Notes on the 10 Most Popular TED Talks

by on May 12, 2010 | posted in SEO Theory

When I came across a recent Google spreadsheet of 689 TED Talks, ranked on engagement, I felt obliged to start making a strong effort to start watching them, rather than passively surf into them when I was on the internet. If you’re like me, you’ve probably reflexively watched these videos, whenever they especially caught your attention in RSS feeds, on Twitter, or when you found the time to do so.

When I ran into this list, I couldn’t ignore TED any longer. I, like most dumb people, love lists. This Google spreadsheet ranks the most popular TED talks (which aren’t necessarily the best, assuredly), so I had some kind of framework to go by to find, at very least, the most entertaining speeches. Now that I have my own blog, watching these videos, taking down notes and offering them to you was enough of an excuse to sit down and ingest this stuff. And it’s great, enriching “stuff”, I assure you that.

From the list I took the speeches that did something that wasn’t a joke or a product demo – just straight, real discourse on something that matters. I decided to pass on Bill Gates high ranked speech because I saw that as possibly being skewed towards his popularity and influence more than what he actually had to say, although I’m sure it’s still important. I haven’t watched his speech, but I will. I promise.

These notes are rough, and I definitely might have misconstrued something. Don’t take this as a summary or a written dictation of every word that was said – it’s not. I also attempted to tranfix 0% of my personality into the notes. It’s important to realize that I don’t necessarily agree with the viewpoints of a few of these speakers, but all of them should be listened to, thought about, and respected. Image credit goes to TED as well, as I spliced together these mini-bios from each of the speakers’ about page on

I hope you enjoy. If you find something glaringly wrong or misinterpreted, I will gladly change it. I will also add additional details if you determine that I missed something of importance. Enjoy!

Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation | Speaker Page | Video

Pink uses an example of a creative problem where there are two groups, where one group is offered cash incentives, and the other isn’t. Surprisingly, the group who was offered cash incentives, on average, took 3 ½ minutes more (for a short problem) to solve the same problems.

Pink says our 21st century “carrots and sticks” incentive system doesn’t work based on the new kind of tasks we undergo – creative ones. Where creativity isn’t used, cash incentives are conducive to production. He refers back to the first creative problem, uses the same controls, but removes the creativity from the problem. Those people who were incentivized finish first.

In the 21st century, left brain work is become fairly easy to outsource and automate. Because of that, cash incentives are dead. Cash incentives actually limit creativity.

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But once the task called for “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” a larger reward led to poorer performance. In eight of the nine tasks we examined across three experiments, higher rewards led to worse performance.”

“We find that financial incentives can lead to negative impact on overall performance.”

Three elements of new motivation: Autonomy (work without micro-management), mastery (become the best), purpose (do something that matters).

Google has a 20% time, where engineers can do whatever they want. About half of Google’s new products are birthed from this 20% time.

The battle is “carrots and sticks” vs. “autonomy, mastery, purpose”. There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. This new way of motivating is “what science knows”, yet business has yet to match it with what they do.

Jamie Oliver’s “Teach Every Kid About Food” | Speaker Page | Video

Jamie Oliver TED

2/3rds of America is statistically obese. We spend our life worried about homicide but it is such a minor part of why we die (other than natural causes) in the United States.

Obesity costs us $150 billion in health care bills each year.

How can you say something is low fat when it’s full of so much sugar?

School was always invented to give us the tools to be creative be amazing etc. But we haven’t really evolved it to deal with the health catastrophes of America. Kids eat lunch/breakfast 190 days of the year. School food is ridiculously important.

If you’re not a food expert and you have tighter budgets you have difficulty being creative as an accountant in a food environment. If you don’t have forks and knives in your school, you are fully endorsing fast food – because it’s hand held.

We don’t teach kids about food in elementary school. All it takes is two one hour sessions to fix the miseducation – but we don’t do it.

People on milk boards came to the realization that people would drink more milk if it tasted better because sugar content – however, the sugar is what kills and creates obesity.

