Jessi Hempel has written a fascinating account of what it’s like to go to one of those TED Idea Conferences in San Francisco. For her, the best benefit of attending the $8500 event is one of the hardest to achieve: one has to listen. That’s all, just listen:
“Listening is hard—rather like trying to read Anna Karenina when you haven’t picked up a novel in awhile. It requires us to be present. And many of us will fail, sneaking a surreptitious glance at our iPhones. But it only takes one moment—one Instagram photo liked, one tweet sent—to thrust us out of the company of our peers and cause us to lose focus. Halfway through yesterday afternoon, I turned on the out-of-office responder on my email. I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Fair enough. But does this mean what I think it means? Has it become that hard to sit still and listen? Does no one sit and listen to a high school or college lecture any more? Has no one the patience to hear a Sunday sermon these days? Do people actually sleep, doodle, or eat their way through staff meetings in 2016? The answer to the last question is yes, but I can think of many occasions when such behavior did not happen, and I can look back on half a lifetime of listening to both lectures and sermons in the front row without either trying to lead the choir all by myself as a five-year-old or nodding off as Dr. DeHart lectured us on Cognitive Dissonance in Psychology class.
When I was about fifteen, Sperry-Rand Corporation ran a whole series of television commercials voiced by Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), whose tag line was, “At Sperry-Rand, we know how to listen.” The company was, as so many firms are, an idea factory, but Sperry knew that it wasn’t enough that some thinker could have ideas. It also knew that those ideas had to be kicked around and analyzed in discussion, and that meant that employees had to have the ability to listen to each other. That skill takes patience to develop and employ, but it is essential for success, even in the present day’s era of Instant Information.
Another of Hempel’s fascinating observations is how various speakers react to having to present a talk or an argument in front of a few thousand people. It isn’t easy. I’ve done it, but I can empathize with the founder of Uber as his hands shook, and the media executive whose teleprompter went on the fritz in the middle of things. Their nervousness is a good thing for them and for us. For them, it’s necessary experience in learning how to deal with such crowds, and it’s a reminder that in some very real ways, those people are answerable to their peers and to the public they serve and profit from. For us, it’s a reminder that, famous though they may be, such men and women are human beings, worthy of both scrutiny and sympathy as they try to defend ideas they say will change the world.