Burnout at the Global Campfire (TEDx me too)

At the beginning of TED Summit in 2016, the creator of the modern, open model of TED conference Chris Anderson welcomed all the attendees by suggesting that we are gathering at something like a global campfire. Himself, he’s done a wonderful thing, opening the TED concept to everyone around the Globe using video and by starting and supporting the TEDx movement worldwide.

For those who don’t know what a TEDx is: it is a local festival in the form of a conference, inspired and licensed by TED. It is designed as a fully non-profit, voluntary undertaking. Organising one event takes tens to thousands of hours of working for free with great responsibility, because the product is being compared to professional ones. TEDx still formally focuses on „ideas worth spreading“, the headline it shares with TED (and TED.com), but at the same time it thrives mainly from the people it is able to bring together and connect.

I have been active in a local TEDxPrague community ever since 2010, having contributed to or even fully supervised organisation of more than 20 events, big and small. Since 7 years ago, I have worked on everything from web administration through copywriting, technical production, programme curating and speakers training, to back-office administration, team support and video post-production (i.e. everything except finance and partnerships). Some people call themselves TEDx veterans after 3 big events. I’m kind of a TEDx dinosaur. Or a treebeard.

TEDx is a place to learn. Not from watching TED talks, though. You learn a lot by doing it, living it. And while with TED.com videos, you are free to filter, choose, skip, ignore — to only learn things to your liking, with TEDx-the-real-stuff you may not like what you learn. But that’s how it goes sometimes: when you struggle with the lesson learned, it might have just been an important one for you. Such lessons are plenty.

Six lessons

Lesson one: in a voluntary environment like TEDx, you’re likely to receive unexpected gifts (non-material, thanks God). You’ll be given numerous wonderful opportunities. But too many opportunities without the power to transform them into value — bring frustration. Things that are really valuable will stay with you only if you’re ready and able to receive them. Time to time, someone mentions that „TED(x) makes life-long friendships“. But a real friendship is never given for free or instantly, it grows from working and living side by side through difficult times. It is not created by sharing posts and likes on social media, nor by chatting in a recess between mind-blowing talks on innovative ideas. Merely by co-attending a TED or TEDx conference, friendship is not made. It’s a living thing, it has to be grown. And if you already have a family to care for and you do not travel often and easily, you will not attract too many new shiny friendships anyway. Pen-friends, anyone has them nowadays?

Lesson two: being involved in such a great movement also takes its toll. I haven’t seen this discussed on social media at all, but I’m sure there are many TEDxers that have experienced a serious burnout. But it doesn’t have to get that far. Consider that you’re giving away 5 to 12 hours a week for free on top of commuting and a full-time job. All year long, for several years. How does it affect your family and your work? You meet tens of new people every month. How does it affect your other, old relationships and your ability to maintain them? Well — even the new ones. Personally, I have discovered that recently, I haven’t had time for real connecting because of all the (sometimes shallow) TEDx networking.

Lesson three: unless you’re operating in a mainstream world language, you get much less recognition than you deserve. The videos you produce will spread 10 or 100 times slower than those of your English-speaking (talking) TEDx friends, regardless from the quality or depth of the ideas. No one from the TED headquarters will accidentally drop by to see your event in a minor language. The gap is there and it is not a small one. The desired mission of „changing the world for better“ is much harder to keep or pretend. When you want to serve your small local community, you need to use their mother language. Subtitling your recorded talks into English will take extra hundreds of hours and it won’t make them much more attractive worldwide. English speakers are not used to reading subtitles.

Lesson four: there are bad ways of engaging in a voluntary movement. If you’re the one person who provides for the family, don’t cut down your day job in favour of a hobby. If you’ve got children, don’t spend more time with the attractive global souls and world citizens than with them (or even with your closest neighbours). If you’re happy to get a job offer from a TEDx friend, don’t be naïve thinking that sitting in the same office every day and going out for common team meetings in the afternoons will automatically make all your job, your TEDx efforts and your relationship smoother and easier. If you’re commuting, think twice about what community you want to serve — the one in the city, or a small group of people living closely around you? TEDx can connect you with wonderful people in the wide wide World, but it might at the same time disengage you from those who are closest to you: your family, your immediate neighbours. (Sidenote: TEDx rules do not allow you to hold a license for an event that is not taking place in the „town“ where you live. Which is good.)

Lesson five: even a viral movement like this can become pretty „corporate”. Rules and principles slightly change on-the-fly and there are few in the HQ of TED that remember as much as we do. One thing stays the same: a license is granted to a single person and thought there is an institute of „co-organizer“, in important cases the HQ won’t communicate with anyone else but the licensee. Other privileges are also only limited to them. Being core member of the local team since 2010, I can still not have a „TEDx organizer“ badge at my TED.com profile (it’s been removed in 2015 and after one year of questioning, I was told it should have never been there, because only the licensees deserve it). Nevertheless, big license can be held only by someone who’s been to TED, which is not necessarily the most active member of the team but rather the most assertive or richest. Some things like opening a new event nearby is rarely communicated from the HQ to the existing local teams — when applying for a license, there’s still more emphasis on theoretical fine-tuning of event details via questionnaires sent to New York than on first connecting with those who already “are TEDxers“ just around the corner. Well, TEDx brand is still owned by corporate people, not the volunteers.

