It’s almost impossible to pick the best TED talks because there are so many great ones. TED talks are opportunities for learning and sources of inspiration. The top TED talks are based on categories since the topics are extremely diverse. I have picked a few of them because they appealed to my desire for self-improvement.
My 5 personal best TED talks:
Adam Grant: The surprising habits of original thinkers
In his TED Talk, psychologist Adam Grant points out some surprising habits of original thinkers: procrastination, fear, and doubt. Procrastination, commonly viewed as a negative trait, is something that original thinkers often engage in. Procrastination, the kind that is acted on even if later, is a surprisingly good habit since it promotes creativity. When innovators delay acting on their ideas, their plans are incubating in their minds, and they come up with novel concepts that otherwise would not have surfaced if they had acted sooner.
Original thinkers are creative, constantly thinking up ingenious ideas and how to achieve their realization. They feel fear and self-doubt, too, like most people. But with original thinkers, it’s a fear not of failure itself, but of failing to try, of not taking the chance. That’s how Elon Musk created Space X. They feel doubt, not of their selves but of ideas. This idea-doubt leads them to question any given default and think of or create alternative options.
Grant rationalizes that you don’t have to be a first-mover to be original. You study a realized concept and improve on it, and expand it. Before Google, there was Yahoo! And Altavista. Before Facebook, it was Friendster and MySpace. Grant believes that original ideas are one of the best ways to improve the world.
Our creativity may not be top level, but listening to Mr. Grant shows us that we can enhance this trait. That’s why I have picked this topic as one of my best TED talks.
Jon Bowers, UPS manager for driver and delivery training, belies the advice of doctors and therapists not to seek perfection because it is not good for one’s physical and mental health. In fact, he advocates the pursuit of perfection, citing the dire and even fatal consequences of an attitude of “good enough.” This mindset has led to, as Bowers points out, an Amazon web server outage that took down websites for hours in 2017. The cause: one engineer’s typo, an incorrect command. The cost: more than $160 million in four hours.
The goal for everyone should be to seek perfection and not settle for less. But psychologists discourage perfectionism because failure to achieve it leads to low self-esteem, leading to stress and all its related outcomes. But failure is also the path towards perfection, and what matters is getting up and learning from it. Achieving perfection starts with the small things and is carried over to the larger jobs. And settling for 99% has real consequences, like 16 people dead and 180 injured because of a tiny error in car airbags. Failure is something we all experience, but we should not fear failure because that fear hinders us from seeking perfection.
This is one of the best TED talks for me as it contradicts the current notion of portraying perfectionism as a flaw when it should be a lofty goal.
Related reading: 7 Common Habits of the Perpetually Stressed
Wendy Suzuki: The brain-changing effects of exercise
Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki switched her focus on studying memory to studying how exercise causes organic changes in the brain that improves your mood and focus, and protects against Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and depression.
The two areas in the brain where the effects of exercise are most substantial are the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex regulates your attention, emotional responses, and decision-making. It also controls the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin, chemicals that make you happy, heightens focus, and prompts your body to action. Exercise has an instantaneous effect on the brain. It increases the levels of these neurotransmitters, resulting in a positive outlook and better focus. These effects can last up to two hours.
The hippocampus, located deep in the temporal lobe, is responsible for retaining both short-term and long-term memories of facts and events. Studies have shown that exercise increases the volume of the hippocampus.
The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are the areas in the brain that are most vulnerable to normal decline in aging and most affected in degenerative diseases. Exercise increases the size and strength of these two areas. Hence, it provides protection to the brain, and reduces the risk for Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression. For exercise to do this, the standard guideline is to do it three to four times a week at a minimum of thirty minutes each, and to include aerobic exercise. Ms. Suzuki’s study now is to find out the optimum exercise for people based on age, fitness level and genetic background to maximize its benefits.
The scientific evidence of the effects of exercise on the brain is motivating, making this talk one of my best TED talks for self-improvement.
Monica Lewinsky: The price of shame
Monica Lewinsky, the infamous White House intern in 1998, gave a TED talk in 2015 after almost two decades of silence. Her speech is very enlightening, focusing on global humiliation, made possible by technology, and how shaming is now an in-demand commodity, bringing in dollars for media outlets.
Ms. Lewinsky tells us how we should start and support a culture of compassion by showing empathy, and how cyber-bullying can shame and humiliate a person to death literally, as in the case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off a bridge to his death after being secretly recorded having intimately relations with another man. The courage of Ms. Lewinsky in talking about the global shame and humiliation she went through teaches us about the need for true compassion and is a push for women to speak out for themselves. Her speech is one of the best TED talks for women.
On a personal note, it showed me how people can be so judgmental and see only one side of a story, forgetting that in Lewinsky’s case, she was a 22-year old woman, besotted by the attention of the most powerful man in the US, who should have put logic over loins, but didn’t.
Related reading: How to support a loved one through tough times.
Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness
Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and professor of Harvard Medical School, presented the Harvard Study of Adult Development, probably the longest study ever done of men in their adult lives. His talk, centering on their physical and mental health, and how their perception of their happiness level influences their health, counts as one of my best TED talks.
While the popular goals of young people today are wealth (80%) and fame (50%,) this particular study, following 724 men for 75 years and moving on to 2,000 of their children, has yielded results showing that achieving these goals alone did not bring happiness.
The results? One, that good relationships contribute to physical and mental health, and loneliness can kill. Two, it’s quality over quantity. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have, or if you’re married or in a union. What counts is the quality of your close relationships. Warm close relationships are healthy for you, but a chronically stressful one, like a high-conflict marriage, will lead to physical and mental illnesses. Three, good relationships protect the brain. If you have a partner or close friends whom you can count on to be there for you, memory decline is staved off.
This talk is consistently one of the top TED talks of all time. But one issue that bothers me is, the study focused on the men. Were the women who were in relationships with these men happy as well?