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Good Ideas Are Wrestled and Wrought

The TED Talk has become something of a cultural Rorschach Test. You mention the existence of these online talks and you get a variety of reactions: infatuation (I LOVE TED Talks!), disgust (They’re dumbing down our culture!), and lust (How can I get one?!). I do research and strategy work for the TED Prize, so I have occasion to talk about them fairly frequently, and very few people, in my experience, express neutrality about the phenomenon.

Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, has a new book out that demystifies what it is that all those TED talkers have gotten so right. And it’s probably not what you think. He insists that what is at the center of a good talk is a good idea. Now that might sound obvious, but in the times we’re living through, I actually think it’s close to radical.

Globally, the public relations industry is booming. In 2015, it brought in billion and employed more than 85,000 people. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists more career opportunities for communications graduates — which includes journalism, mass communication, public relations, and advertising — than any other major, including computer science, engineering, and mathematics. People will pay big bucks for experts who can tell them how to “hit, bridge, and sparkle,” go viral, spin, frame, sound-bite, and elevator-pitch.

But an idea behaves differently from a “message.” It’s not the kind of thing you can wrestle down or order like room service. It’s more organic than that, more mysterious. Ideas flash and pop and escape and build. They intoxicate and then scurry. Sometimes they evade language. Sometimes they stalk you. Ideas, after all, have to travel the complex architecture inside of your own mind: 100 billion neurons, 1 to 10,000 synapses attached to each, all sending information through a chaotic, elegant ocean (the brain is 75 percent water!).
Journalist Ariel Levy, editor of The Best American Essays 2015, compares essays (akin to talks in so many ways) to waves that a writer must catch, the kind of act that requires a paradoxical mix of patience and readiness, strength and serenity. At the heart of a great essay, she believes, is always a great idea.

“The problem with ideas is that you can’t decide to have them. Searching for an idea is like resolving to have a dream.”

Another journalist, Stephen Johnson, offers a different slant in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. After researching the genesis stories of some of the world’s most transformative notions, he finds that most began as hunches. We walk around with a few fascinating hunches, often de-valuing their potential import. The trick to getting from a hunch to a great idea is to let yours bump up against other people’s — particularly those as unlike you as possible. Think scientists and poets, designers and doctors, preschool teachers and presidents, all in generative dialogue. Though we may lament what the internet is doing to our brains in so many ways, it’s never been easier to find hunch-bumping buddies. Johnson argues:

“Chance favors the connected mind.”

In Anderson’s telling, an idea is less something born of tides or bumps, and more of something that one must live into. He shuns the hunger that so many people have to peacock their charisma on a TED stage, or any stage, for its own sake. Instead, he encourages people to live rich lives and see what comes from them that feels “worth sharing,” as the tag line goes. He writes,

“It’s theoretically possible that the best thing you can do for now is to continue your journey, search for something that really does grab you and make you want to go deep, and pick up the book in a few years’ time.”

Author Lidia Yuknavitch recently gave a deeply revealing talk where she argues that for some of us, life is more akin to a “misfit’s myth” than a hero’s journey. It’s the kind of idea that a dozen of the smartest minds in advertising couldn’t write in a lifetime of brainstorming. It’s born of one person’s hard-fought journey, and the wisdom is wrought.

For me, ideas behave in all of these ways. I do experience an idea, at first, as a hunch. Usually I identify that hunch on very emotional terms, rather than cognitive. In writing The New Better Off, for example, I became uncomfortable with the dominant narrative surrounding the recession of 2009. Yes, things are bad. Yes, there are some really duplicitous characters who deserved to be held accountable. But there are also a lot of creative responses that I am seeing in my own groups of neighbors and friends. It actually seems like something refreshing and edifying is coming out of the downturn.

So then I start looking for the patterns of that “something.” This is where it gets more cognitive. I start connecting dots between various newspaper articles I read and letting those connections provoke questions.

“What does the exploding interest in tiny houses and communal living mean about the moment we are living in? What does this have to do with the American Dream and how it’s morphing?”

Then I’m riding the wave — at least on my best days. I’m having my own soul-searching moments about what I think success really is, and what that has to do with how much money I make or whether I own a home or how I spend my time. I’m seeing confirmations and complications of my increasingly coherent idea everywhere I look. I’m asking smart friends about it; or, even better, versions of it are coming up in conversations naturally, helping me feel even more confident that I’m on to something.

Eventually I’m putting language to it. I’m pinning it down. I’m taking the risk to humbly but confidently say it out loud and claim it as my own.
I’m a fairly comfortable and effective public speaker, but much more than being on the stage, I absolutely revel in the journey of idea formation. I love the noticing, the connecting, the pattern keeping, the asking, the wandering, the wondering, the languaging. There is a lot of struggle and risk in it, but also such wildly huge rewards.
Anderson writes,

“An idea is anything that can change how people see the world. If you can conjure up a compelling idea in people’s minds, you have done something wondrous. You have given them a gift of incalculable value. In a very real sense, a little piece of you has become part of them.”

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