An Interview with Richard Saul Wurman

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Click here for his introduction.

Richard Saul Wurman (RSW); First of all, your question was, what do I base my success on?

Haegwan Kim (HK); Yes.

RSW; And I said, success is only half of my life, because equal to success is failure. And you should appreciate Ying Yang – it’s more your culture than mine.

HK; Ying Yang?  RSW; Ying Yang.  HK; I have no idea about that. RSW; Y I N G Y A N G. Look it up. Look up Ying Yang.

RSW; Where are you calling from? Where are you sitting?

HK; I am in a hostel in San Francisco.

RSW; Look up Ying Yang.

HK; Ying and Yang. Yes, I just googled it.

RSW; Okay. Now, I believe failure is equal to success, and it is only through failure, what doesn’t work, that I am given direction on what to do next. Next is very important because it’s my next project, and I have to have a next project – or several next projects – that I create, because nobody ever asks me to do anything. I regret that. I would like to feel wanted. I would like to feel that people wanted me to do things, but they don’t. I don’t know why they don’t. My track record is good, but I’m not asked to do things. Maybe it’s because I am so pompous and abrasive that people don’t, or they think I am too busy that they don’t ask me to do things.

However, since I am not asked to do things, I have to create every project. So, I’ve done 31 major conferences, I’ve written 82 books. Each one was something I did myself, and each one was either self-published if it was a book, I don’t have a publisher, I don’t have an agent, I don’t have a PR person, I don’t have a partner who funds me. I just do things. All right? When I do a conference, I get up and decide to do a conference, whether it’s the TED conference, the TEDMED conference, the EG conference, or whatever. I just create them because I decide to do them. I didn’t borrow money to do them; I just do them.

Most of them have been quite successful, but I am still learning how to do conferences. I think the TEDMED that I do this October will be by far the best. I think I’ve finally learned, turned a corner of how to do really a good conference.

Out of the 31, maybe four or five have been really good – the rest of them have been okay, but not really great. All my work is not very good; all my books are not very good. I’ve probably done four or five books that are pretty good, but the rest of them are just okay.

I’m 75 years old, and I’ve never had more things that I’m working on than now. I have about five different partnerships. I have one assistant and no other employees. But my partners have a lot of employees.

HK; Can I ask why?

RSW; I have no ambition whatsoever. I am not ambitious. I do not want to become famous. I do not want to become richer. I have enough money. I like to make money, but I’m not trying to make money. So, I don’t have power. I don’t belong to one organization. I don’t belong to any professional organization. I’m not on any board of directors. I’m not assistant of the board. I’m not an advisor to any board. I have no relationship with anybody else in that way.

HK; Wow, that’s interesting. Can I ask your motivation to your engagement? Because you made TED and many other conferences.

RSW; I don’t do it for the audience; I do it for me. I want to learn from the people I invite to come. I do it because I am really curious. Everybody I invite is somebody who I would like to hear from. And then I also like to develop the art of doing a conference. I believe I do conferences better than anybody else in the world. I really think about every aspect: what is the art? The theatre? What is the timing? What is the interest? What is the whole gestalt of the gathering? I’m trying to improve on that. I’m trying to solve a problem.

HK; Can I hear your opinion on shared knowledge in the 21st century, because there are many other web-based conference…

RSW; My goal is to make things understandable to myself. Now, since I told you already that I’m not very smart, that if I make things that are understandable to me, obviously a lot of other people can understand them, too. But I don’t do them for a lot of other people; I do them for myself. It just so happens that if I understand them, then you’ll understand them.

HK; That’s very true.

RSW; Look, you have no idea what’s in my head now – correct? You really don’t know what I’m thinking.

HK; To some extent, I know.

RSW; No – no no no! You don’t know what I’m thinking, and I don’t know what you’re thinking.

HK; Hahaha.

RSW; But as long as you accept that you don’t know what I’m thinking and I don’t know what you’re thinking, the only person I know a little about what they’re thinking is me. So, that’s the only person I can serve – everything else is a phony experience.

I don’t want to make up what you’re thinking and try to respond to it.

HK; Is there someone who can talk about you?

RSW; I would send you some previous interviews that I think might be good that you could see what people think of me from what questions they ask me. I can give you thousands of people I know, but 100 top names of people, from entertainers like Lindsey Jones or Herbie Hancock to Bill Gates and Sergey Brin and Larry Page – anybody. They can tell you something, but it’s all going to be different. Everybody thinks of me in a different way because they know me in a different way, because they’re different and I’m different, because my relationship with everybody is different.

