Five TED Talks That Changed the Way I Live, Love, and Work
From time to time, we publish book lists on everything from what to read to become a better finance professional to ways to improve your career prospects. But I figured: Who has time to read a pile of books? Not me. An 18-minute TED talk, on the other hand, is something most of us can squeeze into our work days and/or commutes. With that in mind, here are five TED and/or TEDx talks that I found compelling — for the simple reason that they all inspired or challenged me to think about an aspect of my life in a new way.
1. How Great Leaders Inspire Action
How do you explain when things don’t go as you assume? Or better yet, how do you explain why some people or organizations are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? Why, for example, is Apple (AAPL) so innovative year after year compared with its competitors when firms have access to the same talent, agencies, consultants, and media? Why is it that Apple seems to have something different?
These are some of the questions Simon Sinek sets out to answer in his talk on purpose-driven organizations: How great leaders inspire action. It all starts with the question: Why? What Sinek has discovered is that “all the great and inspiring leaders and organizations of the world, whether it is Apple, Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Wright Brothers. They all think, act, and communicate the exact same way, and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else.”
Sinek codified this into what he says is “probably the world’s simplest idea” — what he calls “the golden circle” of concentric circles with why at the center, followed by how and what. “This little idea,” he says, “explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire and others aren’t.” Inspired leaders and organizations, regardless of their size and industry, think, act, and communicate from the inside (why) out (what), whereas everyone else goes from the outside in, or from the clearest thing (what) to the “fuzziest” thing (why).
2. The Transformative Power of Classical Music
About half way into his talk on the transformative power of classical music, conductor Benjamin Zander sits down at the piano and plays a beautiful prelude by Chopin. Before he plays it all the way through, he asks the audience to think of someone they adore who is no longer around and to “follow the line” of the notes all the way from the B to the E.
Zander, you see, is on a mission to have everyone in the audience come to love and understand classical music — even those who demur they are tone-deaf (no such thing, he says). As the notes float effortlessly into the air, the audience is transported to whatever image or place is in their mind’s eye. The TED blurb tells us Zander has “two infectious passions: classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it — and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.” And this is indeed true. For example, he tells the audience that at age 45, after conducting for 20 years, he had a “life-changing” realization: The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound; he depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. “I realized my job as a conductor was to awaken possibility in other people.” That, alone, is a meaningful observation about great leaders.
3. The Power of Vulnerability
Brené Brown’s talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched talks on TED.com, with nearly 15 million views. If this is your first time hearing about her, you may be surprised that a talk on something as “squishy” as vulnerability has attracted so many viewers. But when you think about for a minute or two, it’s really not all that surprising. Why? Because at some level, we all yearn for connection — be it spiritual, physical, emotional, or intellectual. The topic of vulnerability is Brown’s bailiwick: she studies it, along with courage, worthiness, and shame.
What makes the talk so compelling is that Brown reveals her own vulnerability as she tells the crowd about her research journey, and ultimately, its conclusions. Brown starts out by saying that connection — the ability to feel connected — is why we are here, it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. And so, naturally, that is where she started her research. Until she hit a snag. “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they’ll tell you the most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.”
Very early in the research, she ran into something (“this unnamed thing”) that “absolutely unraveled” connection. It turned out to be shame, or the fear of disconnection. What underpins shame (think: “I’m not [FILL IN THE BLANK] enough) was “excruciating vulnerability” — “this idea that in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.”
Brown then set out to understand connection and deconstruct shame. What she found is that it comes down to a sense of worthiness, or a strong sense of love and belonging. She tells the audience there is one, and only one, variable that separates the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those who really struggle for it: “the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging. That’s it.” The one thing that keeps us out of connection, Brown says, is our fear that we are not worthy of connection. So what do people who have a strong sense of worthiness have in common? They all have the courage to be imperfect; the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others; connection as a result of authenticity (they are willing to let go of who they feel should be, in order to be who they are); and they fully embrace vulnerability and believe that what makes them vulnerable, also makes them beautiful.
4. How to Live to Be 100+
It’s one thing to live to the ripe old age of 100 and be bedridden, isolated, and frail, but it’s something else entirely to approach — or surpass — a century on this earth and still be spry. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author, and his team study the world’s “Blue Zones” — communities whose elders live with “vim and vigor to record-setting age.” Buettner opens his talk on how to live to be 100+ by saying the Danish twin study established that only about 10% of how long the average person lives (within certain biological limits) is dictated by our genes, the other 90% is dictated by our lifestyle. (That was a big surprise to me as I’ve always said we can’t outrun or outwit our genes.)
So what is the optimal lifestyle of longevity? Buettner shares the nine common diet and lifestyle habits that keep people lively past age 100. They include having a sense of purpose, consuming mainly a plant-based diet, and forging strong connections with family. (On a related note, Buettner is also the author of the fascinating New York Times Magazine article “The Island Where People Forget to Die.”)
5. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are
How many times have you formed an instant opinion about someone based just on nonverbal cues such as body language? Or mentally checked yourself to project confidence ahead of an interview or presentation by adjusting your posture? Well, if you’re like me, then probably many times. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy points out in her talk on how your body language shapes who you are, we are really fascinated with body language, especially other people’s body language, such as a contemptuous glance, an awkward interaction, or maybe even something like a handshake. (Just how fascinated? This talk has garnered more than 17 million views.)
What it comes down to is communication and interaction: What is your body language communicating to me, and what is mine communicating to you? Cuddy tells the audience that we make sweeping judgements and inferences from body language, and those judgments can predict really meaningful life outcomes, such as who we hire and promote or who we ask out on a date.
We know that our nonverbals govern how other people think and feel about us, but one of the questions Cuddy has explored in her research is whether our nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves. And the answer is: Yes, they do. “Our bodies change our minds, and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change the outcomes,” she says. “Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes.” (Next time you’re getting ready for an interview, speech, or presentation, try “power posing”; it’s important to get your testosterone levels up and your levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, down.)
Cuddy reminds us that we can all overcome lack of confidence or the paralyzing fear of being “outed” as an impostor (i.e., thinking “I’m not supposed to be here. I’m an impostor”) by practising over and over again — even if it means faking it. But it’s important to take it one step further. “Don’t fake it till you make it,” she says. “Fake it till you become it.” And she is living proof. When Cuddy was 19, she was in a really bad car accident and woke up in a head injury rehabilitation ward where she learned her IQ had dropped by two standard deviations. Doctors said she wouldn’t finish college. But she proved them wrong. Today, Cuddy is a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, where she studies how nonverbal behavior and snap judgments affect people from the classroom to the boardroom.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.