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How I Got a TEDx Talk

Click to watch "Stop Searching for Your Passion"

Click to watch “Stop Searching for Your Passion”

The only thing more stunning than walking into the Kauffman Center in Kansas City when it’s full of people is when you’re the only one there.

That’s where I stood, slack-jawed and awestruck on Saturday afternoon, August 29, 2015, hours before the thousands descended for the annual TEDxKC event. The pale wooden panels of this huge vaulted space gave the whole room a warm, golden cast. I felt like I was in the hull of some monster ship, or a cathedral, or tucked right inside God’s ear. I stepped up onto the round red carpet, the x-marks-the-spot for TED presenters.

And Then…

And I thought what anyone else would think: WTF am I doing here? Impostor syndrome is like psychological herpes—it’s far more widespread than you think, and while it may be inactive or latent much of the time, an outbreak can be easily triggered, and there you are with a full-blown case. It doesn’t go away, and you basically hope that it will go back to wherever it spends most of its time hiding.

Why wouldn’t I feel like an impostor? I, like you, have been watching TED talks for years. I even bought a book this summer, How to Deliver a TED Talk, downloaded it on my Kindle on a Sunday in Central Park, and it made me feel worse, not better. Because the author had watched and analyzed a zillion TED talks and had come up with a formula, and the whole thing made me tired. His analysis was interesting in part, but didn’t inspire. That wasn’t how this would happen.

(Psst. Interested in doing your own TEDx talk? Join me for my live, two-day workshop in Boston, Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 4&5, 2019! Learn more and reserve your spot at tappedtospeaklive.com.)

 

So How Did I Get a TEDx Talk? 

I’ll answer this question for you now, since it’s the one I get asked the most.

I am sure there’s a more standard way (research which TEDx events are happening, apply to their call for speakers, etc). But that’s not how it happened for me.

Rather, a contact of mine, Chuck Brandt, a skilled and gifted app developer at VML (the agency that runs the TEDx event), reached out. He had kept me on his radar since my days at Martha Stewart Omnimedia. And I hadn’t heard from him in years. Until one day in July he messaged me on FB, asking me if I wanted to do a TED talk in Kansas City. Someone had dropped out. It was less than a month away.

Um. Yes?

I love when people drop out. Seriously. It’s my jam. Nature abhors a vacuum, as do I. It’s how I got a spot at How Design Live last spring, when someone dropped out. You snooze, you lose! I was so grateful for that opportunity, and it showed—I was ranked the #1 speaker at that event. So this year, I’m going back, but not because someone else couldn’t make it.

But trust me, I in no way had this TED thing in the bag. Hardly.

TEDx director Mike Lundgren agreed to get on a Skype call with me, and asked, “The question is, do you have a TED talk in you?”

Yes, I said. And here’s what I did: I pitched. But not like sales-pitchy. I talked to him about some ideas I’d been kicking around for some time, issues that made me curious, frustrated, things that I’d thought long and hard about and thought other people would connect with.

We talked about career and relationships, wrongheaded ideas we’d fallen prey to, or that had been swallowed whole by our culture, and yet didn’t sit right with me.

And THAT was what led to the subsequent Skype call the next day, and the day after that. I talked to Mike every day for nearly a week, and I wrote more every night. We were approaching an idea.

This was the leading one: My belief that the “search for passion” is a bunch of navel-gazing garbage, and wasted effort at that. And that it’s a question people ask when they don’t know what else to ask, and we fill in answers that we think sound good. And that there’s more to a passionate life than having the single best answer to that question.

My Best Advice

Opportunity favors the well prepared, right? So my advice is this: Always be chewing on something—an idea, a thought, a question, something that eats away at you and pokes holes in the platitude-laden universe. These are the ideas that fuel your best work, writing, business ideas, blogs, products, events, and yes, TED talks.

What’s that little grain of sand working at the soft body of your mind and heart? The more you struggle with it, the more luminous the pearl.