HK; To make you know of me and my project, let me speak.

RSW; Go ahead. I will be quiet now.

HK; To be honest what you said is exactly same as what I want to do thought the project. I just want to prove that all human beings are different, so there is no such thing as the law of success. So, we have to understand there are as many ways to be successful as the number of human beings. And that’s why I’m doing interviews and showing various people who are achieving success. It doesn’t matter whether you think there is the universal way to achieve success or not.

So, I want to ask your opinion on success.

RSW; My life is a matter of my curiosity. I want to understand things. I am ignorant. I try to make something that I’m curious about understandable. I do a project, which shows my journey, and I do that again, and I do it again, and I do it again, and I do it again, and then I die.

HK; The conference gathering people from different spheres…

RSW; Yes, that was my idea – convergence.

HK; Okay, convergence. Pretty nice.

RSW; Nobody knew what I was talking about when I created TED, because nobody had observed the convergence of technology, entertainment, and design. That’s an old idea now; it’s no longer a leading-edge idea. It was in 1984.

HK; Amazing.

RSW; Well, then it was; now it isn’t.

HK; Yes, sure.

RSW; It’s an old idea. But now the TED conference is a collection of very, very smart people, each talking about their own thing. Now TEDMED, I never sold TEDMED; I sold TED. TEDMED is programmed so that there is some relationship. It’s more like three days of theatre, and there are relationships. I don’t tell the audience the relationships, but I know the relationships, and it’s highly programmed so it really builds to much more than just a collection of separate wonderful talks. Do you understand the difference?

HK; Yep.

RSW; It’s not a collection of 28 short stories by different people on different subjects; it’s much more a series of essays on one huge story that each one is the rationale, the different ways of looking at the same thing through different eyes. Whether it’s through magic or music or entertainment or through science or genomics or broken bones or old books, it’s different ways of looking at something that builds to a greater understanding for me, and obviously for the audience.

HK; That’s so interesting; different people speak different things and make a masterpiece. But don’t you think if prominent people around the world speak about the same thing from different views, that’s what I’m doing. Talking about success from different angles.

RSW; I understand that. That’s why I told you that story. I’m not that stupid.

HK; Hahaha.

RSW; This is not the interview you wanted or expected, right?

HK; Oh, this is exactly what I wanted it. Just like having conversation with gorgeous people around the world, like you. Haha. What do you think about my project?

RSW; I think it’s a wonderful project.

HK; Oh, thank you so much.

RSW; It’s like a very, very good TEDMED on paper.

HK; Thank you. I will do my best then. I couldn’t do even one question that I’ve prepared. Hahaha. Can I have one question?

RSW; Go ahead.

HK; What is your advice to be successful in general life?

RSW; What is my advice?

HK; Yes.

RS; Tell the truth.

HK; Nice.

RSW; If I had one piece of advice, I would tell the truth, because few people tell the truth. Whatever is not the truth is a lie, correct?

HK; Yes, sure.

RSW; Sometimes innocent-seeming questions – like: How’re you doing? How is it going? – is a lie, because you really don’t want the answer. Do you see how subtly I’m talking about the truth?

HK; Yes.

RSW; If I say, you’ve been busy? I mean, that’s a question, right?

HK; Yes.

RSW; That’s a lie. Because I don’t really give a shit.

HK; Hahaha.

RSW; If you tell me about a movie, and I don’t know the movie, and I go, uh-huh, that’s a lie. So, when I say tell the truth, I’m talking about it in a very, very big way.

HK; So, 100% be honest.

RSW; That’s my advice: if you can really tell the truth. But telling the truth I give a very broad definition. It’s not just if somebody asks you how old you are and you tell them the right number; it’s much more complicated than that. By the way how old are you?

HK; I’m 21.

RSW; 21! You’re so young, you don’t live even one third of my life!

HK; Hahaha.

RS; I’m talking about truth as a profundity. Do you understand?

HK; Yes I do.

RS; Truth in conversation, truth in admitting your ignorance, truth in not asking people things you really don’t want to know the answer to, truth in saying to somebody, boy, you’re looking good, when they’re not. Those are all lies, those things. My one piece of advice that affects your whole life is telling the truth.

HK; Got it.

Haegwan Kim
Haegwan Kim is a writer who was born in Osaka, Japan in 1989 and grew up near Tokyo where went to a Korean school for 12 years.
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