It is profoundly important that every child leaves school able to cook 10 things that will save their lives.

If one person teaches 3 people how to cook, then they each tell 3 people how to cook too, that only has to happen 25 times to encapsulate all of America.

“I wish for everyone to help create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.” – Jamie Oliver

Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity | Speaker Page | Video

Ken Robinson TED

Education is something that goes deep with people – like religion and money and other things.

Kids starting school this year will retire in 2065. Nobody has a clue what will happen in 5 years time – yet we’re educating them for 2065.

Creativity now is as important in education now as literacy – and we should treat them with the same status.

Kids aren’t frightened about being wrong. Being wrong doesn’t mean being creative – but if you aren’t afraid of being wrong, you can’t be creative.

We are educating people out of their creative capacities. All people are born artists – we are just educated out of it as we grow up.

Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects – Art is always on the bottom.

As people grow up we start educating from the waist up – and we eventually get to the head – and then to the right side.

Seemingly, the entire purpose of the education system is to create University professors. That’s how it’s structured. They live in their heads, and slightly to one side.

There was no education system prior to the 19th century – it was created to meet the needs of Industrialism.

Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. Kids are now heading home with degrees to play video games – it’s the process of academic inflation.

Intelligence is wondrously interactive – the brain isn’t broken up into compartments.

Our only hope for the future is to redefine our thought of human ecology. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. We need to see our creative capacities for the richness they are, and our children for the hope that they are.

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Speaker Page | Video

Elizabeth Gilbert TED

What is about creative ventures that makes us extremely worried about the creator’s mental health? “Are you afraid of failure?”

We’ve accepted the notion that creativity and anguish are inherently linked.

In ancient times creativity was attached to a “demon”, so that success and failure as a creative wasn’t as tumultuous – if you failed, maybe your demon was just not that great – if was good, it freed you from narcissism because the demon was partly responsible. This created a detachment from the stress of expectation when being creative.

Once this demon, referred to as “genius”, turned from something that was interacted with into something that became the artist, the pressure began to kill off artists for the last 500 years.

Why not imagine the creative process in some way like this? Because it makes as much sense are the maddening creative process we have now.

Her topic often reflects her speech – flowing, random, describing the mysticism and unpredictability of the creative process.

She gives examples of how people battle the creative word

Artists sometimes are faced with the “glimpse of god” dilemma, where they produce genius then wake up and are mortal.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Keep showing up for your piece of it – whatever it might be. What is the artist going to do with the rest of their life after the initial impression?

Oley to you, nonetheless. For having the sheer human love and ability to show up.

Clay Shirky: Social Media can Make History | Speaker Page | Video

Clary Shirky TED

Its not when the shiny new tools show up that they matter – it’s when we all start taking them for granted.

The moment we’re living through is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.

There have been four periods of media innovations – printing press, then telegraph/telephone, then recorded media other than print (film/photos/sound), then television. The problem with these stages is they weren’t good at communicating with hundreds without offering only a singular message. To be customized, it had to be one on one. Internet gave us the many to many capability. Internet gave us the carriage for every previous innovation and brought it together.

Chinese Earthquake was reported as it happened. The world immediately was aware and listening and talking about it. The BBC News found out about the Quake through Twitter. The last night China had a quake of that magnitude it took them three months to admit that it happened. They weren’t given a choice in this moment – their citizens didn’t allow them. In ½ a day donations were pouring in around the world.

China let this citizen reporting happen. Then people started to realize that the reason so many school buildings had collapsed was because corrupt officials allowed the buildings be constructed below code. Protests grew to a mass and China began to shut down the citizen media. China is the best mediator of its citizens information. He describes it as the “Chinese firewall”.

China could not control it in this instance because of the abundance, mass and amateur nature of this news information. Two weeks prior to the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, China simply shut down access to Twitter because they had no way to filter or control it.

There are more amateur news creators than professionals – this has changed everything. No longer can the professional spin mask any gaffes in the news creation process – the amateur news disseminators will overtake that and break reality to light.

