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My 5 Favourite TED Talks

Powerful presentations that shed light on happiness, vulnerability, motivation, rejection, and pain

An illuminating talk from an expert can open the door to a whole new perspective

I love great presentations. I also love to read. But you know, I think I learn best watching people talk.

You don’t just listen to a great speaker – you see what they say too. Because wonderful presenters paint pictures with their words.

Like sorcerers, they open doors in the mind, guiding us through new realms of reality as we see what they describe. Magical lands of possibility miraculously appear before our eyes and ears. We partake of the fruits of that speaker’s work, the nutrition of their knowledge.

Like many millions of others, I’m guessing you’ve seen at least one TED talk. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a non-profit organisation whose slogan is “spreading ideas worth sharing”. Indeed, many presentations really do spread valuable ideas and encourage startlingly new ways of seeing and thinking.

Some ideas seem a little one dimensional, and others are so focused on tugging the heart strings that your brain cells remain untapped, but there are enough gems to make this a superbly worthwhile project.

Here are my personal favourite five TED talks – well, of the ones I’ve seen. (I’m relying on you to draw my attention to great ones I might have missed!)

In no particular order, let’s jump straight in!

1. The power of vulnerability – Brené Brown

This is an engaging talk by a self-professed organising perfectionist who likes to tidy up messy areas of life. Brené Brown is a great speaker, fluid and funny as well as really interesting.

As a young researcher Brené was taught by her professor:

“If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.”

Ironic, then, that now Brené, a research professor at the University of Houston, studies the ‘messy’ areas of human life, such as shame, vulnerability, and authenticity relating to human emotional connection.

Brené (if I can keep referring to her on intimate first name terms!) describes how vital human connection is to happiness. How shame and fear “unravel connection”. The emotion of shame can be transcribed into thought thus:

“Is there something about me that does (or should) separate me from others? What if they can see it?”

But there’s a paradox. In order for true connection to happen, real intimacy, we need to be seen by someone for who we are – ‘warts and all’. We need to be brave enough to let them see us.

Feeling that we are not good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, or whatever it may be, to be ‘worthy’ of respect or love actually drives away what we all crave: true connection with others. Feeling that we need to fake being a certain way in order to somehow be acceptable blocks real intimacy.

In this talk Brené describes the importance of not shunning or hiding from vulnerability, but embracing it. She uses the buzz word ‘authentic’ to describe relationships that follow this ethos, and we could all do with learning from it. We need to show others who we are, be honest, and find people who value us for ourselves, with all our foibles, faults and failings.

In this way, socially circulating sociopaths will be able to take advantage and better manipulate us for their own calculating ends.

Okay, so she doesn’t say that! Come on, keep up!

But the thought did occur to me as I watched this that of course we do need to be discerning about whom we expose and embrace our personal vulnerabilities with. Yes, we need to trust and relate honestly. But we also need to be socially discerning.

Sorry for being a bit caustic there – as long as we’re being open and honest, I thought I may as well share one of my weaknesses!

Anyway, Brené herself admits that when she realized the importance of embracing vulnerability, it made her think, because she hated the thought of personal vulnerability in herself. That’s why she set herself the challenge of studying shame.

She collected people’s stories and collated data over six years of research. And she did find that real intimacy is borne by allowing yourself to be truly vulnerable.

Not surprisingly, she found that people who ‘feel worthy’ had the courage to show others who they were and had more connected, loving relationships.

It seems that being willing and able to be vulnerable – to be our honest selves, to let go of controlling and predicting – is a vital capacity in the arena of human connection. Relationships, human connection, is what makes life feel meaningful – that’s why feelings of disconnection, isolation and loneliness seem to be so toxic for so many.

We need to be willing to take some relational ‘risks’, such as being the first to say “I love you”. We need to do things that have no guarantees and be prepared to love with no certainty we’ll be loved in return. And I think that in order to have that kind of confidence we need to feel that whatever happens, I’ll be okay. We need to be able to relax into life’s uncertainties, to invest in a relationship that may or may not work.

Brené doesn’t suggest how people should embrace vulnerability, just that they should, though she makes no secret of the fact that it takes real courage. She does veer slightly towards ‘all you have to do is love yourself enough’ territory, so there may be more feeling than strategy given overall. But that’s fair enough; after all, it is only a 20-minute talk.

This particular TED talk is still well worth watching and putting some serious thought into, because so many levels of our world seem fake, including the way many of us relate to others. (Please don’t ‘unfriend’ me for saying so!)

