style-shark-tank-societal thinking. Just chill out people! Your ideas doesn’t have to move mountains or fuel cars. Small non-revolutionizing ideas are still IDEAS. – this post brought to you by wine. A lot of wine.

  5. Pingback: Beyond Roses and Butterflies: How Execution is Critical to the Idea Process | The Pensive Pilcrow

  6. Pingback: How to Get the Most Out of a Conference | TKO Graphix BlogTKO Graphix Blog

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