It’s early one morning in mid-January when I call up Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED Conferences. I’m looking forward to chatting with him about how he launched his internationally known conference business, but instead I learn much more about his definition of innovation, his bottomless well of ideas and his view of entrepreneurship. About 20 minutes in, he utters the words, "I am not a genius." To this, I immediately disagree, albeit silently. I don’t want to interrupt him because I’m learning so much.
Wurman, now in his mid-70s, grew up in Philadelphia and graduated with a Master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. There, he met Louis Kahn, a renowned architect who became Wurman’s mentor and molded his view of the world.
“He allowed those who worked with him to be more of themselves; he gave them permission,” Wurman remembers.
This line of thought resonated deeply with Wurman: the idea of being one’s self and not focusing on what one should do or is expected to do. After college, Wurman worked as a professor in a variety of locations including Cambridge, England, St. Louis and North Carolina. He opened his own architectural practice at just 28 years old and, in addition to still teaching, began writing books.
To date Wurman has authored more than 80 books on topics ranging from sports to medicine to investment banking. His inspiration came partly from Kahn’s words and the permission he felt to explore new things without abandon.
“My life is a journey from emptiness to understanding,” he says. “My books may be about different topics, but to me, they all follow the same pattern: I don’t know about something I’m really interested in, so I go after it.”
Journey into conferences
It’s this freethinking mentality that led Wurman to launch the first TED Conference in 1984. At the time he was particularly fascinated with people he met working in the fields of technology, entertainment and design. He saw connections between the three industries and wanted to explore them more in a conference realm. The only problem: Wurman found the existing conference format incredibly dull.
“Before TED, conferences were made up of suited white men standing behind a podium on one side of the stage, showing bullet points and promoting a book or company,” he says. “There would also be sessions consisting of four or five people on a panel, each of which was given a long introduction and all siloed into one subject.”
In an effort to change things, Wurman tapped into his personal definition of innovation. He feels, in order to innovate, one needs to add or subtract. He put this principle into practice and set out to innovate the conference by taking away podiums, long speeches, panels, dress codes and the single subject premise.
“Everything I did was subtraction,” he says.
The first TED Conference was in Monterey, Calif., and it didn’t get the reception he planned. People came, but the general consensus was confusion over what he was trying to do. Wurman let the idea marinate for a few years. When he was approached to put on another conference, attention on the concept had intensified.
In 1990, he hosted his second conference, also in Monterey, and this time the idea took off. Pretty soon, TED Conferences were showing up in New York City, Charleston, Philadelphia and Kobe, Japan. Each one featured a variety of professionals from the technology, entertainment and design industries (acronym for TED) talking about innovative ideas in an unscripted format.
In 2003, entrepreneur Chris Anderson took over the conference series, and since then, TED Talks can be found in every big city on almost every continent. According to the website, more than 900 talks can be seen online.
“What Chris Anderson has done is remarkable; he’s made it a worldwide force,” Wurman says.
Dedication to improv
While Wurman appreciates Anderson’s influence, he feels that today’s TED Talks are a far cry from his original improvisational format.
“I enjoy the notion of improv and know the conversation with another person comes closer to the truth than a rehearsed 18 minute talk where, by nature, you are selling something to a group of people,” he says.
In an effort to revive the improvised conference, Wurman is launching The WWW Conference, a gathering that will pair society’s most influential people together for a 10- to 50-minute unrehearsed talk prompted by a question. The conference will not be open to the public; instead, Wurman will live stream it to various locations and offer related information after the fact on a smartphone app for purchase. The first WWW Conference will take place September 18-20 and include participants like Arianna Huffington, Mark Cuban, Steve Wozniak and David Brooks.
“The title will be ‘Intellectual Jazz,’” he says. “Jazz is improvisational and throughout the whole meeting, I will have amazing musicians perform. In fact, my two musical directors are Herbie Hancock and Yo Yo Ma.” According to Wurman, the conference will spark “unexpected” conversations…conversations “closer to the truth.”
Wurman is simultaneously working on three other conferences, the first being Prophesy2025, which is slated to take place in 2013 over five consecutive Mondays in cities across he world. Speakers will predict what will happen within the next 12 years.
The second: Geeks and Geezers Summit, slated for 2014, which will bring together businesspersons who are 30 years old and younger and 70 and older in an effort to increase discourse between the two groups.
The third: FEDMED, a gathering expected to launch in spring of 2015 that will include comparative discussions of healthcare policies and governments around the world.
How does Wurman manage to do all of this?
“I balance terror and confidence,” he says. “I’m always terrified when I think up an idea; terror allows me to be in touch with it and confidence allows me to go ahead.”
It’s the same for all entrepreneurs, he says.
“If you have a great fear of failure, don’t become an entrepreneur,” he says. “Give yourself the permission if you have a passion. I fail a lot. The power comes from going backing and trying again.”
Image credit: Melissa Mahoney