Can the 20 most popular TED talks of all time change your life?

By Greg Bruce

Sir Ken Robinson, presenter of the most popular TED talk of all time, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" dropped this truth. Photo / TED Talks
Sir Ken Robinson, presenter of the most popular TED talk of all time, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" dropped this truth. Photo / TED Talks

TED is a series of conferences held around the world in which people give presentations based around the catchphrase, "Ideas worth spreading." The talks are generally no more than 20 minutes long, and they're full of inspiring stories, academic research, moments of emotion and flashes of insight. They will change your life if you let them, sometimes for the worse.

I'm radically susceptible to this kind of thing. Some titles from my bookshelf: How You Can be More Interesting; The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem; The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen; Men's Health Beach Body Ready Guide 2009.

I had long been interested in the life-changing possibilities of a playlist on the TED site called "The most popular talks of all time", which contains 20 talks, each of which have been viewed somewhere between 12 million and 41 million times, and which together take around six hours to watch - or a day-and-a-half if you're taking extensive notes.

One true thing I knew about life, before I even clicked play on the first talk, is that there's a gap between hope and reality, and you can either live in that gap or you can spend a lot of time and money trying to bog it up.

I watched them in reverse order of popularity, starting with "Make Stress Your Friend", by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

She said stress is bad for you only if you think it is, and that it actually triggers the release of the love hormone, oxytocin: "I find this amazing," she said, "that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection."

I'm stressed - of course I am. I have two preschoolers and another baby on the way, a wife who's had severe morning sickness for most of the last four years, and a job that offers a stream of unrealistic deadlines. I liked the idea that I didn't have to face those challenges alone, or that facing those challenges will bring me closer to other people - some crap like that.

Talks two and three were by magicians Keith Barry and David Blaine. Barry did some tricks and Blaine recounted his triumphs. Blaine cried at the end of his talk, but magicians can't expect us to believe their tears are real. I remember feeling bored watching him break the world breath-holding record on Oprah several years ago. A few months later his record was broken by the previous record-holder, a guy whose tears have never been seen in public, and probably never will be.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, said creative people are always met with a fear-based reaction, as if they're "going to die with bitter ash in their mouths", in a way her father, say, who was a chemical engineer, never was.

"We have this idea that artistry will always lead to anguish," she said, "and I wanted to ask you guys are you comfortable with that?"

I was inspired by her call-to-arms because, for much of my life I have struggled with the fear of the bitter ash.

She said the ancient Romans and Greeks believed creative genius is not something within you, like most of us believe, but more like an external creature that visits you. Gilbert found this idea inspiring, that any good work she does depends on the positive input of these sprites.

I like Gilbert, and I thought Eat Pray Love was pretty good, but I just couldn't get on board with that kind of crazy, woo-woo nonsense.

The fifth talk was by a bald, white man with a pocket square, who was some kind of self-styled speaking expert. His too-sexy voice was the creepiest thing I came across in six hours of talks, including everything said by Tony Robbins and a video clip in Mary Roach's talk of a man masturbating a pig.

The thrust of Daniel Gilbert's "The Surprising Science of Happiness" was: Whether we get what we want in life or whether we get what we worry about actually makes very little difference to our happiness. It was far more powerful than I've made it sound here.

In the seventh talk, a man showed a series of interesting undersea videos.

Shawn Achor said we have this idea that working harder will lead to more success and more success will make us happier, which is an idea that is scientifically broken because our brains work in exactly the opposite order.

"If you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed."

"Yes!" I thought, "We have life backwards!" I was inspired. Achor offered several proven ways to train our brains to become happier: Writing about positive experiences, exercise, meditation and random acts of kindness.

I have two preschoolers and another on the way. I will not have time to do any of those things until 2034.

The ninth talk was by a woman who had a book called "Liespotting", which she displayed on a slide in the first minute of her presentation.

For the duration of her talk, I couldn't stop thinking that "Liespotting" is not a single word and never has been.

I had watched "The Power of Introverts" by Susan Cain many times before. Cain's most important piece of advice was: "Introverts, occasionally open your suitcases for other people to see. People need you and need what you carry." Even though I had heard this line before, it made me tear-up, sitting at my desk, with my headphones on. I was so emotionally exploited by this talk that just thinking back on it makes me want to cry with shame.

Model Cameron Russell came out in a skimpy dress in "Looks Aren't Everything. Believe Me, I'm a Model." She then covered herself with more modest clothes and claimed, wrongly, that she had transformed what we thought about her in six seconds. She showed several photos of her looking spectacular in high-profile magazine shoots, alongside photos of her looking really great in candid personal photos. "If there's a take away ... " she said. There wasn't.