He uses a example where Obama supporters declared displeasure for a stance Obama took. Obama was forced to create a press release saying that he understood them, but would stay with his stance. Obama couldn’t control his supporters, but only engage with them.

Media has changed, its not whether we can change this, its really – “this is what we have”.

Rory Sutherland: Life lessons from an ad man | Speaker Page | Video

Rory Sutherland TED

Advertising creates intangible value.

He uses an example of how a train system had $6 billion in improvements spent on the track to speed up the train. However, happiness with the system would’ve gone up more if they had supermodels walking the train and handing out alcohol every day, and they still would have had $3 billion left.

Denim is the perfect example of something that replaces intrinsic value with symbolic value.

We have the perception that real value involves creating things, and what comes on top of it is “fake” and unethical.

Interface fundamentally determines the behavior. Marketing has done a great job of creating opportunities for impulse buying, however there are few opportunities for impulse saving.

Shreddies were once square cereal but the change to a “diamond” – turning the square on its side – “Diamond Shreddies” – increased perceived value of the product.

There is little correlation between quality and enjoyment in line – enjoyment, however, went up significantly when told how much the wine cost.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if we create higher value of things of average value, the enjoyment/consumption of said item goes up, and more happiness occurs. We do this in multiple areas of life – say, for instance, loving a person or your friends. We create value adds in the intangible parts of the person that comes from experience and etc.

Poetry is when you make new things familiar and familiar things new. -> A bad definition of advertising medium.

“We are perishing for want of wonder, not want of wonders.”

Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions | Speaker Page | Video

Sam Harris TED

The belief that science can’t answer moral questions is an illusion.

We are more concerned about the well being of our counterparts because we believe we are exposed to a wider breadth of happiness and sadness than less intelligent biological creatures, which may not be capable of interpreting such things.

Culture changes us by changing our brain. Therefore, these changes can be understood through neuroscience.

There are 21 states where corporal punishment is still legal in the classroom.

“Well-being” can be objectively defined. Because we haven’t clearly defined it does not mean it can’t be clearly defined – for example, the difference between a person who alive and dead is clear as day.

It seems unlikely that science could ever answer the question to things like “it’s not good to lie”. However, in chess, it is recommended to “not lose your queen”. However, in a game so mathematical as chess, it is still sometimes fundamentally correct to lose your queen.

We do something different when we talk about morality. When we talk about morality, we value differences of opinion more than other areas. However, when we look at Dali Lama vs. Ted Bundy, the differences seem like chocolate vs. vanilla.

How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How is the Taliban’s ignorance any more obvious in the domain of human well being?

It is possible for entire cultures to have needs and beliefs that are wrong and misguided when considering human well being.

Just admitting that this is possible will transform our ideas of morality.

We can no more respect and tolerate vast differences in notions of human well being. We simply must converge on the answers we give to the most important questions of human life.  To do that, we must admit these questions have answers.

Women say they like wearing burkahs and it reigns in male lust and the like. What would your response be to this? He responds – What is voluntary in a context where men have certain expectations, and if the women don’t do it, they are punished? Would they really want to wear that in 120 degree heat? If it’s voluntary then we can really talk about it.

Michael Specter: The danger of science denial | Speaker Page | Video

Michael Specter TED

Why go back in time? Times have never been as good as they are now, in any measurable way – health, wealth, opportunity, etc.

A kid born in New Delhi today can expect to live as long today as the richest man in the world did 100 years ago.

Despite all of our accomplishments, 1 billion people go to bed hungry every day.

We’ve never needed progress in science as much as we do now. We need to go back as much as 300 years to the Enlightenment to find a time when people battled progress as much as we do now.

We’ve lost faith in institutions and authority today. We hate big pharma and government, so we oppose many scientific realities.

Multivitamins and other pills (i.e. acai berry/ginco), to this day, have been proven to do nothing but make your urine darker, yet we spend billions on it each year.

