The first TED talk I ever saw was Ken Robinson’s talk on “How schools kill creativity.” I watched it in my high school English class, and was so inspired that I immediately checked out Robinson’s book “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” and discovered my own mission in life was to help others pursue their passions. Since then, a number of other TED talks have shaped my life goals: Sarah Kay’s “If I should have a daughter," Susan Cain’s “The power of introverts,” Hans Roslings’ “The best stats you’ve ever seen,” and Aimee Mullin’s “My 12 pairs of legs.” This past weekend at TEDxDuke, the annual, student-run TED-like conference held at Duke, I have a few more to add to the list.
First, Mark Hecker’s talk “On Being Helpful” presented new insight to the old adage, “If you teach a person to fish…” In his presentation, Hecker spoke about how people derive meaning and dignity in their lives by being helpful. His organization, Reach Incorporated, develops confident grade-level readers and capable leaders by training teens to teach younger students, creating academic benefit for all. Instead of improving reading competency by tutoring teens directly, Hecker’s organization allows them to be helpful. As tutors, teens become accountable to their mentees, which gives them a more powerful incentive for learning. In other words, if you teach a person how to fish, you feed him or her for a lifetime. But if you teach a person to teach others how to fish, an entire village will eat for an eternity.
Hecker’s ideas about fostering leadership tied to a pre-recorded talk shown at the conference, Derek Sivers’ “How to start a movement.” In just three minutes, Sivers delivers a powerful lesson about leadership, with the main message that it is the first follower who transforms a lone nut into a leader and teaches other followers how to follow. Being a first follower is an underestimated form of leadership in itself, since it takes courage to stand out. Of course, the irony of Sivers’ talk is that TED and other TED-like events create an environment where the first follower is a celebrated form of leadership and a lone nut can find his or her first followers.
As with many events, there are detractors about TED, including Benjamin Bratton’s TEDx talk “We need to talk about TED.” In his presentation, Benjamin Bratton calls TED “middlebrow megachurch infotainment,” a type of feel-good fodder for the masses that diverts our attention, enthusiasm and outrage away from things that really matter. According to Bratton, TED forces speakers to over-simplify their ideas and avoid slogging through the “hard stuff”—history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions. Bracketing complexities off to the side to focus just on technology and innovation, he says, actually prevents transformation.
As one of the organizers for TEDxDuke, Bratton’s talk initially troubled me, but after TEDxDuke this past weekend, I am convinced that while some of Bratton’s concerns are valid, TED is not a recipe for civilizational disaster. Sure, TED may over-simplify big ideas and ignore complexity. But would we rather people be inspired to engage with the world by watching semi-educational videos for fun, or shut it out by binge-watching television on Netflix? That TED asks speakers to make their work accessible by boiling down big ideas into 18-mimute-or-less talks is a gift: it gives future change agents a goal to aspire to.
At an institution with a liberal arts curriculum like Duke, TED has another important value: introducing students to new ideas in other fields and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. For work that isn’t featured by TED, and for more challenging work that affects real change, there is the MacArthur Fellowship or the Fields Medal or any number of prestigious awards that focus on content and not speech delivery. If TED were the only way we shared or supported big ideas, then we would have a problem. Fortunately, it’s just another way we celebrate big ideas, develop the oral tradition, and inspire people out of many.
So whether or not you had the opportunity to attend TEDxDuke this past Sunday, I encourage you to help us continue the conversation about “Building Energy” by joining us for our student-speaker meal series. Or, if you can’t make it, schedule a FLUNCH with a professor this month in honor of the TED spirit. Get inspired—watch some TED videos with your friends. Ask intelligent questions, and come up with your own idea worth spreading.
Rachel Anderson is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Wednesday.