Thursday, September 12, 2013

TED Talks

Remember when TED Talks were all the rage two years ago? Or maybe that was just my experience: I was a college freshman and newly-empowered teenagers love showing their friends things that make them look smart for having discovered it.

I remember my friends showed me bands that were too obscure for me to know, their favorite directors (because knowing anyone besides the cast in a movie is very impressive), how race relations could be summed up in a pithy yet poignant memeand the best TED Talks.

I bought in completely to the TED Talk craze.  I didn't spend as many hours pouring over TED Talks as some of my college colleagues, but I did really enjoy the ones I did watch. I found my favorites and I would look up the speaker, make note of his or her book (almost every speaker had written at least one book) and add it to my amazon cart to buy and read later.

The funny (not surprising) thing is I never got around to buying or reading any of those books. Not one.  Even though I spent a good deal of time pondering the most inspirational ones.  I even rewatched a few to remember every key point because TED Talks are a very distilled form of that person's research, so you must remember every detail they've given in their talk.

But then why didn't I ever purchase a book or find any concrete way to delve into the subject further?

Because TED Talks represent the way our generation approaches intellectual topics. We don't want to invest any significant amount of time in one area. We get distracted far too easily. We want to move onto the next topic, the next discussion, the next political controversy, the next meme, the newest app, the other tumblr, the TED Talk that comes next in the playlist.

We don't focus our attention on any one subject for too long. Don't get me wrong though. There is definitely merit in becoming a person who is well-versed in a variety of subjects. A holistic approach to life's intellectual bounty ensures that our perspective doesn't become too narrow.

But are we really learning very much about the history of racism, an innovative new search engine, the value of spiritual empathy, or how capitalism affects everyday decisions by watching a 10-20 minute speech on the subject - engaging as that speaker may be?

I'm not trying to disparage anyone who enjoys watching TED Talks, or anyone who believes they are a valid introduction to a topic that was previously unknown to most viewers. I agree. They are. However, that is all TED Talks are: an introduction.

TED Talks are still a great way to discover topics most of us didn't even know existed; or to explore topics that are outside of our own area of research; or to approach something familiar from a new perspective. When you watch TED Talks though, please remember, the speaker is doing their best to convey years of learning in a few minutes, but that's impossible.  The knowledge gained from a speech will never replace the knowledge gained from dedicated research.

The next time you watch a TED Talk and it feels infinitely inspirational, note whether or not it actually influences your decision making and is a topic you look further into.  True inspiration will change your behavior, not just keep you stimulated until the speech is over.

I'm going to keep watching TED Talks, but more importantly, I am going to keep learning for the rest of my life. Whether TED Talks prove to be a passing fad or not.


PS A very cynical (and slightly racist) but funny article about why white people like TED Talks. My favorite TED Talk is below. It's definitely worth a watch, and I promise it will keep you entertained.

picture and video from TED

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