A brilliant young man had invented incredible technology involving sensors on his fingers. I didn't understand much of what he was talking about but I googled him and he's now a global vice-president of research at Samsung - and several years younger than me.

Daniel Pink's catchphrase was: "There's a mismatch between what science knows and what business does." Which is actually a pretty good line. He had discovered a bit of academic research, which shows that paying people more money doesn't make them better at tasks that involve thinking. People do better at thinking tasks, Pink said, when they're given autonomy, mastery and purpose.

This is a pretty interesting piece of research. He used the example of Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, which was developed with traditional well-incentivised people, and Wikipedia, which wasn't. It was a stupid example. Wikipedia is always begging for money.

Talk number 14 was by Tony Robbins.

I was so excited and moved by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor's talk that it made me question the lack of psychotropic substances in my life. A few years ago, Bolte Taylor had a stroke, which made her step into the consciousness of the right hemisphere of her brain, where she discovered that the whole world is beautifully connected, that the atoms of her arm, for instance, blended with the atoms of the wall. She was captivated by "the magnificence" around her. She felt "enormous and expansive.

"I felt this sense of peacefulness," she said. "And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage. I felt euphoria. Euphoria. It was beautiful."

Inspired, I googled her book, My Stroke of Insight, but I doubt I'll buy it.

Humorous science writer Mary Roach shared a series of anecdotes about orgasms. She was better than Robbins - she didn't stride around the stage in enormous jeans, throw high-fives or exhort the audience to raise their hands and say "Aye!" every couple of minutes - but if I hear the words "upsuck theory" one more time, I will vomit.

Brene Brown conducted multi-year research showing that people who had a strong sense of love and belonging were people who believed they were worthy of love and belonging. They were willing to be vulnerable, to take risks, be "willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were". I knew I was none of those things.

Simon Sinek's website introduces him thus: "Described as 'a visionary thinker with a rare intellect'." In his talk, he claimed to have worked out that all great leaders and organisations think and act in the same way, and he claimed that it was probably the world's simplest idea. If I knew one true thing about this sort of grandiose, trumped-up presentation, it was that it would conclude with an anecdote about Apple.

He drew his idea on a flip chart and called it "The Golden Circle", although it was three concentric circles. In the middle one, he wrote "why", in the next one "how", and in the outermost circle, "what".

He said that most businesses talk about what they do first, then how, then why, but that the most successful businesses do it the other way around.

If this is one of the world's simplest ideas, it's also one of the emptiest, and evidence of that is that he repeated the phrase, "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it" six times in 18 minutes - as if, through sheer repetition, it would come to mean something.

His talk has 28.5 million views, and, if you measure success by that type of thing, you should note that this article will almost certainly have less than half that.

I was wrong about the Apple anecdote - he opened with it.

It's rare for a TED talk to offer such a high ratio of practical action to unactionable inspiration as in the second-most-popular TED talk of all time, by Amy Cuddy, of Harvard, who conducted research showing that power poses, like spreading your arms behind your head, or standing like Wonder Woman, make you more powerful and less prone to stress.

This finding was deeply exciting until I discovered that one of Cuddy's co-authors has since unequivocally reneged on their findings. By the time I discovered this, I had spent a lot of time pointlessly spreading my arms behind my head, but had successfully fought the urge to go into a toilet cubicle and stand like Wonder Woman.

Sir Ken Robinson, presenter of the most popular TED talk of all time, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" dropped this truth: "What we do know is that if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."

That line was a devastating response to an educational system focused largely on eliminating wrongness, but it was also a call-to-arms for those of us who have been creatively ruined by our schools' imploration to be right more often.

Robinson, a professor of education, laid out how the education system grew to serve industrialism in the 19th century, leading to a hierarchy in the way subjects are treated, which, wrongly, has placed arts at the bottom.

Education, with its horrifically unbalanced focus on subjects that serve the economy rather than the people, has left many of us viewing ourselves first as economic entities and last, or not at all, as founts of original ideas and inspiration.

Basically, what I found myself thinking after Robinson's talk, after a day-and-a-half of TED talks, was: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life neck-deep in self-help, doing things like writing snarky, ice-cold takes on years-old TED talks, or do you want to do something original, or at least something worthwhile, at the risk of failing spectacularly, like the people delivering those TED talks?

I am not a risk-taker, not yet, but I'm open to the idea of doing something original and inspiring and, one day soon, or at least at some point in my life, I really hope I might.

- Canvas

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