TED started in 1984 as a conference to bring together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, and Design. TED talks are limited to no more than eighteen minutes in length, and cover a wide array of topics, all focused on “ideas worth spreading.” More than 1,400 talks are available for viewing on-line.
Last year’s event was great, and this year’s was even better. Here’s a quick synopsis of what we learned this week from the sixteen speakers (fourteen “live,” and two on video):
Lee Cheng, Chief Legal Officer at NewEgg, Incorporated, told us a little bit about his work fighting patent trolls. He referred to himself as Chief Patent Troll Hunter, taking on those who would stifle innovation and business growth by claiming obscure patent ownership of such common functions as drop-down boxes, search boxes, and shopping cart functions on websites. This wasn’t the main focus of his talk. He focused on Fred Cheng, the founder and CEO of NewEgg (a $2.6 billion, privately held ecommerce site, and number two in the ecommerce space behind Amazon). Fred Cheng works in near anonymity, shunning personal attention, adulation, or PR. Fred focuses on NewEgg’s success, which he believes is the result of the team, and not his own personal work. It reminded me of a seminal quote, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Stephanie Decker is the quintessential survivor. In March, 2012, a tornado ripped through her home in Henryville, Indiana. She shielded her two young children with her body. The house collapsed and disintegrated around them, crushing Stephanie’s legs. Her kids survived without a scratch. She told us that mental toughness is the key differentiator in life. Each of us will face storms or struggles in our lives. We choose how we handle the storms. Staying positive is a choice. Although she lost her legs in the storm, she found her purpose. Her purpose wasn’t just learning how to walk again. That was just a first step (no pun intended). She and her husband formed the Stephanie Decker Foundation to help children with prosthetics get the best technology available to live the fullest lives possible.
Brian Kessler, founder and president of Maui Toys, talked about curiosity and the spirit of innovation. His father, Milton Kessler, invented the hula hoop. Brian has designed and developed more than 2,600 toys, sporting goods, and consumer products. He defined innovation as a process that has three main parts: creation, application, and execution. Creation is seeing what someone needs or wants, application is defining who will actually want this innovation, and execution is setting about to make it happen. Easy? Hardly. He described the series of small steps and adjustments he made to toy ideas before having the product that people would actually want to buy. He also showed some examples of “new” toys that are merely extensions of other toys. Innovation can be evolutionary, as well as revolutionary.
Laura Glynn, associate professor of Psychology at Chapman University, talked about the maternal brain. Professor Glynn said that 90% of all women worldwide will give birth to at least one child in their lifetime (amazing statistic). She told us about the fundamental physiological changes a woman’s brain goes through during pregnancy. Mother’s brains grow and change during pregnancy, and the effects are cumulative as they have additional children. Mother’s brains have an enhanced ability to identify threats and deal with stressful situations (ideal for new parents!). The old saying about not coming between a mother bear and her cubs seems to be the result of physiological changes in the maternal brain. Scientific research in this area is relatively new. People like Professor Glynn are uncovering new and amazing insights into the miracle of life, and how mom’s brains uniquely adapt to take on the challenges of parenting.
Trent Schlom, a twenty-one year old sports reporter and broadcaster for ESPN talked about how he turned his love of sports into a career. He always dreamed of talking about sports, and starting at fifteen, he took steps to make that dream a reality. His secrets? He creates his own opportunities, is always prepared, and keeps showing up. He focuses on learning and views himself as the eternal student. His concluding advice: Don’t just dream. Take the next step to actually get closer to your dream, and keep taking those steps. Trent’s energy and positive attitude are infectious, and may be the biggest secret of all.
Sarah Kaye’s 2011 TED presentation (if I should have a daughter…) streamed into the auditorium. Sarah is a spoken word poet, who started presenting her work when she was fourteen. She describes spoken word poetry as poetry that doesn’t want to sit on paper. It must be performed. She said there are three steps to writing poetry (or just about anything else in life):
- I can…do this
- I will…continue to do this
- I will infuse this with myself and my “backpack full of everywhere else I’ve been in life.”
As a way to get started, she asks her students to write lists:
- Ten Things I Know to Be True
- Ten Things I Should Have Learned by Now.
She writes poetry to work things out, and in the process, challenges each of us to do the same thing as we listen.
Iryna Krechkovsky, a prize-winning violinist, played a selection written by Bach on her Stradivarius. In her introduction to the song, she talked about how technology has given us so many ways to communicate with each other, and yet, we are emotionally removed from each other. Classical music is relevant in today’s society, because music is human. It expresses human emotion in ways we can’t explain, and in ways our technology can’t replicate.
