What Richard Wurman Taught Me (Opinion)

by NAOMI HARRISimage-41

I have never left a panel in which I’ve asked more questions. But upon hearing Richard Wurman, founder of TED Talks, speak to a ballroom full of students, the probing thoughts he left in my mind continue to roam around as I type.

What was his main point?

Sure, he highlighted the lost concept of innovation.

“Everything is an innovation now,” he said with a slight hint of sarcasm because, yes, everyone wants to create the newest thing. We want to generate excitement and make a legacy for ourselves and yet Wurman wants none of that.

He expressed this on October 21st as part of a series of lectures for social change. The series titled, Voices of Social Change, invited Wurman to speak about what he considers social challenges and the goals he accomplished over his life.

“I don’t believe in legacy,” he remarked with his hands locked and behind his back. He walked back and forth across the stage more so as if he was thinking out loud to himself rather than speaking to an audience.

But then he would look up and his glasses would catch a gleam as he smiled and kept going.

Students wait for Richard Wurman to speak at the Voices of Social Change series. (Naomi Harris/Pulsefeedz)

He left me in a state of confusion because he unlocked so many ideas and thoughts that were overwhelming and kept my hands from flying over the keyboard at times because I wanted to think.

I want to think about what I do. I want to think about how I learn and function and essentially live. Am I doing what I love?

I can relate to the curiosity he mentioned as one of the things that triggers his passion to continue learning.

“I have no mission, except my curiosity. I am driven just by how interesting everything is.”

The simple concept of following after what interests you creates another path, something people may find hard to do. We are placed in a system considered to be what we call “successful” because it’s a tradition.

It is a routine we learn from the very beginning.

Education has become a system, at least for me, in which I move on from phase to phase doing the same things. Taking down notes, studying those notes and moving on as fast as possible to become marketable in a competitive world.

The system is indoctrinated so much in me that I lose sight of where I want to end up.

“Everything I’ve done, including yesterday, I’m not interested in,” Wurman said in the beginning of his lecture. This philosophy of his motivates him to keep thinking ahead without too much concern about past failures.

Though Wurman admits that his personality leaves flaws.

He talked about previous failures such as being fired from jobs and kicked off a board of peers for not being smart enough.

“You have to accept that you’re going to fail, and I fail a lot, and I have failed and I still fail.”

But those failures tailored into success because he continued working. In fact, despite those failures Wurman defines intelligence based on his experiences.

“Always reach higher and surround yourself always with people where you can be less than the biggest. That’s what TED was about. Everybody I invited was smarter than me.”

Wurman’s approach to his life taught the ballroom, and even more so, me, that the unknown is much better than being an expert. It is yet another motivator to push us to where we want to go.

Wurman questions things he does not understand, “I work hard at that ignorance. I work hard at having a blank slate in my head.”


The concept of starting a conversation based on ignorance was another central point.

“Our learning experience comes from questioning each other,” he said. One of the examples he gave was the WWW Conference, held in 2012, in which he paired up his guests to simply have conversation with each other.

“I did the most minimalist thing I could do.”

He just set up a space for conversation. From there, attendees were able to learn as they participated in what Wurman called, “intellectual jazz.”

“It was good. It was simple. It was people saying things they have never said before.”

After sitting through a conversation by Richard Wurman, I realized how much I learned by listening to him. He told us stories of his failures, of his accomplishments and the lessons he gained throughout it.

Innovation is important but the idea behind it is lost until we make true change. And what can we change?

We can change our perspective on learning and actually listen to one another.

We can approach situations without previous assumptions because it is a new experience.

I can change how I interact with the system I was placed in since kindergarten and maybe push boundaries. It’s possible because after all Wurman created a space for conversation, so I can too.


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