Lesson six: it’s a long way from spreading ideas to really being true to the spoken principles and making a real change. Inspiration is never enough to change the world, it needs to be followed by actions. Sharing hopeful insights feels really energising and exciting. But it’s quite easy to get yourself high on regular short-term excitement and still do nothing valuable. When you say you’re “changing people’s lives through telling stories at the global campfire”, you’d better check that having a child and spending time with them — or even a well donated $100 bill would not result in a more substantial change in the end.

Please, don’t get me wrong. This should not be read as criticism of the wonderful TEDx movement. I’d just like to show you an example (a very personal one) of a dedicated volunteer that has simply taken his volunteering maybe too far. I am kind of obsessed with risk-spotting and sustainability and that lead me to formulating the above described lessons. And I’m particularly interested in sustainability of TEDx, because there’s been a lot talking and writing about sustainability of businesses, much less about sustainability of strictly voluntary movements. At TEDxPrague, there’s always been a unofficial difference between „the organisers“ and „the volunteers“. Without going into a problematic details of a developed hierarchy, we sometimes neglected one crucial fact: we are ALL volunteers. But while we bring into the team many personal and professional skills from our work, and we search for some to add, complete or even outsource (accounting, graphic design), we easily forget to add one professional area to the whole undertaking: the professional skill of working with volunteers. With us. All of us.

The differences

What makes a voluntary undertaking different from a business as we know it from our working lives?

First, we assume that unlike in business, in volunteering, there are no contracts. What a mistake! The contracts are there, but they are usually a mess, non-written but also unseen, unspoken, badly formulated, misinterpreted. We don’t take them seriously. The most dangerous are those private ones: those that we contract silently with ourselves, and those that we silently expect others to hold for us.

Second, we assume that everybody that joins us is and will be happy and if not, they’d leave. We easily put partial responsibility ON the volunteer (a core one or a satellite one, doesn’t matter) but we rarely take a common responsibility FOR the volunteers and their well-being within the undertaking. When you officially employ someone (fairly, in the Western world), you get your portion of responsibility as an employer. When we invite someone to join in a voluntary movement, do we formulate and take on responsibility for them? Rarely.

Third, we assume that because a volunteers costs us nothing, we can easily spare one or two when they don’t fit or feel well. If only a little sensible, we are serious about finance and accounting. At the same time, we might neglect that the good will and „hearts” of our people is a much more valuable asset than if they were employees.

Four, in business, we usually are fine with two means of extra motivation: money or promotion. Volunteering relies on much more subtle and differentiated rewards — and we usually don’t even think about them, or we limit ourselves again to very simple schemes (we can’t pay ourselves, but we can go for a drink). If you don’t go for a drink with us, you’ll find yourself out soon.

Strengths and weaknesses

At TEDxPrague 2012, an archeologist Miroslav Barta spoke about collapses of ancient civilisations, their reasons and signals. One thing he mentioned has stayed with me ever since: the strength that lead to the rise of a culture is usually later the core reason for its fall. The biggest strength is usually also the biggest weakness of an enterprise.

After a TEDx event, TED itself sends out forms to all of the attendees, asking for feedback. If the audience is satisfied, well done. There’s never any supervision of how the team felt, never a feedback form sent to all the volunteers whose time and efforts we have used to create the event. If a random sponsor’s marketing assistant attends a half-day TEDx event, the head-quarters are eager to count in their evaluation for the event. When some volunteer (not the licensee) invests tens or hundreds (or thousands) of hours into the preparation of such event, we run a risk that nobody will care about their feelings and how they felt under the leading of the „organiser“ (supposedly the licensee). If the resulting video recordings from the event are fine, OK. TED cares about the global client, but who cares about the local servant?

The global movement of TEDx is wonderful in its not-for-profit nature. At TEDSummit 2016 in Banff, even weathered TED attendees mentioned that the atmosphere of a gathering changes profoundly (for better) when the World’s first class thinkers, businessmen and businesswomen and scientists are mixed with crazy volunteering teachers, IT guys, local freaks. TED has created a TEDx HUB portal to leverage exchange of knowledge and there’s a closed Facebook group for organisers of TEDxes (only licensees, sadly, when you apply to join in, you’re again asked, whether you hold a license). A great resource of tips and tricks and mutual support. But when you search these rich channels, you find that there’s one thing almost taboo: burnout. TEDx is an open community promoting open spreading of thoughts, but some things we’d rather swipe under the carpet. Doubts and burnouts are not discussed. Maybe it’s because those that suffer from them are not in the circle anymore, maybe it’s because we don’t want to hurt or discourage each other.

And you too?

To conclude, let me turn to my fellow TEDx co-organisers (especially to those in the shadows, who work hard but do not hold the official license): we’re so good at spreading knowledge about preparation of great presentations. We’re so good at encouraging each other, sharing enthusiasm and energy. We’re so good at being positive and active. We’re proud to be open. Would you like to be open to a final extend and share a little #metoo story about your doubts, about your volunteering struggles, or even about a burnout? I’d really love to hear from you.

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