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 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.
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.