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.
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.
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.