Richard Saul Wurman: The Reluctant Genius

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Richard Saul Wurman is the man who changed the world with the creation of TED – a global platform for the convergence of ideas. All his life he’s rejected confusion and been driven by a personal hunger for understanding and clarity. In the process, Wurman has touched millions of lives with his books and events. But don’t ask him the wrong question as he can be just a bit scary, writes Oliver Haenlein.

Richard Saul Wurman is talking to me from his in-house office in Newport, Rhode Island. As the thought leader who dreamed up TED, it’s no surprise that he is surrounded by books – but slightly more curious are the jars behind him filled with peculiar-looking possessions. Among these are teddy bears – one that’s been to Mount Everest, one that’s been to the Bismarck, and one that’s been to the Titanic. Under one jar there’s even a bear that’s been held by a bear itself; “that was up in Alaska,” he explains. Also, under glass is a pair of sneakers which the artist Dale Chihuly dripped paint on for him. I ask if these quircky keepsakes are important to him; “they’re interesting,” he replies.

His every sentence exudes eccentricity and invites curiosity and alternative insight. I quickly realise that this will not be a run-of- the-mill interview.

“Do you mind if I ask you about…”, I’m sharply interrupted before I can put my question to Mr Wurman. “You don’t have to ask me to ask me,” he says. “Why do you say ‘can I ask you?’, when that’s what I’m here for?” He seems genuinely exasperated. Here is a man hell-bent on clarity, completely intolerant of incoherence.

The 80-year-old veteran has dedicated his life to understanding, to making the complex clear. He is a creator of conferences, including TED, the recognised pioneer of information architecture, author of 83 books, cartographer, painter, architect, designer, information theorist, and teacher in a range of notable institutions, including Cambridge and Princeton.

TED is perhaps his most famous creation. He came up with the idea in 1984 after noticing the need for a platform for experts in technology, entertainment, and design to come together. However, even within the field of conferences this has been just a small part of his curriculum vitae; he also set up the EG, Ted MED, California 101, and WWW events, among others.

But what triggered such a hunger for understanding? What has driven him to sort through such a massive volume of information and come up with so many innovative ideas?

Quite simply, he says, “the realization that I didn’t know anything; it was this terrifying moment of ignorance which I’ve carried with me my whole life.”

This was his biggest lesson in life, he adds: “Understanding what it’s like not to understand. That’s actually with me every minute of the day. Thinking about what it’s like not to understand so I can make myself understand. Being a blank slate.”

IN SEARCH OF CLARITY

Wurman preaches understanding and clarity above all else, and puts many of the world’s problems down to a lack of it. When I ask him about leadership, he argues that the face of politics could change if our presidents and prime ministers practiced understanding: “I think the people who are trying to get nominated should not answer any questions or make any speeches about what they would do when they are in office.

“They should just try to take three subjects – health, wealth and one other, make them utterly understandable and say that I can’t know what I would do, what my policy will be a year and a half from now, because that’s just a con job. Because I can’t deliver on it, and nobody has delivered on it in the last 50 years.

“But above that, they don’t make anything understandable, nobody understands what any policy is, nobody understands what we’re really fighting about.”

He tells me that he considers living every day with incoherence and frustration to be an “abuse”.

We move onto education, and Wurman tells me that we could do a lot to improve our approach to learning and the concept of understanding: “Learning is remembering what you’re interested in. We go on signing up for courses we’re not interested in; memorisation, throwing things up on a piece of paper, being marked, forgetting them, and then going on to the next one.

“Why is it a board of education and not a board of learning? Why does learning not start with people’s curiosity? Why do teachers lecture you instead of having a conversation with you, and celebrating the conversation, and find out what your interests are and connect those interests? It seems an obvious thing to do.”

His dissatisfaction with the education system is obvious, and Wurman clearly becomes frustrated with what he considers to be convoluted, unclear and untruthful. He doesn’t mince his words, and this approach hasn’t always gone down well. Only two bosses didn’t sack the TED creator throughout his career.

