A friend of mine introduced me to TED talks about two years ago. I remember my first reaction (which I thankfully kept to myself) being, “Who in their right mind listens to lectures for fun??” Thanks a lot, buddy. Two years, countless talks and one TEDx event later, I’m a self-confessed TED addict. TED is an annual conference first held in California in 1984, to bring together people in the fields of Technology, Entertainment and Design. It has gained worldwide popularity ever since the talks were released online.
TED talks are food for the soul. The people who give them are warm and funny and intelligent, and they’re real. They’re not Nobel-prize winners or record-breaking athletes, at least not all of them. Actually, some of them are. The website says that its speakers have collectively won every major prize for excellence, be it the Nobel, Pritzker, Pulitzer, Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, Tony or the MacArthur “genius” grant. I don’t even know what the Pritzker is. And one of those ladies won it. Nonetheless, the vast majority of TED speakers, who have been watched and appreciated by millions, are ordinary people who’ve done something special in their lives. Or maybe they haven’t done it yet, but they had something to say anyway.
Some talks became popular enough to turn the speakers into legends. Like the one by Ken Robinson, a British education expert, whose funny and evocative talk in 2006 (Why schools kill creativity) got more than 15 million views. You heard right, fifteen million! Those folks at TED liked him so much they got him back in 2010.
Another favourite? Chimamanda Adichie, the talented Nigerian writer, advocating the need for parallel narratives in The danger of a single story. Adichie’s words are true of conflict ridden zones anywhere in the world – to get to the root of someone’s suffering, we have to make sure we aren’t listening to just one side of the story.
And then there’s Brene Browne, in my all-time favourite TED talk about the power of vulnerability. The first time I listened to her, I thought she was talking bull shit. The second time I realized she was talking about me. I’ve always thought it was a horrible, horrible thing to admit your weaknesses. But maybe, Browne is right when she says that to get to a place where you feel truly alive, you have to be willing to allow risk and uncertainty into your everyday relationships. As she eloquently puts it, “In order to let connection happen, we have to let ourselves be seen. Really seen.”
This doesn’t mean that TED talks are the best thing to happen since chicken tikka masala. For all its “Ideas worth spreading” hoopla, the conferences are awfully elitist. Asking 7,500 dollars for a ticket ensures a homogenous audience of rich folks who seem to stand and applaud on cue. As Martin Robbins writes in the New Statesman, “TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place.” There’s little cross-checking of scientific facts. (This video is littered with historical inaccuracies about why the humble ‘x’ entered the English lexicon as the go-to word for anything unknown.) TEDx talks, which are independent events held under the TED banner, are far more inclusive, and by extension, more hit-or-miss in quality.
So is TED the contemporary equivalent of the 5th century Sophists or some New Age mumbo-jumbo? Maybe it’s a bit of both. But if you’re choosy, and keep in mind that the stuff on TED is about as accurate as Wikipedia, you might find something to take home and ponder about.