Watch one TED talk, and you have a factoid to share with a friend at a bar.
Watch over 100 TED talks across several years – as I have, obsessively – and you begin to think a little differently about the world.
Not every talk is awe-inspiring or illuminating, but the best ones have changed how I think about education, business, psychology, and human behavior.
Here are some of the insights that have stuck with me the most.
A meaningful life is more important than a happy one.
- TED Conference
An author and psychology expert, Emily Esfahani Smith recently toured the US asking hundreds of people what they considered important in their lives. The answers she received didn’t have much to do with happiness, fame, or fortune.
The most important thing to people was that life felt meaningful.
Follow-up analysis of her data showed meaning contained four ingredients: purpose, belonging, transcendence, and storytelling. The first two are straightforward. The second two refer generally to getting in the zone and taking control of your attitude.
Life might not always be a happy journey, Esfahani Smith’s work suggests, but it can be a rewarding one.
Some choice is better than none, but more choice isn’t necessarily better than some.
- Rebecca Harrington/Tech Insider
In Barry Schwartz’s 2005 talk, “The Paradox of Choice,” he reviews the research that says people are misled in thinking they should want as much choice as possible, whether that’s the expansive number of salad dressings at the supermarket or array of clothing styles at the mall.
His talk made me realize that decision-making takes a lot of effort. It can be mentally draining to weigh all those options, and we may be better off limiting our menu of choices to just a few. Usually, “good enough” is good enough.
If you want something, you have to ask for it.
Amanda Palmer, former lead singer of The Dresden Dolls, says soliciting help isn’t a burden on people. It’s actually a precious skill. In her 2013 talk, “The Art of Asking,” she recounts asking people on Twitter for instruments, food, and couches to sleep on, all so her shows could go on.
In a similar talk, music journalist Nardwuar explains in his 2011 talk “Do It Yourself!” that if you want something, you shouldn’t expect people to read your minds. You have to be tenacious and persistent.
Together, their talks helped me see asking less as a selfish act and more as a natural part of people working together.
Confidence can be faked until it becomes real.
Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a talk in 2012 called “Your body language shapes who you are,” in which she gifted the world her now-famous strategy of power posing. Stand like Wonder Woman for two minutes, Cuddy’s research shows, and a chemical shift in your brain will lead you to feel more confident (though skeptics have questioned the true reach of the hack).
Repeat the act as many times as you need to get that extra boost, she says, and over time you’ll realize you don’t need it as much. You won’t need to fake being confident anymore. That’s just the kind of person you’ll be.
Hard choices are opportunities to define who you are.
- Kaytee Riek via Flickr
Philosopher Ruth Chang gave a talk in 2013 called “How to Make Hard Choices.” Chang explained that in the realm of hard choices, people struggle to choose between two options that are “on a par,” in that one is neither better nor worse than the other.
Rather than stress over these hard choices, Chang says we should be grateful. They let us decide “Who am I to be?”
We can use hard choices to decide what kind of people we wish to become, whether it’s a choice between moving to the city or opting for the country, or going into business over medicine. These choices are assets, not burdens.
Education is at its best when it treats kids as individuals.
Ten years after it was first released, Ken Robinson’s 2006 talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is the most-viewed TED talk of all-time. Like many other people, I found Robinson’s conclusions about education immensely refreshing.
Schools too often use tests and memorization to wring kids of their creative impulses. Robinson’s talk highlights the value of treating kids as their own people who have unique passions, fears, hopes, and goals. It’s when they’re treated like widgets in a factory, rather than nurtured crops on a farm, that they lose interest in school.
You can learn just about anything in less than a day.
Josh Kaufman dispels the idea that learning must take years upon years in his 2013 talk, “How To Learn Anything.” His research shows the first 20 hours of practice can actually create a great deal of proficiency. After that, the road to mastery is expectedly long.
Kaufman’s insight stuck with me because it’s all too easy to think there is no middle ground between ignorance and mastery. It’s not true. Proficiency may flatline as you put more time in, but you shouldn’t discount the potential for early gains.
To change people’s attitudes, you need to change their perception.
- Thomson Reuters
Ogilvy & Mather ad executive Rory Sutherland has given several talks about the role psychology plays in how people’s attitudes can change. His 2009 talk “Life Lessons From an Ad Man” professed the strength of creating “perceived value” over so-called “real value.”
An example: Instead of spending billions of dollars to make train rides shorter – something frustrated commuters would seem likely to prefer – it may be cheaper and more effective just to equip the trains with Wifi. The ride is the same duration but is now more enjoyable.
Sometimes it’s smarter to target attitudes, not circumstances.
People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
In his 2009 talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek explains that people love Apple not because they think of it as a technology company, but because they believe the computing giant is part of a larger mission of creative self-expression.
Across the board, Sinek argues, the most beloved companies (and most successful leaders) get people onboard because they start with the question of why they exist and create products or services to fulfill that mission.
Ever since watching Sinek’s talk, I’ve become acutely aware of which companies appear to have genuine vision and which are just in it for the money.
Introverts can wield a special kind of power.
- Steve Jurvetson/Flickr
Patron saint of introverts Susan Cain gave a voice to the world’s quieter types with her 2012 talk, “The Power of Introverts” in which she champions the value of being introspective and thoughtful.
Cain argues that American culture has undervalued the need for people who are more reserved and look before they leap. And while society still needs extroverts to keep introverts in balance, she says, her talk has helped millions of people realize they aren’t weird or wrong for keeping quiet.
People need three things for motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
- Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In 2009, Dan Pink gave a talk called “The Puzzles of Motivation,” in which he claimed there are three things humans need in order for their work to feel important: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
You need to feel like you’re creatively in charge, you can get better at the task, and you’re doing it for a legitimate reason.
These three things have reshaped my view of work. I used to think you just needed to enjoy the work, but to muster the grit required for completing a project (not just starting it), Pink’s criteria keep coming up again and again.
Humans are actually really good mind-readers.
There’s a reason you can look at a picture of a woman smiling at her baby and know she’s experiencing the joys of motherhood and not some other feeling.
MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe explains in her 2009 talk “How We Read Each Other’s Minds” the concept of “theory of mind.” As the brain forms, kids develop the skill of placing themselves in other people’s heads around age 5. It’s a key skill for developing empathy.
Mind-reading is often viewed as a hoax, but brain science shows humans engage in it all the time.
Hard, dirty work isn’t just necessary — it’s misunderstood.
Mike Rowe, former host of Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs,” is no stranger to the grimier side of American labor. In his 2008 talk “Learning from dirty jobs,” he encourages people to think differently about those dirty jobs.
Many of them aren’t the miserable, back-breaking jobs that come from poor choices and lead to dissatisfaction, Rowe says. They’re gratifying, and performed by people who take pride in the great work they do.
His talk reminded me, as the jobs reminded him, never to judge the path someone’s taken, no matter the smells involved.
Your happiness can be split into two selves.
- Daniel Kahneman
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman gave a talk in 2010 called “The riddle of experience vs. memory” that dismantled the that idea happiness comes from satisfying just one self. Happiness can actually satisfy two kinds of selves, Kahneman’s research has found.
He calls the selves the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” The experiencing self lives in the moment. The remembering self savors the past. There are plenty of cases, Kahneman says, that bring joy to the experiencing self but do little for the remembering self (such as an extended vacation).
If we want to be happy, we have to consider catering our behaviors to both selves.