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  • Writer's pictureLakshmi Pratury

#50over50: Richard Saul Wurman and Chris Anderson (Part 1 of 2)

The Person Behind Personality in my #50over50 list today is the architect of the legendary TED Conference! What you may not know about Richard is that he is also the creator of an unconventional travel guide series. Learn more about that and about other facets of the architect in this article!

If my dozen-plus years at Intel were like being at home with parents, my 25-plus year journey with TED was like living with siblings. You may not always get along with your siblings but you are always there for each other, you often fight and then hug, and you bond because of your shared memories. At TED, I have had two siblings who are polar opposites – Impresario and the introverted; emotional and the other on an even keel – the list can go on. These polar opposites in every possible spectrum, together created a magic land that I entered many moons ago. 

My first TED was in 1993 that was designed by Richard Saul Wurman. In the first hour of the first day of the conference, I felt as though I had found my tribe. I have been that person who found it difficult to specialize in one field. I studied business, theater, creative writing; I have been part of a large corporation, a Venture Capital firm, a non-profit and then an entrepreneur. And I love learning new things. At any given instant, I want to be an astronaut, archeologist, artist, singer, dancer, business leader, game designer, journalist – all at once. So, sitting at my first TED, I met the most talented, diverse set of people one could collect under one roof and I felt completely at home.

To know TED, you need to know Richard first. Richard is an architect who had worked with the likes of Louis Kahn. Beyond designing buildings, he was fascinated by information architecture. Through data presented on a page or a screen, he created a space for design as well. I became a fan of his work even before meeting him. 

When I went to Paris for the first time, I was looking for a travel guide. For most of the readers today, it might seem like a pre-historic time when we could not google details of a destination. But there was a time when you needed to buy a book and a printed map to get around a city. Most travel guides divide the book into museums, dining areas, hotels etc. featured in that city. Richard felt that when people travel, they do not see all museums and then go to eat and then do something fun. They visit a neighborhood and walk around discovering all aspects of that neighborhood. So, he designed his ACCESS travel books by neighborhoods recommending all the things that you can do in that neighborhood, some popular and some well-kept secrets. 

When I visited Paris armed with ACCESS travel book, I read about an iconic “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore run by George Whitman who was friends with Lawrence Ferlingheti who ran City Lights which was one of my favorite book stores in San Francisco. When I visited that bookstore, George invited half-a-dozen of us to his apartment that was on top of the bookstore. His home's walls were lined with letters written to him by famous writers. He let young writers stay there in exchange for working in the store. That led to a dinner invitation and I got to hang out with a great set of writers and poets and thus experienced Paris through its people. Apart from the architectural wonder of Paris, I got to experience the most magical moments by discovering that bookshop. 

So, when I met Richard a year or so later at TED and found out that he was the author of ACCESS travel guides, I was in awe of him. As an information architect in the early years of personal computing, he predicted that one day, there would be so much information exchange that it would need to be organized, visualized and presented in a very different way. If you think of all the data that we are generating today and how the Internet and World Wide Web allow us to gain access to a world of knowledge – what he predicted is what exactly happened today but the genius of Richard is to predict it way before its time. And to visualize this volume of data, he felt that programmers from the technology industry, storytellers from the entertainment field, and designers had to come together. Most of the technologists were in Boston or Silicon Valley, entertainers in Los Angeles, and designers in NY. So, the fusion of Technology, Entertainment and Design became TED and Richard invited 300 of his close friends across all these disciplines to a gathering he called “the dinner party I always wanted to host.” Another thing about Richard is that he is a very curious person about every aspect of life. If he read a book he liked or watched a TV program he liked, he would trace that author or the storyteller and would ask them to tell the story. 

There are three things that Richard did that made this gathering the most unique:

First, the format. There were no parallel sessions or panels and no Q&A with the speaker. The entire audience was together and each speaker got no more than 20 minutes to talk. He wanted it to be like a movie-going experience where everyone was together to watch a flow of talks that he architected.

Then, the content. He spoke to every speaker and made sure that they spoke from the heart. He was not interested in achievements, he was interested in their inner story. He made them vulnerable and real by making them dig deep into themselves. I still remember the talk by Sherwin Nuland that started with something funny revealing the most intimate story of electro-magnetic shock therapy that left me in tears. Each speaker was at their inner best on that stage.

Finally, the most important – the audience. I met legends like architect Frank Gehry, tech founder Scott Cook, and jazz musician Herbie Hancock – all hanging out together for three days as learners, as audience, and not as speakers. In most conferences, these people fly in, give a talk and get out. But here, you met them as your co-learners. The person sitting next to you was as interesting as the person on stage. There were no special seat assignments and we were all treated as one. 

Richard built TED as a solo opera-singer – he was the sole curator of the talks, each talk was an extension of his personal curiosity, and he invited those he liked to the conference. It was an invitation-only gathering where Richard was the magician. And when someone did not follow the rules, he did not hesitate to show his feelings. One of the moments that stands out for me is when the famous leader of MIT Media Labs Nicholas Negroponte went onto the stage to give a talk wearing his tie. Richard’s instructions for each speaker was to be casual on stage and when his close friend Nicholas did not follow that rule, Richard went onto the stage with scissors and cut off his tie that made the audience gasp and guffaw at the same time. And I am sure Nicholas was as shocked as the audience but shook it off because “That’s Richard!" Richard can leave you frustrated and even frightened at times but he is never fake. 

I owe the cultivation of curiosity in my life to the magic that I discovered at TED. So, if Richard was the first sibling that opened the doors for me, the polar opposite and my other sibling Chris is the one that continued that journey to turn my curiosity into my current profession. You need to wait for Part II of this series to know more about Chris... 

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