TED Top Ten

Posted on March 4th, by Mats Comments Off on TED Top Ten


After having just returned from yet another TED conference in California I thought I would summarize my key takeaways. TED always stimulates you in both expected and unexpected ways so it is very useful to spend some time reflecting on what I experienced this time. I am writing this mainly for my own self but sharing with my network mainly so that others can compare notes as well as know what to look for at TED.com as the talks are released during the weeks and months to come.

Here is a good TED Mashup: http://blog.ted.com/

A positive principle

One of the things I like the most about TED is that it tries hard to be non-judgmental, open-minded and constructively optimistic. There is a fine line between optimism and ignorance and I believe TED most often finds the right balance. Optimism without being honest about the nature of our challenges is as disingenuous as it is a total waste of time. Conversely, drawing attention only to problems without offering possible solutions or the belief that we can actually overcome our challenges is both irresponsible and equally non-productive. Unfortunately, most of our media culture has a gravitational pull towards fault, mistakes, embarrassments and criticism and therefore I have chosen to take a positive outlook on my TED TOP TEN. Needless to say there are things TED can do better and I leave it up to others in the community to discuss and debate those.

Before I start my TOP TEN I want to state the obvious. This is not a competition and it is almost impossible to “rank” experiences like these. So take them with a grain (or two) of salt. Also, I was NOT able to attend the very last session and I am a huge fan of Brene Brown’s TEDx talk so she could have very well ended up on this list. I can’t wait to see it. Perhaps others from that session rocked as well. So stay tuned.


1. The TED Community

TED would be little without the community itself. Therefore I always value the community the most. The talks between talks, the spirit of generosity, camaraderie and respect is abundant everywhere at TED. I would particularly highlight an “emerging gene of action” that is slowly, intentionally and promisingly finding itself into the TED mission. It seems like the core mission of TED is being augmented each year from just “sharing talks” to also include “daring walks”. We are using the power of the community to enable real action. The TED Prize is an obvious example. But the spectacular growth of TEDx as well as the imminent launch of TED Ed are other great examples of the promise of what TED could get done. In a world with too many conferences that get stuck on the talk it is so encouraging and promising that we are not.  The riveting response from Bryan Stevenson’s talk was perhaps the fact that brought this to home. We aren’t satisfied with a wonderful talk. We were moved to action. Fast, resolute action.

2. Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a public defense lawyer and founder of EJI (Equal Justice Initiative). His talk may go down as a top 5 in the history of TED. It was clearly one of those moments that will never be forgotten. The entire room exploded. It was unexpected (at least by me) and it was incredibly moving. It is so inspiring and refreshingly rare to hear a leader who can make the case for compassion without the so often accompanying guilt, blame and shame. He did it by opening up our own humanity. He inspired us to reduce proximity more than poverty. His wish is for us all to not allow the distance of ignorance perpetuate the harmful gaps that effectively block human progress for all. He did it with a powerful blend of grace, conviction and literary beauty. I can’t wait to watch it again. When you go, please feel free to join the TED community in helping Bryan advance his cause.



3. TED Education Session

I know this may be rare. But I am picking an entire block as my second best talk even though there were several talks during this session. I do it for 3 reasons. First, because Education is so desperately important and we need Education 2.0 more than anything. Second, because it was the totality of the session that was so powerful. Each piece was masterfully integrating with the next and if ever there was a case that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts this was such a session. Third, a key topic selected was sex ed itself. I personally believe that America has work to do in our relationship with this “hot” topic. Particularly as it relates to our youth. And it was refreshing to see new and different approaches to an important topic like sex. Honorary mentions in this segment goes to Rafe Esquith and his Hobarth Shakespearians who were sensational as well as to Ainissa Ramirez who both eloquently and passionately inspire the youth to scientific discovery and ultimately mastery. Finally, inviting 300 students to this session was smart and brought a relevant atmosphere to the environment itself.



4. John Hockenberry

Loved, loved, loved John’s talk about design as being the intention with life. As Steve Job’s so many times reminded us: “Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation”, John spoke with tremendous insight, passion and inspiration around the underpinnings of design. His own fate that he met in a horrible and tragic car accident decades ago has clearly driven him to deeply discover his own true self, his motivations and his ultimate intentions.


5. The Future of Energy

Again, I have chosen to aggregate a few talks here, as I believe none of the talks would have been as powerful if they weren’t reinforcing each other. It was the combination of them that illuminated both the complexity, urgency and opportunity we face.

Paul Gilding and James Hansen are heroic whistle blowers. We need them. They are like our constant consciousness. They won’t allow our optimism bias (more of that below) to delay necessary action any more. But equally true, if left alone and listening only to them, I probably would shoot myself. That’s why Peter Diamandis talk was necessary and timely. It was a stark contrast to Gilding’s talk, right when we needed it. T. Boone Pickens and Donald Sadoway also illustrated necessary reality checks on technologies we urgently need to develop as launch pads both away from where we are but also towards where we need to go.