Emotional fakery (perhaps driven by fear of being seen for who we are) has definite consequences. And we all need to know about this. When we feel as if we are not really known we can feel lonely even at the largest of social get-togethers.

Now for a change of flavour. But, joyfully, this next talk still concerns not just accepting but seeking out rejection. So since we’re on the subject of embracing vulnerability…

2. What I learned from 100 days of rejection – Jia Jiang

I really love this talk. Entrepreneur Jia Jiang touches upon a touchy subject: rejection. He is clearly a creative, inspired, lateral thinking problem solver. Just as rotten wood can be used to light a cosy fire to keep us warm, when bad stuff happens to people like Jiang it is invariably used as fuel to power new ways of improving life.

Jiang is engaging and has a wonderful childlike sense of wonder that is infectious. He opens by recounting a painful memory of being, or at least feeling, rejected as a child. He describes how he came to fear rejection and therefore avoid the kind of life he could have been living if that fear wasn’t there. So what did he decide to do?

His antidote to fearing rejection was to purposefully seek out rejection so as to become inured to it. I told you he was a problem solver!

Over 100 days, he set himself the task of asking for things he knew he’d be rejected for. His take on himself and other people was transformed through this self-administered therapeutic task. But that’s not all!

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While his aim was to immunise himself against rejection, he found something else as well. Something quite unexpected. He did get used to rejection – but he didn’t get nearly as many rejections as he anticipated. Surprisingly, often people will say yes if you just have the front to ask them.

A stranger let him plant a flower in their back garden after his unsolicited knock on their door. A professor let him teach his class in college (and Jiang is not a teacher!). Starbucks took him on as a ‘greeter’ (a job he invented himself) for one hour.

And, somehow, he convinced Krispy Kreme to link doughnuts together in the shape of the Olympic rings. They actually did it! Interlinked doughnuts – just because he’d asked for them.

Of course, there was a limit. When he asked a guy he didn’t know for $100, the man politely declined. But that one was always going to be a long shot!

What Jiang found is that people tended to be intrigued and perplexed, but not rude or unkind. When people did say no, he would ask a very important question: “Why?” Sometimes a why will make people change the way they do things. Or sometimes you’ll get rejected – but heck, that was the original plan! What you don’t fear can’t hurt you.

Jiang’s journey revealed a world that was hidden in plain sight – a world where people are much kinder than we imagine. He discovered that rejection can be much less painful than we believe and that the fear of rejection is more destructive than rejection itself.

Jiang desensitized himself to the pain and shame of rejection. He found that the simple action of asking for what you want could open up all sorts of possibilities.

What seems to be a trapdoor may, in fact, be an escape hatch into a better reality. All you have to do is build up the courage to take the plunge.

Paradoxically, embracing rejection led Jiang to feel not less, but more in control. He couldn’t control (although he learned he could influence) whether others rejected his requests or not. But he did learn not to let it bother him, not to feel scared or embarrassed.

Real confidence isn’t about knowing that we will definitely get or do what we want. It’s about knowing deep inside that whatever happens, I’ll be okay.

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of the fear of rejection being worse than the rejection itself – according to the next TED talk, we are surprisingly bad at predicting what will make us unhappy… or happy, come to that. But knowing how happiness works can actually help us become happier.

3. The surprising science of happiness – Dan Gilbert

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. As he explains, our ‘psychological immune system’ can help us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.

Gilbert begins his engaging talk by discussing how the brain has increased in size and gained the prefrontal cortex not over the past couple of weeks, but over the past two million years.

The new – ‘neo’ – cortex performs myriad functions, he explains, but what interests him most is that it is capable of producing a ‘reality simulation’ of the future. This is how we are able to plan for and worry about the future (and how we are able to access the imagination in hypnosis).

We can imagine something before it happens. There’s a reason we don’t make chicken liver ice cream: because we can simulate that reality using our neocortex and realize that, nah, it’s not a great idea.

This has become so natural to us we barely know we are doing it, but underneath it all, it is the capacity to ‘simulate reality’ that allows us to foresee what may or may not be a good idea. Gilbert relates this to human happiness and presents research that shows how terrible we are at predicting what will make us miserable or happy.

The talk was recorded a while ago, and the data I’m about to describe is now pretty well known, at least in the psychological field. But it still bears thinking about.

Extensive research that surveyed lottery winners one year after winning the lottery and paraplegics one year after losing movement concluded that both groups were equally happy with their lives.

Unexpected, to say the least. It seems that for most of us, no matter what happens, good or bad, it only affects us for a while before we normalize the experience and adapt.

