In one episode of Seinfeld, Elaine finds out the birth control sponge was discontinued. So she buys up all available inventory and obsesses over how “Spongeworthy” her many suitors are. Like Elaine, we luxuriate in the abundance of the information age, but it also hides some uncomfortable scarcities. In watching the recent TEDGlobal event in Scotland, it occurred to me that TED is much more than a collection of great talks. TED is that selective lover that doesn’t fish out fresh sponges for just anyone. In that way, TED offers us a glimpse into our future – an unnatural selection of sorts. It foreshadows what success – and even survival will look like in the next century. Of course like any great story, it’s full of lessons for you–me–us.
Us: Intro to TEDonomics
The fact that I had time to write this article – and you to read it – underscores our gilded life of leisure. We have the means to fly thousands of people to Scotland just to inspire each other! Our grizzled ancestors toiled in fields and slaughtered boars – with no speeches, Snookies, or bath salts to amuse them. Today, much of our hard work is done by machines or disgruntled masses at FoxConn. Still, the global population keeps growing as many jobs and natural resources (sponges) become scarce. Many must go spongeless.
At the same time, the developed world is saturated with houses, cars and gadgets. But we’re possessed by one limitless resource: data. Tweets, storage, and web sites proliferate in ways gold, oil and prime rib can only dream about. That abundance would be as dreamy as Justin Bieber if wealth wasn’t bunching up like diapers on a chubby toddler. That leaves an abundance of lustful suitors chasing fewer customers. Whether they sell steaks or cloud storage, companies must pour more and more resources into capturing customers’ precious time and stagnating incomes.
Like it or not, we are locked into an eternal battle to stand out – to become Spongeworthy. In this new reality, the loudest – not necessarily the best – products will win. Some great inventions will die alone, unTweeted. While the tools of creativity and communication are freely available, only the hungry, the curious, the lucky, or the gifted will unlock their full potential.
That’s where TED shines. As the Jersey Shore and Orange County drown us in clicks, Likes, and Tweets, TED achieves its fame with substance, not guidos or housewives.
Me: Am I TED-worthy?
My brush with TEDonomics came at the end of 2011 when I decided to leave a successful career in innovation at a Fortune 100 company to start my own business. The timing couldn’t be better. My book Econovation was coming out, speaking invitations were rolling in, and my satchel of business ideas would burst like an appendix if I waited any longer. Unlike wine or George Clooney, business ideas don’t get better with age.
Shortly after leaving, I learned that an ex-colleague got a promotion and a big pile of cash delivered by 70 virgins. (Ok, not the last part.) Despite confidence in my decision to leave, I felt a twinge of envy – for something I didn’t even want! Why? Was it just natural competitiveness? Did I feel entitled to recognition for my self-diagnosed genius…or incredibly stylish goatee? I deserved it! Me…me..meeeee!
This voice in my head didn’t stop until I spoke to a friend who was contemplating a similar move from his Fortune 100 job. He said:
There are thousands of executives who get promoted every week. Some deserved it. Some made their bosses look good. Others worked the politics in their favor. At the end, no one cares. You should ask yourself: ‘Is what I’m doing TED-worthy?’. Would thousands – or millions – of people gather to hear what you’ve accomplished?
Suddenly, everything made sense. My measure of success needed to match my aspirations. My goal wasn’t to upgrade my office or car…or girlfriend. I set out to get my ideas into the world – through words and commerce. Achieving TED-worthiness would validate (and amplify) my accomplishments in ways a new title in an HR database never could.
You: Five Survival Lessons in TEDonomics
TED is about realizing potential. In this America, falling short is no longer an option. Let’s face it, we’ve let ourselves go. We rage when our XBOX malfunctions as if it were powering a parent’s respirator. Our spoiled kids get trophies for the slightest movement. Instead of genuine achievement, we’ll settle for TV housewives or spray-tanned meatheads. Here are five lessons from TED on the new economics of exceptionalism and how we might reclaim it…without launching a single angry bird.
- Knowledge is abundant and free. You don’t have to rob liquor stores or sell kidneys to put your kids through MIT. An MIT education is free. Education entrepreneurs, like Daphne Koller of Coursera, offer unprecedented access to Stanford, Princeton and others.
- The tools to build almost anything are free. TED speakers like Shimon Schocken, and Massimo Banzi are giving your kids the power to build the next great gadget, instead of staring zombified at one made in China.
- Simplicity is happiness. Psychologist Barry Schwartz shows that we are enslaved by too many choices. I’ve seen young singles enter supermarket cereal aisles and exit with large families…or osteoporosis.
- Measure what matters. Hotel entrepreneur Chip Conley explains how businesses waste too much time counting things just because they can be counted…like a puppy might tire itself out gnawing on anything within reach.
- Business is the ultimate and most sustainable type of charity. Jacqueline Novogratz demonstrates that aid yields a higher multiplier when it fuels commerce, instead of planes dropping rice. A modern take on “teaching a man to fish”.
It’s not all lollipops and mojitos in TED-land. Many talks do lean towards the idealistic, academic, and cosmetically inspirational. That’s not a bad thing. It exposes entrepreneurs, financiers, companies and countries to ideas that might allow us to build better products, lives, and even Kardashians. TED is attempting to address that gap byoffering coaching and exposure to young TED Fellows.
Yes, the new math of success craves exposure. TED gives big ambitions a channel. Tune in long enough and you might find yourself wondering, ‘Is what I’m doing TED-worthy?’