I'd probably have slept a lot more if I'd never got involved in my local TEDx, but I can't say I regret it.
TEDx conferences are independently-run local events under license from TED, the California-based superstar nonprofit that achieved international renown for its online videos - exciting, informative talks by a wide range of thinkers, speakers and do-ers. These not-quite-lectures were posted online, free for anyone to watch. No more than 18 minutes in length, the videos were perfect for the new age of social media. You'd watch a talk, have your mind blown by the latest advances in biotechnology, or a life-changing insight into human nature, and immediately want to tell every soul you know about it.
TED's mantra became 'ideas worth spreading', a tagline just about vague enough to justify its forays into worlds as disparate as education, love, genetics, philosophy, economics, music and art. The conferences themselves became more and more expensive; a ticket to the annual main event can now set you back $7,500 - plus an application justifying why they should let you in. Admittedly, it's a five-day affair, with the most exquisite facilities and production values. You're also surrounded by some of the world's most influential people.
For bright minds who've yet to establish a name for themselves, though, as well as watching the videos online for free, there's always the attraction of attending a local TEDx event.
Independently run, anyone can apply for a TEDx license as long as they've got a passion for putting on a great event, and adhere to some basic rules and guidelines. They're open to all comers, and attendance costs around the same as going to a concert or theatre show.
The chapter I help organise is TEDxSalford, the largest TEDx event in the UK, now coming up to its third incarnation this November. Salford, a small city in Greater Manchester, is now the beating heart of the northern UK's creative economy. It's home to the BBC's Northern headquarters at MediaCity UK, and the Lowry, a waterside architectural wonder that hosts the country's best cultural productions (including our own, of course).
It's entirely non-profit, and all ticket sales go towards our production costs. Every single one of us is a volunteer with a day job elsewhere (or coursework to hand in). We work throughout the year to organise it, and we put the effort in simply because we want it to happen.
When I applied to join TEDxSalford, I had skills to offer, but I certainly didn't have an impressive CV. I wasn't involved in academic circles, and I had a day job that didn't really relate to the project. The one thing I did have was a passion for ideas, and a real understanding of what TED was all about. I sent an email - "I'd like to help out" - and assumed it would end up deleted and unread.
Six months later, I was stage managing an event with over 1,600 attendees, running around backstage, making sure our carefully choreographed 'set list' kept to a strict schedule. I fetched a water bottle for someone who'd rowed across the Atlantic on her own. I accidentally interrupted the phone call of a Dragons' Den investor (oops). I hastily researched some last-minute facts on Greater Manchester's prison population for a speaker who wanted to edit his talk a few minutes before going on stage.
The evening before, I'd nervously held an Olympic gold medal in my hands on a Metrolink tram full of drunken revellers, and ate Japanese food with the embryologist responsible for cloning Dolly the Sheep (a man gracious enough to laugh when I asked him if he was ordering the lamb). I was given business advice by a millionaire entrepreneur, too. And all this was before I even saw the talks.
I can't think of anything that would give me such memorable experiences as this.
And I think our attendees each take away something personal too, an idea that might captivate them over time. It might just be entertainment to some, but for others it could be the start of a grand adventure. If there's a restless office worker who'd never got round to enrolling in that web design class, and we helped join the dots for her, that's what makes it worth doing. Maybe a retired probation officer who always had that book idea at the back of his mind - if one of our talks inspires him to pick up that pen and paper, that's what makes it worth doing.
Our event in Salford contributes to this concept by bringing these amazing stories right here, to the heart of the UK. There's a physicality to a conference like this that you simply can't replicate in a video. Being surrounded by a few thousand bright minds, all sharing a passion for world-changing ideas, is a humbling, inspiring experience. Seeing your intellectual heroes on stage a few feet in front of you - well, it's like being at a concert, but for a different kind of rockstar.
Conventional wisdom tells you to 'never meet your heroes.' I'd have to disagree. It makes them human, demystifies their existence, and makes you feel - know, even - that you're just as capable of achieving great things.
The thing that strikes me the most about this project is how empowering it is to all involved. You couldn't imagine another event where, let's say, a frustrated call-centre worker with only a few A-levels to her name would have the chance to have dinner with the physicist who announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Or a shy art student from Yorkshire sharing a taxi ride with a world-famous WWE wrestling champion he idolized as a child.
We're all levelled when we share the same passion; ideas worth spreading.
A day-long event gave me far more stories to share than I could ever fit into a blog post. We've got even bigger plans this year for our attendees. We want to make the event as interactive as possible, so you can take home knowledge, connections and opportunities that you couldn't get by watching from your laptop. I can't wait to see what happens.
And to think it started with an email. An email I thought nobody would respond to, because I couldn't possibly be important enough.
Getting involved with my local TEDx was one of the best things I've ever done, and I'd urge you to do the same. Find your local event, and if it doesn't exist yet, start it up.
Your phone will be constantly buzzing. You will have many inconvenient epiphanies at 3am on a worknight. You will, at times, think that you can't possibly be qualified to be in the same room as some of these people. And above all, no matter what your credentials are, you'll be part of something that can change lives. I promise you, it's worth the sleepless nights.
The third TEDxSalford is taking place this year on 10 November at The Lowry Theatre, Greater Manchester.
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