But that’s not how most of us see it. We expect that losing or gaining a romantic partner, failing or passing an academic test, winning or losing an election, gaining or losing money, getting or not getting a promotion and so forth will have a big impact on our happiness levels.

But as it turns out, they have much less impact, as far as intensity and duration, than we would expect. Gilbert calls this tendency to overestimate the hedonic effect of future events ‘impact bias’.

So it seems we are very bad at predicting the extent to which ‘bad’ or ‘good’ events will impact our happiness in the long term. This is well worth remembering as we handle life’s slings and arrows. With few exceptions, something that happens today will have no effect on our happiness in three months’ time.

We know, of course, that some events certainly do seem to make us happier or unhappier in the long term. People in warm, intimate relationships tend to feel happier. We also know that, for some people, being traumatized can definitely impact happiness in the long term if it isn’t effectively treated. But still, many one-off events have much less impact on us than we realize.

The lesson here is that happiness is not so much about what happens to us, but what we psychologically do with what happens to us. We know, for example, that depression isn’t an events-driven phenomenon; it’s fuelled by the way a person has learned to react and respond to events, and how well their needs are met.

Anyway, back to the talk! Gilbert explains that we all have what he calls an ’emotional immune system’ which is the capacity to adapt to bad or good events.

We synthesize happiness internally, but we look for it externally. The danger of not recognizing this is that we can waste time looking for happiness in places where it doesn’t necessarily reside. What we expect will be good for us may not be, and vice versa.

So many people say they are better off or have gained though losing. Gilbert gives examples of these kinds of people – they’re actually not all that rare. And on the other side of the coin, people who do succeed will often end up making sense of their success in such a way that it becomes normal to them and no longer makes them particularly happy.

I loved hearing about the ingenious experiments Gilbert has carried out at Harvard University, and I think you will too. The best way to use this talk is to imagine how these experiments may relate to situations in your own life.

Gilbert actually demonstrates, from an experiment, synthesis of happiness in action (look out for the Monet prints).

Some people are naturally better at synthesizing happiness out of just about anything that happens to them. They are robust and resilient to mental illness. Other people aren’t so good at it.

But the good news is we can learn to do this. And we all tend to get better at doing it as we grow older.

Gilbert also has some very interesting things to say on freedom of choice and its effects on different kinds of happiness. Here’s a clue: being stuck with only one choice can actually help synthetic (internally generated)  happiness.

And the point he makes right at the end has profound implications for all of humanity. I’ll leave you to discover that one on your own.

Gilbert’s talk reminded me of the great mystic poet Rumi, who said words to the effect that people seek fulfilment in all kinds of ways, but they ultimately don’t work because the path to true fulfilment is on another (spiritual) dimension.

It also brought to mind a talk by my colleague Roger Elliott on how setting the wrong goals in life can be a barrier to happiness – and how to avoid falling into that trap. But I digress!

This is a talk well worth enjoying and pondering. Reality simulation, imagining the future and planning for it, is, of course, inextricably linked with human motivation.

And it seems that, just as we don’t always fully appreciate what will make us happy or unhappy in the long run, nor do we appreciate how to genuinely motivate ourselves and others – and that’s what this next TED talk is all about.

4. The puzzle of motivation – Dan Pink

Dan Pink is another great speaker; engaging, easy to listen to, and quite funny in places. Although the thrust of this talk is how to, and crucially how not to, motivate workers, I think his message can be extrapolated to apply to all areas of human welfare and performance (including therapy and coaching), as well as self-motivation.

Pink describes some amazing work that shows what really motivates people – and it’s not what you would necessarily expect. In fact, some of the things we would expect to be motivational may actually do harm.

For example, Pink shows that financial rewards generally do not work when it comes to motivating staff – something that would probably come as a shock to most employers.

He explores the difference between extrinsic (outside) motivation and intrinsic (internal) motivation. The best motivation is when we experience internal or intrinsic satisfaction – that is, when we love to do something for its own sake.

On the other hand, research tells us that excessive and constant praise (extrinsic motivation) can actually be damaging to self-esteem and personal effectiveness.

Similarly, while Pink finds that financial extrinsic motivation works well in situations that follow a clear set of rules and have a simple endpoint, for creative problems it isn’t enough. Amazingly, he reports that performance in tasks requiring even rudimentary cognitive effort can actually be damaged by financial incentives!

We need, it seems, to motivate people intrinsically. Pink lists three elements we all need to feel motivated at work:

  • A sense of control over what we are doing (autonomy)
  • A sense of contributing to something bigger than ourselves (connection)
  • A sense of mastery and getting better at something (purpose).

