The Power Of Ted

By Mitchell Kriegman   |   June 4, 2020
Mark Sylvester draws on everything (photo by

This is a story about moving from Chaos to Order. We need that right? It’s also about the Adventures of Mark and TED. Who is TED? The question is rather what? TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design and at this point it’s an American media institution, a publicly sourced think tank, that holds conferences all around the world and posts talks online for free under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” Ok, well then, who is Mark? Mark Sylvester is a local Santa Barbara genius, a man who helped develop the computer 3D animation software called Maya that revolutionized the way the world is entertained, that includes Pixar, DreamWorks, LucasFilm and all the special effects in between. He’s also the host and executive producer of TEDx Santa Barbara, and the podcast series Hacking the Red Circle, the creator of PodClass with California Lutheran University’s School of Management, a storyteller, a fanatical lover of cats, a chef, and an improv comedian. Phew. He’s a very busy person even for a once in a lifetime shutdown in a pandemic quarantine.

A New Tedx Forum: Making Waves

Most importantly Mark knows how to unlock the Power of TED – great minds who don’t think alike and create new and useful innovation. Starting this Wednesday at 4 pm Pacific Time, he’s launching “Making Waves: Conversations with Innovators and Disruptors,” a series of short virtual talks, highlighting discussions of hope and optimism while showcasing actionable solutions with local and national experts and activists that include Sigrid Wright CEO of the Community Environmental Council, Katie Hershfelt of Cultivate Events, and best-selling author, scholar and theologian Noah benShea, and many others.

The Ubiquitous TED Red Circle (photo by

Some of the topics will include; our Food Supply, BioTech, Psychology, Resiliency, Impact on Gatherings, Retail, The Environment, Energy, the Ocean, Social Justice, Civil Discourse, Education, Creativity, and Animal Activism, to name a few minor subjects of pressing, urgent interest.

We need ideas, right? This guy’s got them. Even better he knows where to find more.

The Need for Bright Minds and Pathways of Recovery

Sara Miller McCune, businesswomanand one ofSanta Barbara’s leading philanthropists, remarked early in the COVID crisis, that “the issues of looking for ways to react to the pandemic, both during its unknown length and during its undoubtedly very long period of recovery, are huge. The sooner bright minds start discussing and developing pathways to recovery, the better off we will all be.”

Whether we like it or not we’re all in fact participating in a worldwide thought experiment with real world consequences, looking for the solutions to this extraordinary moment. TED is the definition of bright minds discussing and developing pathways.

The much-parodied classic TED talk with its Mensa Society allure and by now predictable emotional arc and occasionally smug visionary-speak, has, in truth, transformed the level of public discourse for the better. It has made the idea of ideas cool, even sexy, and improved the level of data presentation, created a new demand for world changing ideas and reintroduced personal passion into what used to be sober dry proceedings, upping the ante on authenticity. Perhaps its most important contribution is re-introducing the idea of a journey and storytelling as crucial to public speaking.

TED can often seem nerdy, in its own quarantine universe, but it is home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world, hosted all over the world. And they’re constantly searching for ways to innovate and expand in unique multidisciplinary ways. TED is also a process, a concept, and a principle of intellectual endeavor even when it’s about other nonintellectual endeavors. It’s a society of thinkers, a place to discover new ideas, and a place to belong if you’re a thinker, important now in this chaos more than ever.

Founded in 1984 (why does that year ring a bell?), TED is the main organization based in New York City. TEDx is a branch of the larger TED family. The X stands for independently organized event, anybody can apply to do a TEDx in their town if there isn’t already one there. A major change happened to the TED world when it transferred ownership in 2003 from Richard Saul Wurman to Chris Anderson. Some might say that this was the point in which TED became a bit more eccentric, while others criticized the transition.

The local Santa Barbara chapter of TED was launched by Mark Sylvester, its playful pan-like interlocutor. He launched TEDx Santa Barbara in 2010 and is now executive producer. Mark has a passion for connecting people and ideas. He talks in a constant flow of concepts and structures, mottos, mantras, and catch phrases. His favorite during this interview was, “If I was to wear a tee shirt right now with three words on, it would say ‘every moment matters.’” The phrase comes up again and again as any good mantra should.

Adaptation to COVID

The TED community sprang into action immediately adapting to the virus crisis – if you can say that about a bunch of intellectuals. But Big TED as Mark sometimes calls the New York office made a number of moves as the pandemic took hold. Chris Anderson, the British-American businessman who is the head of TED, created TEDConnects, which is a curated conference every morning during the week at 9 am for free. Remarkably anybody in the world can join. The first TEDConnects was hosted by Susan David on March 23, a Harvard medical psychologist who spoke on the psychology of being your best self during this time of crisis and the importance of emotional agility. Over 10,000 people signed in for the first TEDConnects, and more continued to join as figures like Bill Gates, formerly of Microsoft, and Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best seller Eat, Pray, Love, followed suit.