Michael Laskin, a professional actor for over 35 years, described his view of the acting profession. While I didn’t learn much about acting, I did take a couple of key points from his talk:
Your talent is a given. Your resume and skills are what get you to the audition (or interview, meeting, or speech). What happens next is all about YOU. Your authenticity will trump your skill set and have more to do with your success than anything else.
Jillian Lauren, a New York Times bestselling author, talked about the experience she and her husband are living after adopting their son from Ethiopia. She, too, was adopted. What lessons does she take from her own adoption, and her son’s? Love is a decision, and a gift. When her son first arrived, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He had uncontrollable temper tantrums, night terrors, and a number of other symptoms that took years to work through. Jillian told her son stories as they walked around the city when he first arrived. As he grew, he came to embrace his journey here as a great adventure. He is subconsciously creating an identity for himself that is part Ethiopian, part Jewish, part Scottish, part American. We all form ourselves, based on our imagination, and the stories we tell about ourselves, regardless of where we came from.
Frank Smith, COO of Anschutz Film Group and Walden Media, discussed change. Change is continuous, no matter what industry (his happens to be film production). He related the history of the studio system in Hollywood, and how the near-monopoly of the five large studios began to break apart after World War II with the advent of television, and other changes. Companies that reacted quickly to the new reality thrived, while those who refused to embrace the changes went in the opposite direction. Change is hard, and sometimes difficult to see at first. Change should be seen as a constant, and can’t be ignored. The ash heap of history is littered with organizations that failed to respond to disruptions and changes in their industry (ironically, some of these got their start by disrupting someone else’s business): Border’s Books, Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, Circuit City, A&P, Washington Mutual Bank, MySpace, and Sears (well, not quite).
Stacey Schuerman, a yoga instructor, took the entire audience through a five-minute exercise to slow down, and focus on our breathing. She called it a chance to reset, renew, and rejuvenate our energy levels. An opportunity to feel the peace and calmness of the present. She recommended that we take at least five minutes every day to recharge. I plan to replay her presentation video at least once a day for my own on-demand recharge session.
Adam Spencer, mathematician and Australian radio host, discussed his passion for finding massive prime numbers. Numbers and math are the musical notes of the universe. His excitement for the pursuit of these elusive numbers is overwhelming. He marvels at how lucky we are to live in an age when mind and machines can work together to expand the frontiers of our knowledge. How amazing is it that a scientist can theorize about something as fundamental and “unprovable” as the Higgs boson in 1964, and then have a machine demonstrate its existence only fifty years later?
Robin Follman is an internationally acclaimed opera singer. She is also the head of strategic planning at her family’s manufacturing company. Even though she didn’t get the lead in her high school play, she did get the lead in a professional opera company while she was still in high school. She credits her success to preparation, perseverance, resiliency, and some luck. Also, rejecting her choir teacher’s advice to “blend.” She wanted her voice to be heard, and she was always ready when a new opportunity presented itself.
Eyal Aronoff is a co-founder of Quest Software, which was sold to Dell for $2.4 billion in 2012. Eyal’s passion now is breaking our addiction to oil as an energy source. He says that while wind and solar are nice, they aren’t a workable large-scale alternative to liquid gasoline for the cars we drive. Public transportation is only viable in certain urban centers. He showed that taxation and other financial incentives or punishments aren’t effective in changing our energy habits. He wants to show how alcohol-based liquid fuels are the best replacement fuel for liquid gasoline. Alcohol-based fuels can be derived from corn, sugar, biomass, and natural gas, to name just a few. Will it work? Are we capable of making this type of switch? Only time will tell. Clearly this idea of breaking our addiction to oil is one worth spreading.
Alison Noel is a New York Times bestselling author of 21 novels, with over seven-million copies in print. She talked about labels…those that others place on us and those we place on ourselves. We all have a yearning to be seen, heard, and understood. The question is how will we be seen, how will we be heard, and will we be understood for what we really are? Our labels often get in the way of understanding. She told us how her childhood was impacted by labels, some accurate, but most inaccurate. Labels don’t always fit, but they usually stick…if we allow them.
Dileep Rao is an actor who asked the question, “Do Movies Matter Anymore?” Some could easily argue that in a world of multitasking, and fragmented attention spans, movies are becoming a relic of the past. Rao argues the exact opposite. He sees the movie theater as the metaphoric dark cave where images and shadows from the campfire mesmerize us. Movie theaters are an almost sacred place where we are immersed in a story (if we allow it), with a bunch of strangers. For that short period of time, we are single-tasking, singularly-focused, and in the present (sounds a little bit like yoga).
Why spend five hours at a TEDx event? It’s all about ideas, and stories. Ideas worth spreading, and the way these ideas impact the stories we tell ourselves.