A Sit-Down with TED founder Richard Saul Wurman

By Mike Drummond


I’m seated in a studio with Richard Saul Wurman and the silence is deafening.

Wurman is the unlikely founder of TED – the invite-only tech conference that draws the likes of Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. (He sold his interest in TED in 2002.) Unlikely in that Wurman, an avuncular character with a receding crop of salt-and-pepper hair, once was penniless and living in his car and now rubs elbows with some of the most powerful people on the planet.

Seconds tick since I asked him how he defines “innovation.” His ice-blue eyes contemplate the floor. My head screams, ‘Just answer the question, man!’

… Five. Six. Seven.

“Well, even asking a good question, ‘What is innovation?’ is innovation,” he says.

If that seems like a dodge, that’s how it is with Wurman. He can be hard to pin down. The previous night he held stage at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in downtown Charlotte, N.C. The event, orchestrated in partnership with product development firm enventys and event organizer SIR Conferences, was billed as an “interactive conversation about Charlotte’s present and future identity.”

Thankfully, none of his remarks had anything to do with this sterile, white-bread city’s identity, present or otherwise.

Wurman boasts that his power lies in his own ignorance of the cosmos. He’s an open vessel and has succeeded in inviting the world’s elite to fill him up. He smiles a lot – the smile of someone who knows a secret and is not quite ready to let us in on it.

Yet it soon becomes clear his initial answer was mere throat clearing. He was just getting warmed up.

“Innovation is anything that allows you to pause and give clarification to an idea that you haven’t thought of before,” he says. “Or looking at the same thing from a different angle, discovering a pattern or a couple of patterns that put together create a new piece.

“Innovation can be how you run something. Innovation can be how you talk to somebody. Innovation can be how you design a meeting like what I did with the TED conference.

“That’s defining time, and space – an event! I innovated an event. Innovation to me is that clarification of a pattern that is at least new to you, and hopefully new to others.”

I note that there’s always an impressive array of luminaries and personalities at TED conferences, from magician David Blaine to evangelist Billy Graham. What’s the selection process look like?

“That’s an often-asked question and I don’t think I’ve ever given a really good answer,” he says, noting that selecting TED speakers is not as simple as thumbing through People Magazine.

“If I had 100 hours to plan a four-day meeting for 500 people,” he says, “I would spend 10 hours on choosing the speakers, one hour on the A/V, the food and those type of things and all the rest of the time I’d spend on who followed who and what are the patterns that make it a theatrical event, that makes it interesting to be there.”

When it comes to who makes the TED lineup, Wurman is in a state of second-guessing.

“My passion, my focus, my obsession is my failure,” he says. “Nothing is ever good enough. In trying to find a pattern, I’m obsessed with what didn’t work. What is something that challenges anything I’ve done before? How do I reinvent this thing?”

He recalls a story he read in Wired magazine that noted he was the inventor of SWAG or stuff we all get – the goodies handed to attendees at conferences and trade shows.

“I didn’t know that I did that,” he says.

So just to change things this year, the TEDMED conference that focuses on health and medical innovation did away with SWAG, if for no other reason than to buck convention.

Because competing organizations copy TED, Wurman says, SWAG will disappear from other events as well.

I note that an event I partnered with this year did not hand out goodie bags, citing environmental or green reasons.

“Well, fine,” Wurman says, dismissively. “Green, shreem.”

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He moves on to another convention he wants to explode – the 18-minute time limit for TED speakers. He says he originally set the limit at 18 minutes because that’s the time he usually gets bored listening to someone.

“It’s not scientific,” he says of the time limit. “It’s whimsy. Now it’s become a thing. So now that it’s become a thing, I’m going to challenge it.”

He wants to allow at least three TED speakers to talk for 35-40 minutes. He also wants to have others speak for two to three minutes, delivering aphorisms or factoids, maybe something things that are emblazoned on cards for attendees to take home (hey, isn’t that SWAG?). Fodder, he says, for “thinking about things.”

At times in this conversation and from the night before, he mentioned failure. I ask what role failure played in his life and how it influences him.

“I have two early memories,” he says. “One was going to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. I was 4 years old.

“The other was seeing a man in a wheelchair, who my mother said was in an accident. She told me that when he finally got out, he’d have to learn to walk again.

“I also had to learn to walk. We all did. I started thinking about the act of walking and equilibrium. You’re throwing your leg out, and working to regain equilibrium as you fall on that leg. It’s a matter of terror, of risk, of failure of your body losing its balance.

“And what do you do with that failure? You move forward. That’s how much failure is a part of my life. The metaphor is walking. Having some equilibrium and taking some risk and failing, regaining my equilibrium, and failing and failing again but always moving forward.”

Now he’s on a roll.

“Failure and the walking metaphor are linked to everything I do,” he says. “My first thought with any project is: What didn’t work?

“I don’t talk about this because it makes people uncomfortable, but after you give a speech, after you do a conference, after you do a book, I am so bored with anyone telling me they thought it was good or that they liked it.

“What I want is someone telling me what they didn’t like,” he says. “That’s the only thing I learn from. It’s the things that don’t work that are interesting.”

Wurman reminds me that he has authored 82 books. “But only four of them are any good,” he says. Among the ones he likes, the guidebook Tokyo Access because of that city’s complexity, Information Anxiety, and his latest, 33.

For kicks, I ask Wurman if he could meet any inventor, who would it be? He mentions the usual suspects, Tesla and Franklin. Then he throws this out there:

“What I’d really like to know is if Archimedes actually said, ‘Eureka!’ when water spilled over the tub.”

Cool. So, what excites him these days, besides television? Wurman is a huge fan of TV. Has been since he was a small boy, when he’d even stare at test patterns.

“I’m excited about empowering people to take care of themselves,” he says, “by access to knowledge and ideas. Understanding precedes action, from what type of healthcare you want to the type of car you buy.

“We’re continually sold by the people who benefit from the sale,” he adds.

Finally, I ask if he has any parting advice for inventors. Yes, he says, noting that his admonishment applies to everyone.

“Embrace the depths of your ignorance, the emptiness,” he says. “It’s only by doing so that you let ideas in.”

What is TED?

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences – the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford UK each summer – TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Project and Open TV Project, the inspiring TEDx program and the annual TED Prize.

Visit www.ted.com

Editor’s note: This article appears in the August 2010 print edition.