Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Heading to TED

Today I’m going to the first day of the TED conference in Monterey, California. Lara is in Guatemala studying Spanish. TED is very expensive and for even one of us to go is an enormous luxury given that neither of us has an income now. Yet TED was so transformational for me last year that I can’t help but go once more. It’s the last vestige of a life where I could afford most of the things I wanted.

For those of you who don’t know, TED is a technology and design conference that attracts some extraordinary people. Almost everyone at TED has a passion for something. Many TEDsters run companies or charitable organizations. The man I sat next to on the plane on the way out has already sold eight companies and goes on archeology and dinosaur hunting expeditions in between.

The format of TED is a series of 20 minute lectures by some of the most exceptional public speakers in the world. The lectures are inspirational, motivational, and educational. In between the lectures is the best part of the conference- various social events that allow you to meet the other TEDsters. At TED everyone is treated as an equal. The person you talk to at dinner could as easily be the head of large technology company as somebody like me who simply has a desire to make a difference. You know they’ll have something interesting to say. It’s amazing how many great ideas you can get in just a couple of days.

The highlight of TED is the TED prize. Each year there are three winners. The prize has a decent chunk of money attached to it, but the true prize is that each winner gets to make a wish to the TED community. TEDsters then try to make this wish come true. As you can imagine, when you have a community that includes so many amazing people some incredible things get done. Take for example Larry Brilliant, who won a TED prize last year for his work in eradicating smallpox. Larry made a wish to build a search engine that would look on the web for signs of impending catastrophes like famines and disease epidemics. Google was one of the companies that stepped up, although lots of other people also helped. Larry now runs, the non-profit portion of Google, and it sounds like his health warning network is close to being launched.

Every successful person who has changed the world is just a normal person who had a dream. Its one thing to know this intellectually and quite another thing to meet some of these people in the flesh and see it for yourself. Matt Groening of The Simpsons is a scruffy looking man who wanted to make cartoons. Larry Page and Sergei Brin of Google are just a couple of young guys who came up with a fantastic idea for a search engine. These are brilliant and capable people, but they got where they are through their own skills. For a normal person like me, it is tremendously empowering.

Al Gore told us last year that there is no fire-brigade that will come and fix our problems. The challenges we face are completely outside of our experience as a species, and nobody knows how to fix them. It’s up to all of find the solutions and try to save the world. We can’t expect somebody else to do it for us. It’s a big wakeup call, and many TEDsters are at the forefront of making it happen.

It was at TED last year that I met Dennis Whittle, the co-founder of GlobalGiving. Dennis had a good job at the World Bank and gave it all up to start his own charity. It provided Lara and me with a wonderful way of getting started on our own mission to make the world a little bit better. Exactly one year later Lara and I have quit our jobs and we are on the road with the title of GlobalGiving Ambassadors. We will be visiting projects that GlobalGiving funds and writing about what we learn.

Lara and I don’t have millions of dollars or behind us, but we do know that we can make a difference. Hopefully TED will provide us with some excellent contacts as we set out on our volunteering trip. I know that we will be a tremendous asset to anyone we work with. I’m looking forward to seeing how far our dreams can take us.

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