We Need to Talk About TED

TED is the thing many in how-to and life-improvement and, I guess, culture in general love to hate. I love watching TED talks from time to time. Today, on International Women’s Day, I’ve been rewatching one of my heroes, Anna Frost, talking about the brilliant non-profit Sisu Girls.

The problem with TED is that it embodies that saying about encouraging the widest possible debate within the narrowest possible parameters.

And that’s not TED’s fault, because it doesn’t, unlike many of its devotees, claim that the sum of human intellectual and creative expansion can be captured in a series of 15 minute chunks. It’s a tool in the kit. A bit like a gel. If I tried to run a 24 hour ultramarathon with only gels I’d not only get very sick very quick – I’d probably underperform massively. But if I set out onto the trail without a single gel in my pack, it’d be a pretty sure bet at some point I’d regret that decision.

(while we’re on TED and International Women’s Day, here’s another of my heroes, freediver Tanya Streeter)

Likewise TED. TED is a great tool. And it has a pretty exact hole in the intellectual toolbox.

Take these figures. 5…20…10,000

They may well seem familiar, and that’s good, because they’re all really useful cliches that are as wrong as they are right but nonetheless belong in every toolbox. They are all “hours”. 5 refers to the so-called 5 hour habit – which says successful people (whatever the hell that means) tend to read cool new stuff for 5 hours a week. 20 refers to Josh Kaufman’s “learn anything in 20 hours” principle – which basically says that for most rewarding tasks, you can get pretty good at them with 20 hours of focused effort. And 10,000 is of course the ur-text of self-improvement, Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that the grand masters in their fields will have put in 10,000 hours of practice. We could go on forever about a lot of these, critiquing why they’re all wrong – of course they are. All the best stuff is, but it’s wrong in interesting ways, and I’ve actually found these rough timeframes pretty sound ways to divide up apportioning time to things in the broad and deep model I discussed when I began this blog. I will certainly revisit that!

I would add two figures on the start of that, though. 2…15

And these figures represent not hours but minutes. 2 is the length of the perfect slam poem. It is exactly enough time to get across a really powerful idea in a full arc with nuance and cadence. Check out this brilliant example from Maddie Godfrey

And it applies to talks as well as poems. Take this, from last night’s Newsnight, in which Rutger Bregman, one of the thinkers at the vanguard of the basic income movements, makes the case for treating people as though they are basically good. There’s an incredibly dense level of argument and detail there.

We should all expose ourselves to such two minute takes (and spend even more time trying to construct them). They are perfect for exposing us to an idea that might send us on a new road or spark a connection we would never have made otherwise (they are not, just like the other figures are not, the key to life, the universe, and everything. One of the dangers of the connected world is that it is tempting to believe them to be. One of the main causes of scepticism with regard to the connected world is that its critics believe its participants think 2 minutes is all you need – by and large they don’t).

15 minutes is the other great chunk (you could make a case for an hour, the length of the traditional university lecture. I don’t yet have the data to know if I agree or disagree. I am genuinely not sure what an hour lecture does that no other time chunk can. I am very clear with regards to 5 hours though – possibly, admittedly, 5 x 1 hour – and also 15 minutes). In 15 minutes you can get a long way inside a single idea. Far enough to unpack it, to connect it with its surroundings, to explain its significance, to make you want to engage with it. It is the perfect time slot for, as TED puts it, “an idea worth sharing”.

And that brings us back to the problem. I will be the first to confess just how much I want to get on the TED stage. I think about it whenever I’m constructing a talk, and it’s the thing that gives me a flutter when I know that one of my talks is being recorded. And it makes me ask, constantly, “what is my idea worth sharing?” Which is great, in the same way as, being a writer, it’s great for me to be able to understand what the “concept” of my book is. But truly great ideas are not just simple, they are complex. A great TED talk will boil that complexity into its key essence, expressed in several modes (importance, context, relevance etc) – rather like something Heston Blumenthal would do with a bouillon. But for that idea really to burn bright in the world, in itself or in the delicious chimeras it spawns, it needs to be rehydrated into its full, complex richness (bad metaphor, I know. Hydration hardly enriches – I feel that given the top news story of this week, Mary Berry’s assault on the bolognese sauce, I should use th emetaphor of being expanded with double cream).

Condense, expand; develop, deep practice, ingraft – all of these are key to innovation. All of them use a different tool in our creative kit. TED’s “idea worth sharing” is just one of those. I still don’t know what mine is:

  • the tiny step of looking at the world differently could spark our species’ next giant leap forward
  • bringing a deep knowledge to a myriad things, and bringing a myriad things to your deep expertise can alchemise into something magical
  • you can change your organisation immeasurably by writing off a portion of everyone’s time for them to develop their creativity
  • look at the world from a perspective no one else has ever used and you will create a whole new world
  • keep throwing incongruous ideas at each other and eventually two will stick together that could change the world

Something like one of these. Maybe all of them.

But what I have really learned by talking about TED is that however valuable the question “what is your idea worth sharing?” might be, it is not the only question we need to ask.

Let’s end with this bitesize masterpiece from the extraordinary Vanessa Kisuule


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