Interview: Richard Saul Wurman, co-founder of the TED Conference

saul wurman
Melissa Mahoney/Creative Commons

Richard Saul Wurman is best known for co-founding the TED Conference in 1984 and chairing the event until 2002, when he sold it to Chris Anderson. He has written and designed more than 83 books, including his most popular, “Information Anxiety,” which examines today’s troves of data pretending to be useful information. Wurman is an abrasive but undeniably brilliant man who is constantly attempting to satisfy his curiosity and better understand the world. He still creates conferences and is currently finishing up a new book, “Worship the God of Understanding,” which he says will be his last. He sat down with the Weekender recently to discuss TED, curiosity and everything else. After a series of conversations, Wurman agreed to speak on the record.

Daily Cal: Thank you for agreeing to the conversation we’re about to have. I really appreciate it.

Richard Saul Wurman: Why don’t you thank me after it’s finished, maybe you won’t appreciate it.

DC: I think the last time we spoke …

RSW: Don’t ask me … off the table why did I start TED? Why did I get the idea? How did I start it? All of that stuff, I’m so bored with that question I can’t tell you. Most people just ask me about that, and I’m bored with that.

DC: I wanted to talk to you about this moment that you had when you were younger, you were at the top of your class at the University of Pennsylvania and then you realized you were completely, 100 percent ignorant. How did you come to grips with that?

RSW: I was 19 or 20. And I just realized that all I knew was what I was taught. Don’t ask me why it occurred to me, but it was terrifying for just a moment, and then it seemed to give purpose to my life. I continued to be the top student in my class. I continued taking more courses than anyone else. I did not become terribly successful for quite a while because I kept on questioning that I didn’t understand things which doesn’t get you ahead in this world and you seem stupid. But I maintained my curiosity and set the rule of not trying to look smart, trying to be the dumbest person in the room.

DC: OK.

RSW: I will bring TED up. TED was about me being the dumbest person in the room. I always invited people who were smarter than me.

DC: I think a lot of people who watch TED see it as something that is trying to change the world, but that’s not what you wanted to do?

RSW: Absolutely not — that is what they are doing now, and it’s totally different than what I had in mind. I wanted to do the best conference in the world. I wanted to learn. I did not want to change the world. It’s obviously had an effect when I ran it, and it’s had an effect when the current people run it. There’s really quite a difference in who you invite to speak, what they speak about. For instance, I never had a CEO, you could never sell a charity, you couldn’t sell a book. I didn’t have a politician. Now it’s mostly made up of people selling charities, politicians and CEOs. So there’s a fundamental difference. I wanted to have people who had ideas that I didn’t understand.

DC: So, did you want to sell TED because you wanted to move onto something more interesting?

RSW: I sold it because I was incrementally making it better and I wasn’t terrified anymore. When you’re not terrified, you don’t think of new ideas. I missed it. I was sort of petulant about it; I missed being on stage, but then I created other conferences and other things since. I miss everything I’ve done.

Why did you want this interview? What’s it for?

DC: I really appreciated the way you follow your curiosity. You don’t let anybody tell you what to do, and I feel a lot of kids here in college, they think they are smarter than everybody. They really don’t embrace that they don’t know anything.

RSW: You’re recording this, I hope.

DC: Yes. Of course.

RSW: Well, that’s not true of kids — that’s true of everybody.

Well, I don’t really give a shit what other people do. I really care about engaging my curiosity and doing things I don’t understand. Running conferences on things I’m curious about. Talking to people who I learn from. That’s all I’m interested in. I don’t care if other people do that or not. I don’t keep my books in print; they are all going out of print. I don’t keep my files or my records. I will leave no legacy.

DC: I know you do a lot of things to kind of spur your own curiosity and your own happiness. But do you believe that a lot of what you do, the by-product of that has a large effect on society. Like what you’re doing with Urban Observatory, do you think about what that could do for cities?

RSW: Pretty much, what I want to do is invent this new cartography and solve a problem. I’m not trying to change the world. Obviously, it will have an effect, but that’s what happens sometimes.

DC: Now, your parents had modest jobs, your father was a cigar maker. Your mother’s side were butchers. Where did this drive for intellectual curiosity come from? Did your parents push you toward this?

RSW: No. I don’t think they pushed me; my father was a very brave man. He didn’t go to college, but he was really bright. Read an enormous amount. Was curious. Filled with charisma, and I never thought I would be as smart as he is. Turns out, maybe I am. I didn’t think so. He really impressed me as I grew up.

I don’t think anybody knows where it comes from. Where anything comes from. They certainly were not in the arts, and I went into the arts — I went into architecture. So they really didn’t have any idea what I ever did. That’s alright. I have some grandchildren that are smarter than I am. Two of my three sons: One is as creative as I am, and one is smarter than I am.

DC: So you wrote “Information Anxiety” back in the ’80s, and I’m so surprised how relevant it is today.

RSW: I’m doing my last book now and so I was paging through “Information Anxiety,” and I have to tell you, I am astonished at how undated it is. And how good it was. I couldn’t write as good a book now.

DC: I never would have came across it if I didn’t talk to you last time.

RSW: It is fresh and contemporary as anything out there. I was really pleased with it. That is not braggadocio, because it doesn’t speak so well for who I am today. Or speak as well or some of my other books. I think it’s OK, though.

DC: So how do you think the kids of today are going to get over the fear of missing out?

RSW: I don’t give a fuck. You keep on going back to that and you’re going to get the same answer. I don’t really care. I am on my journey. I am not a cultural critic. I am a critic of myself. I’m trying do better work. I think my next book will be really quite good.

DC: What’s the next book on?

RSW: It’s called “Worship the God of Understanding.” It’s not an academic book, it’s not a textbook, it has maybe 100 chapters, maybe 70 of them will be done by me, and 30 will be done by friends.

Now we understand, the idiosyncratic, hundred ways we understand. We understand things in multiple ways. Sometimes there is a few of the guest chapters where it clearly shows that a person makes something very complex and understands it in a group of one, only in a particular way by mind-melding with the information or the person he is understanding, as an individual act, almost as method-acting. It’s not a textbook or a generalization or course of study — it’s my interest in looking at the fabric of how people understand. It’s highly illustrative, it’s gorgeous, and I’m really excited working on this book.

DC: And you said this is your last book?

RSW: Yeah. It’s a biography of all my ideas. Not an autobiography, just a biography of my ideas. Not a chronological order or anything like that.

DC: Are you going to let anybody write a biography on you?

RSW: No. I just told you earlier on there would be no legacy.

DC: But you’re still doing another conference. When does the 555 conference hit the stage?

RSW: That’s on Finding the Future First, five-year game changed, 25 game-changing ideas 25 years from now.

DC: Are you going to give your own prediction?

RSW: The fact that I’m curating it means that they are all my predictions.

DC: How do you go about curating information and staying up to date with only your own interests so that you don’t get “information anxiety.”

RSW: Well I talk about it in length in “Information Anxiety.” If I’m interested in something, I don’t feel guilty about not being interested in others.

I’m teaching a little bit now; if there is any thought about how people learn, it’s by being given permission by a mentor. Not by being lectured to.

DC: And how do you feel about a teacher who lectures with only questions?

RSW: That’s OK. That’s the Socratic method. That’s OK. That’s better than being read to out of the professor’s book that he is trying to sell in the college bookstore.

DC: I’m two-thirds of the way into a semester, and I can count on my hands how many questions students have asked.

RSW: Well, it’s harder to ask a good question than to give a brilliant answer.