Diamandis and Gilding’s talks are published here (Please watch in the order pasted below)




6. Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. He practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He is also Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health. I have been a fan of Atul’s work for a long time. He is a voice of reason, solution and promise for a very sick health care system. His writing has inspired current and future doctors, hospitals and insurance companies across the country (and world). I was happy to see him come to the TED stage and I hope his ideas are spread in a typical TED like wave. We need that to happen.  If you haven’t read his books or New Yorker articles I highly recommend them. The one that grabbed me was “The Bell Curve” from 2004. Having lost a sister to Cystic Fibrosis it particularly hit home hard.


7. Susan Cain and Sherry Turkle

I love Susan Cain’s message about introverts. Having been “diagnosed” myself as an introvert many years ago (to the surprise of some) I have found the topic of introverts and extroverts intriguing and fascinating. And I agree with her that we seem culturally obsessed with extroverts. Obviously we need both and we all are both. But her arguments for celebrating solitude, reflection, introspection and “alone” time are powerful, important and ultimately critical if we are to be truly innovative and creative in the future.  But I think it is in the context of an “ever on” and always connected lifestyle that this conversation really comes to life. Therefore I have added Sherry Turkle to Susan Cain’s stage.

Sherry Turkle’s talk around the need for more consciousness and full awareness of how our digital behaviors may be affecting our innate social structure is important and worthy of much more research and conversation. It is also very tangentially relevant to what Susan Cain talked about. Sherry speaks and writes about it from both a personal and professional experience. As the Professor of social studies at MIT she also brings the appropriate respect and technology credibility to the subject. My personal view is it is important to stay close to how all this new “constant online” behavior is affecting our humanity although I am also humble and a bit wary of this generation telling the future generation on how to truly be human. I am still not so sure that our offspring haven’t learned more from watching us how not to behave than what the harm of technology may do to them!




8. Tali Sharot

Tali Sharot is a neuroscientist currently doing research at the University College in London (formerly at NYU). I enjoyed her talk about Optimism Bias. I think it’s important for all of us to be aware of it and also to protect it. I prefer Optimism Bias over its not so attractive sibling. However, her research in how we will adapt (or not) in the face of new facts is critical in understanding how to avoid decisions made with incomplete visibility due to us wearing all to rosy glasses.



9. Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of Social Psychology at the Univeristy of Virginia. He has given a TED talk before during the last Monterey session in 2008. I really respect and value the work of Jonathan Haidt. Understanding the moral underpinning of institutional and human behavior is truly critical. Way too often we draw the wrong conclusions by simply not going deep enough in our understanding of why people make the decisions they are making. The particular emphasis on group dynamics and how we are morally different when alone and when in groups is both amazing, disappointing and enlightening.




10. Regina Dugan

I was surprised and amazed by Regina Dugan’s talk. The first woman to ever lead DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Many people have reservations about anything developed by the Department of Defense. For good reasons. But we must also recognize the tremendous technological discoveries and advancements benefitting civil society that was originated by the strong human desire to defend ourselves. Necessity is again and again showing up as the true mother of invention. Regina Dugan masterfully navigated the mysterious waters of classified discovery, technological impossibilities and moral dilemmas. I was surprised, impressed and intrigued.




It kind of defeats the purpose of a TOP TEN to list a host of others. But honorary mentions goes to Lior Zoref from Israel who dared to dream publicly enough about a TED talk and then gave credence to the crowd by also using the crowd to design his talk. He also managed to bring an Ox on stage and prove the power of the crowd. Clever and relevant. Rebecca Neweberer Goldstein and her husband Steven Pinker theatrically and socratically dialogued around Reason which had its moments. Reuben Margolin’s pieces of art were astonishing, Bill Collins poems funny, Marco Tempest’s magic creative and Joshua Foer’s talk memorable (for those of you know know you’ll know what I mean…).

As you can tell, I am a big TED fan. The clear evidence of spreading and acting on powerful ideas gives me tremendous hopef for the future. What I love the most however, is not the optimism per se. It is the multi-dimensional, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary (and soon multi-verse) nature of the community itself. Which tech conferences has a ballet performance? Which science talks are ended with a Chinese speaking Banjo Player? It is only by being “integrative” that we can address the significant challenges ahead. I therefore close with two of my favorite quotes reflecting this very TED spirit. One on inter-discipline. And one on humanity!

”We cannot departmentalize our thinking…We cannot think of economic principles and ethical principles. Underneath all our thinking, there are certain fundamental principles to be applied to all our problems. I do wish that when a principle has been worked out in ethics, it did not have to be discovered all over again in psychology, in economics, in government, in business, in biology, and in sociology. It is such a waste of time.”

Mary Parker Follett

“I am survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educatedEichmanns. Reading and writing and spelling and history and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our students human”

Haim Ginott