“People think when you’re telling the truth you’re abrasive,” he says.

“We’re always trying to look smart, we say ‘uh-huh’ even though we don’t understand because we don’t want to question what our boss says, so we go through life lying to each other. I think telling the truth passes for not being part of the team, when actually it shows someone’s interest, curiosity and courage.”

“I’m not a rebel, I wasn’t an unruly student in high school, I didn’t misbehave. But at the same time the principal and class adviser at graduation wouldn’t shake my hand because they knew I knew.”

I ask him what it is they knew he knew; “that they weren’t so smart”, he replies. “And they were doing everything wrong.”

FINDING PATTERNS

Wurman has had an enormously varied career, but he believes in finding patterns which tie disciplines together. That’s where the famous TED concept came from: he saw there was a convergence between tech, entertainment and design. “I hated all conferences that I’d been to”, he says, “so I tried to design some way of getting these people together so I could see if there was something that occurred if they recognised and embraced the idea.”

He explained that these industries were starting to do some interesting work in 1980s, but without the realisation that they needed each other. You couldn’t do technology without working with designers, you couldn’t do the design without technology, and entertainment needed both.

“So they were all in bed together but they never looked to their left and right,” he explains, “but by embracing that and making more of it, it popped everything. All our technology, everything that Apple did, everything that the movies have done, everything that architecture and design has done, it all embraces each other all the time. This gave everybody permission to say yeah, ‘I can talk to everybody’”.

He adds: “The big idea was this convergence, nobody understood what I was talking about, but it was there to see. We’re still in the midst of various convergences. There is a merger going on between things in order to do clearer work and go on this strange journey which we call progress.”

Wurman’s eternal search for understanding and clarity has been a cause for great positive change in the world. His realisation of the convergence of industries, and his enthusiasm for and elevation of platforms for honest discussion such as TED have brought a wealth of information and progress to the world. But he insists that he never had great goals of positive transformation: “I’m a minor figure, I only have a small life, I don’t have grand plans for changing the world,” he says.

“I have a passion for clarity and to understand things. I have no missionary zeal, I know I’ve had an effect on things but it’s not because I was trying to have an effect, the effect happened because I was trying to do good work. I’m not proactively a missionary but I do know that if you do good work it might affect people in a positive way.

“I can’t type, I have no skills, and I certainly can’t pole vault – I’ve never tried to pole vault. I’ve never played golf – I don’t do anything except think about ideas and how to find a path that’s been there all the time, but that has no detours on the way, that’s just clear.”

Wurman’s eccentricity resurfaces when I ask him what work he values most in his career. He dismisses the concept of legacy and refuses to reminisce. He replies: “My next conference and my next book and my next speech. I don’t look backwards at all. ”

UNDERSTANDING UNDERSTANDING

His next book is called ‘Understanding Understanding’, focusing, it seems, on the very concept around which his fascinating career has been based.

“It’s been a revelation to me because I never thought about it before. I used the word understanding a lot in my life but I never realised how complicated understanding is, and how many different ways we understand things.

“It’s obvious we understand from numbers, words, and pictures and a combination of those things, but even beyond that there still are many idiosyncratic ways that various people understand things,” he says.

Wurman is showing no signs of slowing down, he’s also working on yet another conference: ‘555’, which makes predictions on what will happen in five years time.

He explains: “The conference makes the next five years disappear and the presentations will be five or six ideas that will happen in five years. How does the world prepare and what are the unintended consequences?”

The conference aims not for incremental change, but for radical ideas. This is something Wurman feels passionately about: “The biggest problem is most people, most countries, most businesses are focusing their energies on incremental change instead of radical changes.

“I remember when there were radically different times and the world went on fine and we thought what we had was the best it was going to be. Everybody thought, ‘what more is there to do’? There is so much more to do that is so radically different. And we should understand that.”

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