Brain Pickings

Happy 5th Birthday, TED Talks: 5 All-Time Favorite Talks

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Democratizing knowledge, the meaning of life, and why everything we know about creativity is wrong.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of TED talks becoming available to the world. As of this week, there are 1000 TED talks online in 81 languages, and they’ve been seen a cumulative half billion times.

I can’t overstate how much TED has changed my life personally, and what a tour de force it has been culturally. I’ve previously said that my first month of watching TED talks in 2006 gave me more — more insight, more knowledge, more inspiration, more creative restlessness to do something with my life — than four years of “Ivy League education” combined, and I’ll say it again. In more ways than I can count, TED has changed my outlook on the world, vastly expanded my scope of curiosity, and infinitely enriched my life with the tremendously interesting, generous and kind people I’ve been fortunate to meet in the TED community, online and off.

Some time ago, I channeled my love for TED in a remix project called TEDify, collaging and animating soundbites from TED talks into narratives along different themes. Here’s one, exploring the evolution of storytelling:

Today, to celebrate the big occasion, I’ve tried to curate my five favorite TED talks of all time — operative word being “tried,” since it felt a bit like asking a parent to pick out her favorite child.

ELIZABETH GILBERT ON GENIUS

When Elizabeth Gilbert took the TED stage in 2009, it didn’t take long to realize her talk would be among TED’s finest. Unlike other author talks, hers followed what I consider to be the perfect formula for a stellar TED talk: Take the experience or craft you are best known for and draw from it a universal metaphor for some great truth about the human condition. Gilbert’s assertion that we use concepts like “genius” and “muse” to shield ourselves from the results of our own work hits home for just about anyone in a “creative” field, bringing into question some of our most fundamental assumptions about creativity.

Above all, Gilbert makes a powerful case for the tremendous importance of showing up — of good old-fashioned hard work — in the creative process, something we all intuitively understand but often roll our eyes at because it isn’t as exciting and glamorous and alluring as the prospect of a Eureka moment or a single flash of insight that magically transforms our mediocrity into genius.

Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Ole!’ And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless,just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert is the author Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, which, despite the awful Hollywood adaptation, remains an excellent read.

MATTHIEU RICARD ON HAPPINESS

In 2004, French neuroscientist-turned-Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard delivered a layered, thoughtful and thought-provoking talk on happiness and its cultural conceits, much of which I used in the TEDify remix on happiness.

The whole point of that is not, sort of, to make, like, a circus thing of showing exceptional beings who can jump, or whatever. It’s more to say that mind training matters. That this is not just a luxury.This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul; this is something that’s going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most: the way our mind functions.” ~ Matthieu Ricard

Besides his fantastic Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, one of the 7 most essential books on the art and science of happiness, Ricard is also the author of The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life — a remarkable record of a 10-day conversation between Ricard and his father, renowned French intellectual and philosopher Jean-Francois Revel.

PHILIPPE STARCK ON DESIGN

Eccentric and brilliant and French as ever, Philippe Starck weaves a remarkable story of design, existentialism and moral philosophy in his 2007 talk, injecting an oh-so-needed shot of humility into the buttocks of our generational and civilizational arrogance.

That is our poetry. That is our beautiful story. It’s our romanticism. Mu-ta-tion. We are mutants. And if we don’t deeply understand, if we don’t integrate that we are mutants, we completely miss the story. Because every generation thinks we are the final one. We have a way to look at Earth like that, you know, ‘I am the man. The final man. You know, we mutate during four billion years before, but now, because it’s me, we stop. Fin. For the end, for the eternity, it is one with a red jacket.'” ~ Philippe Starck

For more of Starck’s design genius, don’t miss the equally provocative Starck, capturing over three decades of his work, eccentricity and cultural insight.

