Erik Torenberg: Make TED ideas a reality

BY ERIK TORENBERG

Published April 11, 2011

There are moments that remind me I want to pursue my own crazy ideas, my own projects. These moments disarm the voices inside my head that say otherwise. It becomes clear what actions are important and what actions aren’t. It becomes clear whose judgment I value and whose judgment I don’t. I can separate what I really want from what others want for me or what I think others expect from me. Whether I act on this clarity depends on how frequent these moments occur and how strongly I hold on to them.

Human rights lawyer Jared Gersner reminded me what real courage is. So did blogger Donia Jarrar. Author Chis Van Allsberg reminded me that I want to create something. So did the three students who wrote a musical. TEDx was a whole day dedicated to these precious, elusive moments.

For those who don’t know, TEDxUofM inspired more than 1,700 people on Friday. I spent more than 12 hours listening and talking to incredibly impressive individuals, all of whom encouraged audience members to pursue our own projects. I brought my notebook and furiously scribbled ideas down. Reading lists were written. Dreams were etched.

What was so great about TEDx was that it reminded me to stand out when other influences pressure me to fit in. There’s a precedent for advocating against the herd mentality. Philosopher John Stuart Mill encouraged society to value eccentricity because he believed there isn’t only one truth. There are multiple truths, and the more we experiment in lifestyle, the more we can learn from each other. TEDx reminded us — through examples of success — that we, too, can and should pursue our crazy ideas, even if the only benefit, as Van Allsberg said in his talk, is to say that we did.

A completely student run event is a crazy idea. Their phenomenal performances show what can happen when you put talented students from diverse backgrounds together for a common goal. There are more people who would like to make amazing things happen. Some were in the audience, some weren’t.

At the reception following the lectures, I realized I wasn’t the only one who was inspired. Some friends and I talked about exciting things we could do within our organizations and on our own. We kept building off each other’s ideas, offering enthusiastic support and feedback. The energy was palpable.

But what will happen next week when exams and papers consume our minds? What will happen when people tell us to be practical, and play it safe? Will this rekindled belief in our abilities to make something great happen fade?

My friends and I spoke about this with some of the speakers and organizers of the event for more than an hour. How can we maintain this community of students, professors and alumni who want to make a big difference? Should it be organized formally or should it continue organically? How will we look back at TEDx in a few months? Will we see it as a genuine, perhaps revolutionary, call to action? Or merely a one-day performance?

TED is an institution that brought all these people together so organic thinking and innovation can be illuminated. It didn’t force creativity; it incentivized it. In his call to action, Thomas Zurbuchen, noticed the power of incentives. He asked, "What idea will you pursue, right now, that will lead you to speak at next year’s conference?"

Other nudges can help. TEDx acknowledged this by forcing applicants to write down their crazy ideas. This allowed them to select the type of people they wanted and encouraged students to have at least one ambitious project in their head. My friends and I spoke to the head of TEDx San Diego who told us that the audience organized follow-up meetings so people could present the projects they started after the conference. People may be more motivated to pursue something when they know they will present it to their peers, or they know other people will work on something too. These opportunities can, but don’t have to be, organized through the TED name. Other organizations can also create spaces that offer these moments and incentives.

The TEDxUofM team set up nothing short of a spectacular show. It gave us the moments. It’s now our turn to take advantage of them.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at erikto@umich.edu.