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Collaborating with Ben Zander: We Made the Ninja Cry

John Bates and TED Speaker Benjamin Zander

I had been turned on to Benjamin Zander’s purely excellent 2008 TED talk about Music and Passion by my friend Jim McCarthy, the CEO of who had attended the very first TEDActive in February of 2008. Mere weeks later he showed me the archive footage of his favorite talk that year, Benjamin Zander. I was just stunned by how excellent Benjamin’s speech was and I’d been wanting to attend TED since the mid ’90’s. In 2001 I had even gotten a spot as a volunteer, but at the last minute I was called to go speak at the St. Gallen School of Business in Switzerland and my younger brother Mike stepped in for me. So I missed my TED moment!

“They’ve got a new overflow event that’s a little less expensive and I bet you could get in next year, John,” Jim told me as he queued up Benjamin’s talk. And, as I sat there with Jim watching Benjamin Zander, I vowed I’d at least give it a shot. Even though there was no way I could afford it and no way I’d ever get accepted, I just applied, anyway!

And now, it’s 2009 and I’m at TEDActive! Holy Smoke. I’m still having a hard time believing that I am actually here as I look around the room at all the brilliant people surrounding me and I have the thought which, unbeknownst to me at the moment, everyone else is having, too,

“Wow, I can’t believe I got accepted to TEDActive; I can’t believe I’m actually here! Everyone else is so accomplished and amazing…”

The big ballroom is filled with what seems like hundreds of monitors placed in front of heaps of beanbags, comfy couches, easy chairs and even beds with monitors shining down from above them. Kelly and Rives are welcoming and funny. I feel so privileged, happy and excited to be there that it all seems totally surreal.

And now the music of Aida has stopped and the first session is actually happening. As I sit there watching the huge center stage monitor out walks none other than Benajamin Zander himself; my ultimate TED hero! His talk from the previous year about Classical Music inspired me out of my very socks. I love the man. He epitomizes awesome. And, here he is, talking to us about TED’s anniversary. Being a conductor, he was asked to lead us in singing Happy Birthday to TED! And, in true Benjamin Zander style he points out to us that we have some choices to make when we sing Happy Birthday. Which word will we choose to emphasize?

We could sing HAPPY Birthday to you. Or,

Happy BIRTHDAY to you. Or,

Happy Birthday TO you. Or,

Happy Birthday to YOUUUU!

“Now, which one do you think will land best for the person having the birthday?” Ben asks us. He then invites someone in the audience who is having their birthday during the week of TED to come down onto the stage so we can all focus on a real person as we sing Happy Birthday to YOU, to TED, too!

I’m sitting, marveling about how Ben can turn even something like singing Happy Birthday into a transcendental event and BOOOOOOoooooop… The screen goes blue. The satellite feed is dead! Just a minute ago we were at TED, and now, we’re all sitting in a silent hotel ballroom on beanbags and couches 110 miles from the action. “NO! Not during Ben Zander!” I think. I’m so bummed! And immediately I resolve that I will not let my hero go down in flames first thing at my first TED! I hear myself think, “Well, I say I’m a world class leader and world class leaders take action!”

But then the voice of fear says, “John, slow down. Don’t be the overbearing one.” But as the seconds stretch out I finally figure I’ll count to 10 and if nothing else happens I’ll do something about this. This is our party, after all… So I count slowly, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10″

Up I jump. The arteries in my neck are pulsing so hard I worry I won’t be able to speak. I turn to face the 500 person audience which all of a sudden seems like thousands, and say,”I think I know where he was going with this, so let’s all join in and sing Happy Birthday to TED.”

And someone in the audience shouts, “Get a real person to come up!”

“Right! Great!” I say, “Thank you for reminding me! Who has a birthday?”

It turns out that Kent, a big guy from the East Coast who is part of Ask a Ninja is having his birthday, so we call him to the front. He gets situated, I raise my arms and conduct the audience as we proceed to sing Happy Birthday to YOU! Happy Birthday to YOU! Happy Birthday dear Kent and TED! Haaaappy Birthday to YOU! I turn to Kent for his reaction and there are tears streaming down his face so hard that they are finding their way through his beard and making two stains on the chest of his t-shirt. This big, tough guy from the East Coast has been brought to tears by the simple emphasis on YOU. Marvelous. We give each other a big hug and he turns to walk back to his seat. And now I begin to worry about what I’m going to do next…

When, all of a sudden, Ben Zander pops back to life onto the screen. They’ve just finished singing in Long Beach, too, and Ben Zander is saying, “I love it! I love it! The TED Choir! You’re wonderful! You’re great!” and I quickly plop back into my seat.

When the session ends I see Kelly and Rives making a beeline over to me and I fear that maybe I’ve overstepped my bounds and am about to be thrown out when Kelly gives me her angelic happy smile and says something like, “That was so great, John. Thank you for doing that. I’m so happy someone from TEDActive did that instead of Rives and me.”

“That’s right, John, we love that one of the attendees got up, instead of us. It’s TEDActive, after all…” Rives agrees. I’m still not sure I’m hearing it right and I stammer out, “Well, I just love Ben Zander so much and I couldn’t bear to see that happen… I counted to ten…” I throw in, meekly. Kelly and Rives give each other a significant look and peals of laughter ring out as Kelly, still laughing says, “We were counting to 15!”

Prologue: The unexpected good news about this, beyond the fact that it was well received, was that everyone who was in the room for this now knew me and felt safe talking to me, which is something. Being at TED can be intimidating until you realize how kind everyone is. Rives and Kelly also have a game going to introduce people to each other throughout the whole week of TED and they proceeded to introduce me to everyone they possibly could. I’m happy I didn’t let the voice in my head that wants me to play small win. That was one of the highlights of my life. And, I can now say that I ‘collaborated’ with Ben Zander at TED, and it’s a true, TEDActive story.


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