The past week I have been slightly depressed and in several different ways, in mourning. When I arrived at the TEDGlobal conference two weeks ago, I met old hands who joked about the “TED-ache” that would follow the end of the conference. They dropped a trail of aphorisms like bread crumbs about the sense of loss and exhaustion that would follow the conference, as if to guide us through the enormity of the experience that we were about to have, and to help us find our way out of the loss when it was all over.
TED is insanely intense. It is a hyper-stimulated environment fueled by massive dopamine shots ingested from swimming in a sea of amazing ideas and people. It is fueled by oxytocin: 100 times a day you shake hands, hug and touch people who are genuinely keen to meet and know you. It is the biggest amusement park for grown-ups I have ever seen. I had less than fours hours sleep every night for a week and yet did not feel tired. As someone who needs lots of sleep this is clearly not normal, which is why it is not surprising that many people – including me – report crashing afterwards. And not surprisingly many come back year after year to get their fix.
TEDGlobal is so intense that I found myself very emotional: laughing, crying and smiling most of the time. But you know what was perhaps the best of all? There was almost no negativity. Imagine that: a week without negativity, just a euphoric celebration of humanity surrounded by great, can-do people.
Attending TEDGlobal reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s commentary about life:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.”
TED gives an intense experience of being alive but it is also about the meaning of your life. As I paged through the notes I took during the talks I found “TED gives you a healthy sense of shame” scrawled in big letters at the bottom of one page. Surrounded by so many amazing people there is a very real opportunity to feel small. Fortunately arrogance is in short supply and that is lucky because no matter what you base your sense of self-worth on, there is someone there who is doing it better than you. But instead of depressing me, it showed me what is possible. The participants as much as the speakers are role models of a life well-lived, a life infused with meaning.
The intense sense of community and shared aspirations that exists at TEDGlobal in a brief island in space and time is like being inside a Star Trek movie in which humanity has reached above pettiness and war, and found a higher mission based on exploration and federation. At TED you have the chance to be the best version of yourself. Which is one of the reasons why leaving and returning to the “real world” is painful. Just like with Burning Man, decompression after the event is difficult.
The emotions felt after TED are varied. Apart from coming down from the potent natural cocktail of adrenaline, dopamine and oxytocin and the loss of the best-version-of-yourself, you must deal with the loss of people with whom you have just met but with whom you share a genuine deep connection. We have not evolved skills to deal with making deep connections only to have them ripped away a week later. Then there is the distortion of time…
I remember bumping into a new TED friend whom I hadn’t seen for fifteen minutes, or perhaps fifteen hours. We hugged and joked that we hadn’t seen each other for ages and in TED-time, it was true. Since we had last seen each other we had laughed, cried, given standing ovations and partied. In the normal course of life that much emotional hiking up and down might have required six months. At TED it happens in a matter of hours. After TED one returns to a slow-motion world filled with slowly drying paint and a world with no empathy for what is an unashamedly first-world problem. How does one explain all this experience to people who have never attended TED?
Ironically the only people who can understand what you are going through are other TED participants. But they are no longer directly part of your life. And since it is your separation from them that is a major cause of your pain you are left with a strange quandary…reaching out for support intensifies your suffering!
But don’t get me wrong. These pangs of growth are totally worth it. Father’s Day was two days after TED closed but because of a cancelled flight I spent it alone in a Holiday Inn in Slough, near Heathrow, instead of spending time with my father. But in a strange twist of fate I was with him, because he was born in Slough; in a totally different world; one that had the shadow of Hitler looming over Europe. As I sat there I mused about the different roles of a Father: to love, to provide a safe haven to explore the world, to educate, to facilitate the learning of life lessons, to encourage, to excite, to provide growth experiences, to teach how to be happy… Seen through this lens, TEDGlobal is very much like a father; it provides its participants with all these things and more, carried lovingly through a beautifully choreographed and orchestrated living art work.
800 people have gone out into the world temporarily a little down and depressed perhaps, but ultimately equipped and inspired to make the world a much better place. If you ever get the chance to go attend one of the TED conferences, go for it. It will change your life.
I would like to express my sincerest thanks to the TEDx and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teams for the opportunity to attend the 2013 TEDGlobal conference. You can learn more about hosting your own TEDx event here and more about TEDxChange here. Locally we run the TEDxAIMS event.
Update: 14 July 2013. Henrik has a personal and much more useful summary of the conference here which I recommend!