These three elements, he says, are the greatest motivators, and give an all-important sense of meaning to what we are doing.

It’s clear to see how real motivation has to connect to the primal human needs we all share (and the more it connects, the more motivating it will be). This might seem obvious to many of us, but Pink says there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does as far as incentivizing.

This is not to say there shouldn’t be financial incentives, but they shouldn’t necessarily be the main medium for motivation. In fact, they should play a minor part.

Pink gives examples of companies that motivate their staff in ways that really work, and they all have one thing in common – they focus on intrinsic motivation. These principles aren’t limited to the business environment, however. They tell us something important about all human motivation.

Intrinsic motivation – autonomy, connection, and purpose – is hands down a far stronger motivational force than the old carrot-and-stick system.

This is a really valuable talk. Satisfaction in life always comes down to meaning, and money is only meaningful to the extent that it helps us live more meaningfully.

Okay, now I’m going to hit the brakes and screech to a halt without even indicating! I’m going to wrench sharply in a new direction to look at one of the shortest but most wonderful talks I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.

5. Why things hurt – Lorimer Moseley

How real is your pain? Pretty damn real, right?

Maybe not. Professor Lorimer Moseley, a clinical scientist investigating pain in humans, is the professor everyone wishes they had. His laidback Australian (or at least my idea of Australian) humour, tightly packed into just 14 minutes, is funny and engaging yet incredibly profound.

The central question – which he promptly answers – is:

Do we actually experience pain, or is it merely illusion?

He begins with a mesmerising tale of being bitten by a deadly snake, yet feeling no pain whatsoever. Why? Because he thought he’d just come up against some twigs in the grass. The meaning he gave to the experience determined what he felt.

Six months later he was walking through some grass again with a ‘boring talker’ called Naomi (which is a joke in itself – just watch the talk!) when… actually, I’m not even going to say what happened, because this natural comedian, this beautifully gifted storyteller, says it so much better than I ever could. Suffice to say it’s amazing.

The moral of the story is that it’s meaning that determines the type and intensity of pain we feel. Really it is. And you’ll believe it once you see this talk.

Pain doesn’t come from the tissues of the body. It comes from the brain – always, without exception. What better evidence for this than the fact that we can feel pain even in a prosthetic limb! A part of the body that… well, isn’t part of the body!

And the brain’s perception of pain can be modulated. For example, Moseley presents evidence that seeing the colour red can make something hurt more. One implication of this is that the language we use to describe pain or painful experiences can influence the actual severity of the pain itself.

Lorimer uses the horrific term ‘slipped disc’ as an example. Taken literally, the words describe a physical impossibility. And yet, the meaning we attach to those words! The way those words might shape experience!

As therapists or coaches we are trained to use language expertly, and, depending on your skill set, you may be asked to help clients manage physical pain. This wonderful talk will reinforce the fact that you really can make an incredible difference.

My god, I wish this guy was my professor! Did I mention I like this talk?

There are so many great talks out there. I could have mentioned – actually, I will mention – ‘banned’ talks like:

Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion, which seems really interesting and reasonable to me but was apparently beyond the pale for corrupt minds unable to make themselves up.

Or Graham Hancock‘s fully scientific but apparently unacceptable talk that merely seeks to suggest that there may be a lost prehistoric civilization – a golden age lost to time. There does seem to be some good evidence. What if he’s right? What if he isn’t? Is this really such a dangerous idea?

As far as I know, no new scientific idea has ever seen the light of day without initially being shouted down by the status quo.

We mustn’t be frightened of ideas that seem to defy our intellectual biases. The fact that people fear new ideas shows how cynical we are about human nature. Far from a show of strength, such resistance only suggests that we are so malleable – so programmable – that we can’t hear a ‘wrong’ idea without somehow being irreversibly corrupted!

The fact that people fear new ideas shows how cynical we are about human natureClick To Tweet

I’ve no doubt that there are many wonderful and enlightening TED Talks I haven’t watched, and you may be aghast that some of them haven’t gotten a mention. Before you cry out in protest, rest assured, I too loved the one about schools killing creativity! But I like to think my list might uncover some of the lesser known gems.

Let me know what TED talks you like in the comments below.

(I learn by watching, and I love TED-like videos. In fact, I think learning by watching is so important that I started Uncommon Practitioners TV, a therapy resource with many different videos of real therapy sessions as well as other video learning formats. Check it out here.)

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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