Measles were cured, which was a huge advancement and prolonging of life, yet we’ve suddenly decided to stop taking the vaccine because we believe “it isn’t here”. 160,000 people died of it last year in the world. We don’t link causation and correlation – these things seem the same, but they’re never the same.

Hundreds of thousands people died in South Africa because of this issue – belief that “magic” overwhelmed scientific fact, a doctor recommended a blend that result in mouth deaths.

People are against genetically engineered food yet it’s scientifically proven to be better for you – but because we hate big pharma and government, it’s been largely shunned. “We believe what we see – we don’t believe governments and pharma giving us data.”

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world | Speaker PageVideo

Jane McGonigal TED

3 billion hours in game playing is not enough to solve the world’s problems. 21 billion hours of gameplay are needed to solve all of the world’s problems.

Many gamers feel as though they aren’t as good in reality as they are in games. In game world many people become the best version of themselves – they get up after failure and try again. In real life, it doesn’t happen nearly as often.

World of Warcraft is a basically a microcosm of real life – an epic story, tons of collaborators at our fingertips, people working together. Here, though, there is way more positive feedback – leveling up, achieving victory, etc.

The average young person today in a country with a strong gaming culture will spend 10,000 hours playing games by the age of 21.

Everyone is gaming.  But what exactly are gamers getting good at? There are 500 million global gamers.

Gamers have 4 superpowers – urgent opitimism (the desire to tackle an obstacle immediately with a strong hope of success), social fabric (We like people better after we’ve played a game with someone. We trust that they will follow the rules, stay within it, finish it), blissful productivity (people playing a game are happy “working hard” being productive in the game sense), epic meaning (gamers like being attached to huge, cool stories of an epic nature). “Super-empowered hopeful individuals”

2nd biggest Wiki behind Wikipedia in the world is the World of Warcraft wiki.

The problem with gamers is the people who are doing it believe they can change the virtual world, but not the real one.

“We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.” Economist Edward Castronova

Gamers can accomplish more in the virtual world than they can in real life. We’re using games to escape real world suffering.

We don’t want to predict the future – we want to make the future.

3 “world solving games”

1st game – “World Without Oil” – try to survive an oil shortage, helps people perform optimally with gas prices and etc in the real life by enjoying it first through a game.

2nd game – “SuperStruct” – “Welcome to the Global Extinction Awareness System”  evil supercomputer, 23 years to live – It’s your job to invent the future of health, food, energy, social safety net and other things. 500 super creative solutions came from a demo group.

3rd game – “Evoke” – Offers ways for people to “level up” and learn social development skills to implement in real life.

Gamers are a human resource for us to do real world work.

Dan Ariely: Are we in control of our own decisions? | Speaker Page | Video

Dan Ariely TED

It is hard to overcome intuition even when we are shown that our intuition is wrong – when proof is taken away, we still feel connected to our intuition.

Because of this thought, what is to say these things don’t occur in areas that have large importance?

Some countries give away their organs in a huge percentage after death – some none at all. Yet the connectivity of “culture” does not relate to the organ donation percentages. The countries that have a low organ donation participation rate are because they have a box they have to check to donate  – the ones that have a high rate don’t have to check a box at all, but rather have to check the box to opt out.

The implication is actually that the designer essentially controls our decisions rather than us.

Because the problem is so complex and we have no idea what to do, we default to whatever answer is chosen for us. This is the incredible power of the “default”.

By adding a “useless” option, you can actually use it to frame people towards what they want. For example, imagine this scenario:

Print subscription: $5

Web subscription: $20

Print + Web Subscription: $20

In this scenario, nobody picks the web subscription only. However, when you eliminate the “web subscription option”, more people actually choose the print option, because the web subscription increases the perceived value of the print + web subscription.

Another example is if an uglier version of you is with a similarly equal person (in terms of attractiveness), your ugly twin will improve your perceived value.

When we think about and design more important scenarios like retirement and healthcare, these realities can be implemented to design a better world, rather than using it only for monetary gain.

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