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Out in the Open

“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” the 17th century philosopher Pascal famously said. Four centuries later, however, research asserts a direct correlation between openness and happiness. It turns out humans are social animals, after all. “Openness is the freedom to be one’s self,” one self-help blog states, representative of common belief. I concur. In my life, openness has been a prerequisite for almost anything good happening to me – from moving to the U.S. to meeting my wife to, most recently and fittingly, speaking at a TED conference focused on the theme of “Radical Openness.”

The talk I gave at TED University (TED U), the pre-program to the TEDGlobal conference a month ago in Edinburgh, was based on an article called “Designing for the Loss of Control” that I had written almost three years ago. From open-source to open innovation to open leadership, comfort levels and standards around openness have significantly changed since then, so that I had to rethink and overhaul my content.

Many organizations have come to realize that embracing openness is key for cooperation as an effective defense mechanism in the reputation markets. But not only that: Openness is now also recognized as a main driver of value-creation. Later in the conference, on the TEDGlobal main stage, Rachel Botsman, one of the most popular advocates of the business models of ‘Collaborative Consumption’ (taken to market by start-ups from Skillshare to Task Rabbit) heralded reputation as the new capital of the 21st century. Openness, in her eyes, serves as the foundational attribute of the ‘share economy,’ in which resources are pooled and leveraged collectively for greater ‘social’ value – based on reputation and trust.

I must have practiced the opening lines of my TED U talk at least 200 times. I gave my talk – to my wife, my two year old, my colleagues, and mostly just to myself – at airport lounges, in the shower, in the car, on airplanes, during strolls, for weeks and weeks, until my body had internalized every single word and I could simply focus on the performance, on creating a connection with the audience by intonating the non-verbal. (For more insights into the psyche of a TED talker and the preparation rituals, read this recent New Yorker piece).

I was the first speaker on the second day of TED U. After waiting for 20 minutes backstage, it was time, and a friendly staff member pushed me on stage, as is the custom. It was a not-so-subtle nudge to now open up and accept that I needed to embrace my own vulnerability in the limelight of the TED stage. The comfort of strangers is not only a refuge, I thought afterwards, but a necessary force towards initiation.

Openness is a function of time and space, and the economy of a TED talk is a stark reminder that intensity does not necessarily correlate with density. In other words, leaving things open, creating open, uncharted space, is an essential luxury when it comes to making meaning. It is stunning how much content you can condense into a six minute talk (the format of my talk at TED U). What you decide to exclude is as important as what you decide to include, to paraphrase Chris Anderson, the curator of TED. In the same spirit, composers and music producers know that adding another track on a recording does not expand the sound, it reduces it. The richest and most intense recordings you can conjure are those with a single instrument and a voice. That’s the beauty and power of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and Johnny Cash’ American Recordings.

This is true for TED Talks, too. The most popular ones, the genre-classics, are the talks that are radically open by being radically restrained. They create something out of nothing. Sir Ken Robinson, Alain de Botton, and Malcolm Gladwell, to name just a few, did away with slides, movies, or other props, knowing that there’s nothing more persuasive, more powerful than the intimacy of the human voice. The speaker exposing himself to the audience. A trust-based act of cooperation, an implicit contract with those out to judge him.

The iconic red circle that marks the TED speaker’s spot on stage serves as a symbol of reduction and expansion at the same time. It is you and others’ idea of you, and how you both confirm and overcome, perform and transform it. If you stay within that circle – literally and metaphorically – you are not only safe, you are powerful.

Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.