Don’t attempt to neutralize the ideas that feel controversial. Kick the tires, honk the horns. Open them up like a speed boat to see how fast they go. Question everything. And—be willing to be vulnerable, to share a story, to tell the truth. Even if you fear others won’t like it.

I didn’t get invited to present at one of the biggest and most prestigious TEDx events in the country because I’m a “good speaker.” There are plenty of good speakers, but not nearly enough challenging, brave, risky ideas or people willing to champion them. So make it your business to cultivate those juicy ideas, and share them, any chance you get.

Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 4&5, 2019 in Boston! It’s going to get you fired up and focused on your stand-out signature talk.  Learn more and reserve your spot at tappedtospeaklive.com.

Happy Accidents: Why Staying Open Should Be Part of Your Plan

After I finished my session on creativity at the How Design Live conference, a woman approached me and handed me a note.

“I know now that I was meant to be here,” she said, dreamily. “I mean, I’m not even part of this conference.”

Wait…what?

But before I had time to call security, she was gone. That woman is fast.

Her note was cryptic, too: She wrote that clearly the Universe had played a part in getting her to my session (the rest of us registered). If I want to know more, she says, I could call her.

Later in the conference I saw creative director turned creative activist and sometime troublemaker Jeff Greenspan (Buzzfeed, Facebook, BBDO) speak on how to make your work compelling to other people.

Jeff has made headlines over and over again with his “side projects” in which he does things like lay hipster traps all over the New York City, and erect a bronze bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene park.

He says that, yes, quite a bit of planning and expense have gone into the brilliant and disruptive stunts he and his creative partner Andy Tider have pulled off over the years. It is good to bear in mind that if there are any stunts being pulled, there is potential risk for injuries, and there could be legal precautions so be sure to take measures into account.

But, there have also been amazing things that just happened.

Such as when the police came and hung a tarp over Snowden’s statue—a lovely bit of stagecraft he couldn’t have planned for, which created the visual irony of the government covering up the face of the man who risked his life to expose the government. It was the icing on his rebel cake. (More on that whole project here.)

Lots of other very cool things have happened in Jeff’s creative life that have earned him headlines and accolades, paying work—and allowed him tap a wellspring of collective energy from all over the world.

Is he lucky? Guided by the invisible hand of The Universe?

“You don’t get happy accidents if you don’t put yourself in accidents’ way,” he says.

Ah. And given the risk in standing up and saying anything contrarian (which Jeff is not afraid to do), it’s no wonder most of us might defer, might instead stay where it’s safe and quiet, and out of the way.

Interesting, right?

One woman wanders into a conference she didn’t register for and calls it divine intervention; a man performs an illegal act that triggers a media event better than he could have imagined, and he calls it a happy accident.

Both had some kind of plan in place (though in truth I am very curious about what that woman was up to). But what they did was leave their doors open a crack.

Whether you believe your life is guided or a series of random events, a bit of magic is at play. Something that’s beyond your control.

So what does that mean? It means your job is to put some conditions in place, but it’s also your job to keep your heart open and, as creative sherpa Sam Harrison said at his session, “available for seduction.”

That is what an artist—anyone looking to discover or create something—must do.

In his book Creativity, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who introduced the concept of “flow”) studied how creative people think and work, and one of my favorite takeaways is this:

“Creative people are constantly surprised.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

They don’t assume they know what’s going on, he says, nor do they assume anyone else does. I love this. Because that’s the source of childlike wonder and brilliant perspective.

You can’t discover what you’re not curious to know, and the fact that we can’t know everything is, I think, an advantage. Discovery requires a bit of darkness in order to shine.

I’ll add this: The dreamy lady and Jeff also broke the rules; they did things you’re not “supposed” to do. Now, I don’t think you have to perform illegal acts to make things happen. But to invite divine intervention, inspiration, or happy accidents, you need to be open to the unexpected, to the what ifs, to the flow of things outside your control.

We can all have happy accidents and find ourselves the recipient of some benevolence, some great wonder, if we’re willing to wade out into it, and, when we feel the lift of that mysterious tide, start swimming. Hard.