JANINE BENYUS ON BIOMIMICRY

Biomimicry is one of the most promising frontiers of innovation at the intersection of design, engineering and sustainability. In 2009, Kirstin Butler wrote about AskNature — an ambitious biomimicry portal by Janine Benyus connecting designers, engineers and scientists to collaborate on biomimetic innovation. Benyus set the stage for the project in 2005 with a showcase of 12 brilliant, sustainable designs inspired by nature, then followed up in 2009 by showing these concept in action, implemented in real-life design and engineering products — concepts so simple yet so brilliant it makes one wonder why we aren’t implementing nature’s age-old, time-tested systems in every aspect of modern life.

If I could reveal anything that is hidden from us, at least in modern cultures, it would be to reveal something that we’ve forgotten, that we used to know as well as we knew our own names. And that is that we live in a competent universe, that we are part of a brilliant planet. And that we are surrounded by genius. Biomimicry is a new discipline that tries to learn from those geniuses, and take advice from them, design advice. ” ~ Janine Benyus

Find even more in Benyus’s excellent Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

STEVEN JOHNSON ON INNOVATION

Steven Johnson is easily my favorite nonfiction writer. Last year, he delivered a fantastic talk at TED Global, based on his book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, exploring the cross-pollination essential to ideation and revealing the combinatorial nature of creativity. The talk was later animated by the RSA for an even more delicious treat.

That is how innovation happens. Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

Where Good Ideas Come From topped my list of 2010’s 10 best books in business, life and mind.

BONUS

The TEDx program, a series of self-organized TED-like events around the world, has been one of TED’s great successes, with some 2,000 events to date in more than 80 countries worldwide. Many of them are produced and curated with a formidable level of quality, delivering talks that could’ve easily been given on main-stage TED. My favorite TEDx gem has to be Brené Brown’s moving TEDxHouston talk on wholeheartedness and vulnerability, sitting at the intersection of science, storytelling and philosophy:

In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.” ~ Brené Brown

Brown is the author of the fantastic The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

What TED talks changed your worldview, your priorities or your life, in ways big or small?

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Kurt Vonnegut Interviewed on NPR Inside Second Life

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What it means to be a man without a country, or what Marx has to do with improving life through technology.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my big literary heroes, a keen observer and wry critic of culture and society. His Armageddon in Retrospect is an absolute necessity and his wildly entertaining series of fictional interviews with luminaries, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is an absolute gem, firmly planted on this year’s edition of the annual Brain Pickings summer reading list.

In 2006, NPR interviewed Vonnegut from inside the virtual world Second Life, as a part of their Infinite Mind series. Recorded shortly before Second Life reached its peak and mere months before Vonnegut passed away, the interview is a rare cultural time-capsule in more ways than one, as well as a fitting meta-wink to God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, which is premised on the idea that Vonnegut would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences, allowing him to access the afterlife, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late.

It’s actually possible to get a better life for individuals [through technologies like Second Life] and I have frequently inanimated new technologies, but I love cell phones. I see people so happy and proud, walking around. Gesturing, you know. I’m like Karl Marx, I’m up for anything that makes people happy.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

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Happy Birthday, George Orwell: BBC’s 1954 1984 Adaptation

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From Big Brother to Little Brother, or what Newspeak has to do with the API economy.

Tomorrow marks the 108th birthday of the great George Orwell, best-known for his satirical novella Animal Farm and his dystopian cult-novel Nineteen Eighty-Four — some of the most poignant pieces of political and cultural criticism ever published. In 1954, five years after the book’s original publication, BBC staged a live television adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell. The film has now passed into the public domain and is available for free in its entirety online under a Creative Commons license, as well as in a collector’s edition DVD.

In today’s sociocultural context of increasing concerns about privacy, censorship and surveillance, Orwell’s work is more relevant — and more terrifying — than ever, offering a timely warning of the society we might become if we fail to codify, appropriate and regulate the tools and technologies of digital culture, what Jennifer 8. Lee so aptly calls “Little Brother.”

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