Since its founding back in 1984, TED has spread like a hot new religion. What was once just an annual conference in California of "ideas worth spreading" in technology, entertainment and design, has grown to include conferences outside the U.S. in places like Arusha, Tanzania, Oxford, U.K. and Mysore, India.
There are more than 500 18 minute TED talks posted online for those who can’t score a ticket to the sold out annual events in Long Beach and the U.K. The organization now lets TEDsters evangelize the brand themselves with its TEDx conference. These are organized by entusiastic TEDsters in cities around the country who want to spread the ideas.
At the urging of a good friend who helps organize TEDxSF, I went to Tuesday's sold-out event in the plush planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences. I settled in next to a pal from Google whose a TED regular for my first TED experience.
For nearly four hours we listened to a dazzling array of speakers contemplate the evening's theme: "Courage and Resilience." I laughed, I cried, and I was entertained in between talks with music from Loop!Station and Bhi Bhiman.
I heard tales about overcoming life's challenges and fighting the odds. I was struck with a kind of awe that can only be compared to the communal experience of a church or temple. The speakers were too numerous for me to list here but a few of the talks stood out.
One of them was Nate "Rock" Quarry, a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter who was raised in a strictly religious, working class family that didn't encourage sports of any kind.
Quarry is not the usual sort of guy found in the TED crowd of high-achieving Silicon Valley intellectuals. But this son of a carpenter — whose target audience overlaps with the NASCAR crowd — held us rapt. With persistence and hard work, Quarry rose up to become a star in The Ultimate Fighting Championship. Then one day a knock out left him with a debilitating back injury.
"With that one punch," Quarry told us, his "dream was derailed." He projected a video of the fight on the planetarium ceiling and we watched as this tall, svelt fighter fell with a thud.
After that, it got worse for Quarry. His doctor told him he would never fight again. His marriage fell apart and his wife wanted to take custody of their daughter. And his father was terminally ill.
Quarry says he watched his own father collect his last pay check a week before he died. He realized he didn't want to collect a pay check from a job that meant little to him. Then, he got an e-mail from a fan who told Quarry that — if he could rise again — it would send a message to all his fans that anything was possible.
Quarry decided to try and get back in the fight. For inspiration, he pinned the e-mail on his wall at home and re-read it every day as he trained.
He got himself back in shape, got back in the ring and he won. He began the talk saying that he'd always thought that courage was "facing adversity without fear." He ended his talk saying that what he learned that true courage "is facing adversity despite fear."
This is TED, an organization with its roots in the tech community, so the stories of "courage and resilience" included a good dose of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Among them was the Charles Huang, co-founder of RedOctane the company that created the wildly popular video game Guitar Hero. I confess that I'm not a fan and I don't know if I believe that Guitar Hero is actually making the world a better place. But the story of its creation turned me into an admirer of Huang.
Huang and his brother Kai went to retailers and investors looking for support and almost everyone told them that music games just don't work in the U.S. One potential investor told Huang, and his brother, "you guys are two random brothers with a plastic guitar."
Despite one rejection after another, Huang and Kai were convinced that there was a big market for their game. He actually took out a second mortgage on his house to finance it and risked "putting his family on the street."
We all know where the story of Guitar Hero ends: mega success.
Even though I don't much care about the game, I clapped enthusiastically when Huang ended his talk by saying, "I believe the world has more innovation and more and more progress when people are willing to risk everything for something they believe in, even if, as in my case, it's a plastic guitar."
By the end of my night at TEDxSF, I walked away feeling good inside. It felt much the same as I might have felt if I had just listened to an uplifting sermon about how G-D loved me and put me here for a purpose. All I needed to do was to find that purpose and live it.
But there was another voice — the journalist's voice — in my head that rememinded me each success story was the exception to the rule of people who tried and tried and didn't succeed. Those failures just don't fit into the TED narrative of the world, which is unflinchingly optimistic.
TED is the child of Silicon Valley, a place drunk on optimism, technology and drive. At the heart of TED there seems to be a little Horatio Alger and a little Billy Graham.
As a journalist it's my job to carefully scrutinize myths and hype. But, there was something about those talks and that "can do" spirit that I just want to believe. For a few hours that night I was very happy to drink the elixir and worship in the temple.