TED Circles was another innovation. The idea for TED Circles originated pre-virus but has since become a major source of community gathering and innovation online. Anybody can sign up to become a host of a circle, and there is typically a talk of the week that the group watches and then discusses. The organizer can invite 11 friends and they actually show up in a circle on the screen. Ted even created a workbook to help organizers guide conversations in their own circles, all over the world. All of this has led to an even more massive adaption of TED’s methodology across the world becoming part of many people’s daily lives in quarantine.

Physically Distant – Socially Near

“We might be physically distancing but socially we’re actually closer,” Mark remarked and this rings true for the 4,000 or so TEDx organizers who meet daily on Zoom to discuss what needs to be done in the world. When Mark decided to start a working group to consider writing a playbook for virtual event production, he had so many responses that he “blew up the internet.” These innovators are leaning in to Zoom and other video meeting apps in order to find out what they can do. They have ‘open mike’ hangouts where the organizers from around the world can have thirty seconds to share a hack that was helping, or give voice to any other interesting ideas that are arising.

As dependent as all this virtual organization is on planning and predictability, Mark’s mercurial inclinations began to innovate the staid, ubiquitous forum of Zoom. Rather than having a serious, sterile meeting, he began to play with the idea of virtual dance parties and games.

This is consistent with his love of storytelling and improv comedy. Improvisational comedy is in many ways its own logical system with its own rules and dynamics.

“Improv has replaced jazz as America’s most popular art,” according to Sam Wasson in his book Improv Nation. Improv is a rapid-fire art of unscripted performance that despite being utilized to create “comedy” could truly be applied to any creative endeavor. As Wasson remarks, it’s all about “the driving tension between freedom and form.”

Mark sees improv as an important “mental exercise and mental calisthenics.” It’s a space where the organizers can freely share with unselfconscious and even unconscious freedom. It’s a higher structural understanding of improv, that elicits a schoolteacher’s desire to add an “e” at the end. What attracted Mark to TED from the very beginning, “was that sense of seeing something from a different point of view, understanding it differently and always asking the question, what does the world need to know and why do they need to know it now?”

That turns out to be a very useful question especially in these troubled times.

Moving from Chaos to Order

Apply the freedom vs form dynamic of improv comedy to any creative form or thought endeavor and it’s easy to see how the civilized world has shifted into a literally life and death struggle between Chaos and Form.

It speaks volumes that it is easy to describe the state of the world right now as chaos. Forms old and new are swirling around in our lives. Some are antiquated, some are useful and are worth reviving, some need to be retired or will just naturally die off.

“From Chaos to Order in Four Circles” – The green outer circle represents the Chaos of any situation. Pay attention to the bubbles, as they represent the ideas and information you may be dealing with. The pink ring of Complexity offers the first level of beginning to cluster the chaos into boxes. The yellow ring, Complicated, shows the way the bubbles are interrelated. By breaking each one Order, the orange circle, is achieved.

In the process of discussion Mark instantly and restlessly pulls out his sketchbook and begins drawing. It’s odd at first. The spontaneous drawing reminds one of the archetype of a professor at a chalkboard, but also a child drawing with colored pencils or even the symptoms of OCD, after all, every good thinker has to have a little obsessive behavior to stay on focus. Soon color markers appear and the entire sketch of what he is trying to say as he speaks comes to life, taking shape in words, forms, figures, and arrows. He is practiced in this process and the drawing drives more fully formed concepts to come to the fore.

“Every coach has a coach,” Mark says. “My coach is Scott Mann, he’s a retired Lieutenant Colonel Green Beret. He’s taking me to school on all the lessons he learned in the military, how we go from chaos to order.”

Sure enough, as the conversation unfolds, a chart, a kind of infographic appears, depicting the process of channeling chaos to order which is in fact the graphic that accompanies this article produced in real time.

The Mind of Mark

This process is a glimpse into the mind of Mark Sylvester. He is constantly drawing and diagramming the world of thought around him. He mentally floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, improvising and drawing his way to light and understanding. For every ounce of Mark that is intellectual, there is another ounce that is equally an artist. By drawing out a vicious problem such as the chaos the virus has caused, he puts words and thoughts into each ring in order to visualize a path to a solution.

The true power of TED lies with people like Mark, always willing to restlessly gnaw on a problem, and gather and curate other restless minds and bring them together in the famous Red Circle that lies empty at the beginning of every talk until someone walks on stage and fills it.


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