Speaker Ambassador welcome + program kick-off at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2021, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Last week it was my privilege to serve as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Speakers Ambassadors are former TED speakers who are assigned a new speaker(s) with whom they will work. They are there to help folks prepare to present their talks and navigate the TED experience, before, during, and after the event. It is an honor to work with these incredible speakers. You are in awe of who they are and what they have accomplished.

Not only do you get to work with speakers, you also enjoy the camaraderie that exists within the team of Speaker’s Ambassadors. It is an eclectic group of fascinating, accomplished folks, each of whom has given their own TED Talk. We are all under the direction of Susan, Jordan, and Nehemiah, TED employees who keep us motivated with their ever-present energy.

One of the things I love about attending a TED event is the amazing cross pollination you experience. I spend a fair amount of time with other pastoral counselors, pastors, and psychotherapists. But rarely do I get to spend time with people from worlds far removed from my own. Last week I was with rocket designers, government leaders, particle physicists, actors, circus performers, museum curators, inventors, surgeons, and people from all manner of other professions. I even talked with the woman whose groundbreaking work on mRNA vaccines might well have saved my life.

Almost without exception these people were brilliant, yet humble and self-effacing. It reinforces the notion that those who truly change the world have equal parts confidence and humility. Interestingly, very few identified as religious. One who did was a Tibetan monk who was funny, engaging, and delightful. His talk was one of my favorites. If memory serves me correctly, he was the only speaker whose talk specifically touched on spirituality.

One fellow-speaker said I should look for another speaker at the event who had once worked as pastor. Turns out she was referring to my son, Jonathan. You don’t see many religious professionals at a TED conference. Which is interesting because I found a lot of those attending to be inherently spiritual. James Hollis describes the soul as the investment by nature in the individual and the spirit as the energy for the journey. These people were full of soul and spirit. They just don’t identify as religious. Given the kind of damage formal religion has done in the world, I can’t say I blame them.

Which brings me back to the cross-pollination at TED. Mingling with those unlike you invites introspection, examination, and innovation. It encourages approaching problems in new ways. During the week I had a major insight into a message I have taken in over the past few months, a message that is not only untrue, but damaging to my soul. When you force your brain out of its usual neural ruts, it creates new insights and even the occasional aha moment. Those moments are inherently soul affirming and spiritually significant.

Whenever I write about my experiences with TED, I know someone will think I am bragging. I hesitate to mention specific conversations, both out of respect for the privacy of the people involved, as well as any notion that I deserve to be in such conversations. These are all gifts, of which I do not feel deserving, but am not about to reject. That would be biting off my nose to spite my face. I consider it all a privilege. Anytime you can interact with people who help you think in new ways, it’s not just good for you, it’s good for the universe. This is how new solutions emerge, as creativity is prompted to move beyond conventional wisdom.

I am unashamedly a fan of TED. I am unashamedly a fan of TEDxMileHigh, the wonderful TED event in Denver that also has an outsize influence in making the world a better place. Recently I have been working with the speakers for their upcoming event. It has been a joy. I have always been curious beyond my own disciplines, a predisposition for which I am grateful. The good fortune I have experienced over the past four years to have my creativity fine-tuned via TED experiences is a blessing for which I am very grateful.

In so many ways my life has been magical and blessed. I never want to take a minute of that wonder for granted.

And so it goes.

The Imposter Syndrome

It is rare to run across an accomplished human who has not experienced the imposter syndrome, the sense that you do not have the qualifications necessary to be doing what you are doing. It could be serving as a Speaker’s Ambassador at TED2022, which I did this past week, or as a pastoral counselor helping clients deal with their own imposter syndrome, or as a corporate speaker.

I rarely feel truly qualified in my areas of endeavor. Every time a counseling client decides they’d like to work with me, I always want to ask, “Don’t you know that my doctorate is a Doctor of Ministry degree, and not a PhD? I mean, my mother certainly knew the difference. The imposter syndrome is common to most of us.

It’s been my privilege to speak with TEDWomen speakers about the imposter syndrome in the weeks leading up to their TED Talks. They all wonder how they were chosen to speak for TED. “Didn’t they mean to invite the other Jane Smith, you know, the one who solved world hunger?” Every speaker nods when I talk about the imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter whether they are astronauts, trapeze artists, or particle physicists. The imposter syndrome is pretty universal.

I do know people who never experience the imposter syndrome. They are the people who are, in fact, imposters. A certain former president comes to mind. Those who never experience the imposter syndrome are those who are unaware of their abiding shadows, those parts of themselves that keep rearing their ugly heads to remind us of our flawed humanity. If the problem is always “out there” and never “in here,” you might be an imposter.

Fortunately, that is not the case for most of us. We are not inclined to say, “I alone can solve this.” We are inclined to say, “I have no idea what I am doing, but if you want me to give it a try, I’ll be happy to do so.” Which is how people end up giving a TED Talk. They keep showing up and giving their best, and eventually they accomplish something that causes people to take notice. They are usually the last to think what they have accomplished is worth noting, however, hence the imposter syndrome.

My first TEDxMileHigh talk has been picked up by “Big Ted” and was released on two weeks ago.  In its first couple of weeks, it’s had 500,000 views, which is not uncommon for a newly released TED Talk. On the other hand, it is a little unusual for a talk that is four years old. I’d like to be excited about that, but since I spend most of my time thinking I didn’t deserve to have the talk picked up by TED in the first place, I have a hard time taking it in.

When I was first crafting the speech, I kept losing my place when I was trying to memorize the talk. I kept getting lost between the same two paragraphs. I finally realized I was losing my place because I needed a transition sentence between the paragraphs. The night before the talk I came up with this – The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. I ran the line by Briar, my coach at TED, and she said, “Perfect.” It ended up being the most quoted line of my talk, a line I used in my next TED Talk, and used again on the dedication page of my memoir.

Before a TED Talk is published, a lot of energy is spent fact checking the talk. “Did that conversation really take place? Can multiple people verify its accuracy? Do you have documented evidence for the statistics you used?” The talk that was published two weeks ago was given four years ago. Before it could be published by TED, I had to verify the accuracy of every story. That included the story of Kyle, the former manager of a Denver bike shop that no longer exists. Though I didn’t know his last name, I found him on the Internet. When I called, he was on vacation in South America. He said sure enough, he remembered the conversation, and would be happy to verify its accuracy. He even told me the name of the employee who had treated me badly. His name was Blake. Of course, it was Blake.

The folks at TED already know you are going to find documentation for everything you say, because they have done their homework before they even ask you to speak. They find people who are not imposters. And what is the best indication someone is not an imposter? Well, I imagine it’s someone who is afraid they are an imposter. Because those are the people who are always filled with self-doubt, working hard to make sure they are not talking out of their behind. They are confident, which has allowed them to achieve some modicum of success, but they are also humble, because they know a lot of their success is because they were in the right place at the right time. They know the part that good fortune plays in achieving success.

I always feel all warm inside when someone acknowledges they are experiencing the imposter syndrome. It usually means they deserve to be receiving the accolades they are enjoying. They’ve done the work to get there. They have benefitted from good luck along the way. And the contribution they make has come from living out the call toward authenticity.

I am very grateful for the TED Talks I have done, and for the success they have had. And yes, I still tend to feel like an imposter.  And so it goes.