September 24, 2013

Mental models

My 10 favorite TED talks

Finding inspiration in the stories of other people.

Read Time 7 minutes

You may be thinking, “What does this have to do with nutrition? Or exercise? Or ketosis? Or the other things Peter obsesses over?”  Well, technically, nothing. But since this is a personal blog, I figure every once in a while I can write something for my friends or family members who have zero interest in nutrition or ketosis or VO2 maxes or FTP or RQ or LDL-P… (this list of folks is actually quite long!).

I remember the first time I ever watched a TED talk in the summer of 2007.  My first thought was, “Hey this is great.  How have I never heard of these, especially since this conference has been going on since 1984?”  Well, back in the 80’s and 90’s, and really up until about 2005 or 2006, I don’t think the talks were posted online, so perhaps I can be forgiven.

If you’re so inclined, I’d invite you to watch these talks over the next few weeks. (Or, if you’re OCD like me, you may just watch them all in one sitting.)  I hope they speak to you in the way they have spoken to me.  And I hope you’ll share your favorites back with me.  I’m always up for a great TED talk.

Ok, so on to my list. First of all, this was very difficult to narrow down.  If there is a nine-way tie for 2nd place, below, there is a 20-way tie for 3rd place (not shown).  Also, picking a favorite talk is like picking a favorite food or drink. It sort of depends on what you’re craving.  Each of these talks means something different to me.  Depending on my “need” at the moment, I guess my appetite for each one varies over time.

My favorite TED talk

If you read the post I wrote after the TEDMED conference this year, you’ll recall that I specifically called out my all-time favorite TED talk, that of Ric Elias.  Any time and every time I feel like I’m losing sight of things, I fire up Ric’s talk (or just call Ric for a pep-talk – he’s that gracious with his time).  Ric has become a friend and real mentor, especially as I navigate my way through fatherhood.

Ric Elias: 3 things I learned while my plane crashed

Nine-way tie for my second favorite TED talk (in no particular order)

I’m not sure how I stumbled onto this talk. I actually saw it shortly after it was posted, and it has now been seen by millions.  Like others, I became completely transfixed by David’s story.  We share a few traits, such as self-experimentation and “extreme” activity.  But, I think it goes far beyond that.  In fact, I know it does.  What moves me when watching this talk is the passion and vulnerability he showed.  I’ve never met David, but hope to do so one day.

David Blaine: How I held my breath for 17 min


Imagine a world with 1,000 Dean Kamen’s in it? When you’re done watching this, you’ll get what I mean.  As an engineer I can relate to the restless desire to fix things, but Dean’s humanity and compassion for the men and women he wants to heal is actually palpable in this talk.  Dean is on the Board of the Salk Institute, located here in San Diego, so I secretly hope to “run into” him one day when he’s here. It may never happen, but I’ll keep dreaming.

Dean Kamen: The emotion behind invention


About a year ago someone sent me this talk and said, “Peter, watch this…I bet it completely explains how you feel.”  I couldn’t believe it.  Susan Cain so eloquently explains what it feels like to be an introvert in a world that, at times, feels like it’s designed for extroverts.  Susan does such a great job explaining the distinction between introversion and shyness (anyone who knows me knows I’m far from shy, but still very introverted…this is a seemingly awkward combination for people to engage with).  Watching this talk (and reading the book she wrote on the same topic) have validated many of the insecurities I have about my introversion.

Susan Cain: The power of introverts


Perhaps I would not find this talk so amazing if not for the fact that my job is running a non-profit.  I must admit, I had always held to the typical beliefs of “overhead is bad!” in the non-profit world.  Dan makes a very compelling case for why this anachronistic view may be impeding progress in the non-profit space.   Dan is also on the list of folks I hope to meet one day.

Dan Pallotta: The way we think about charity is dead wrong


A couple of weeks before I was to give my talk at TEDMED this year, my sister emailed me this talk with the question, “Hey Pete, have you ever heard of TED? You should definitely check this out.  You’ll love this talk,” to which I responded, “Yea, I *think* I’ve heard of TED…oh, yea, I have. Thanks for sending.” (I didn’t have the heart to be that much of a wise guy and say I was obsessed with TED and was giving a talk a few weeks later.)  But coming from my sister, I knew I would like it. I simply couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as Shane mixed poetry and rage in emotional appeal. I’d give anything to meet Shane one day, and I hope every kid in high school watches this.

Shane Koyczan: “To This Day” … for the bullied and beautiful


I came across this talk pretty recently, shortly after it was posted in April of this year. Some have said that a truly great TED talk engages some part of your intellect and some part of your emotion, and ideally a bit of both.  The talk definitely engages my intellect.  The style and rhythm of Lawrence’s presentation is just amazing, and it really brings to light what I think most of us realize is a broken system in this country. He is simply a remarkable orator.

Lawrence Lessig: We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim


I saw this talk for the first time in mid-2006, I think. I had certainly heard of Tony Robbins, even back in the late-1980’s, though I had never actually heard him speak.  I’m not sure why, because presentations by ‘professionals’ don’t typically appeal to me, but I find this talk really insightful.  The story at the end is particularly moving.

Tony Robbins: Why we do what we do


I don’t know how I came across Joshua’s talk.  I think I was just scrolling through recently released talks earlier this year.  From the first moment, though, I was hooked.  Can you imagine what he felt as he went along this journey?

Joshua Prager: In search of the man who broke my neck


Steve Levitt is a close friend, and so perhaps I’m biased in my appreciation for his work, which goes well beyond this talk or his other (equally provocative, but funnier) talk on the economics of being a crack cocaine dealer.  Perhaps because I find myself among a group of people challenging conventional wisdom, I find it so enjoyable to spend time and share ideas with a guy like Steve. He sure makes a lot of enemies daring to suggest the evidence supporting the use of car seats is not as cut and dry as the “establishment” would have us believe.  Sound familiar?

Steven Levitt on child carseats


The night I gave my talk at TEDMED I remember getting back to my hotel after a reception. I wasn’t very happy with how my talk went and was a bit disappointed in my inability to control my emotion, which I felt may have got in the way of the message I wanted to deliver. One of the folks on the editorial staff of TEDMED called me to say ‘hi,’ and when I shared my disappointment with her, she suggested I watch this talk.  I was amazed that I had missed it previously.

Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability


Bonus talk

(Since I saw this talk live, at 2013 TEDMED, unlike the other 10 which I only saw on video, I think it gets its own category.)

What is so categorically brilliant about Andrew’s talk is that is starts in a familiar place.  You think you know where he’s going and what the talk is going to be about, but he takes you on a journey that will move you to tears, especially if you’re a parent.  I recall telling my wife upon my return to San Diego, “Wait till you see this talk when it comes out…best talk of the 2013 conference.”  She said, “Oh Peter, I’m sure it’s good, but your talk will always be my favorite of 2013.”  Then I made her watch it a month later.  She stood corrected!  She said, “Ok, I see what you mean.  This was simply breathtaking.  And better than yours by a mile.”

Andrew Solomon: Love, no matter what

I think there is another reason I find Andrew’s talk and, to some extent, each of these talks insightful and resonant. The experience of standing up there and giving one of these talks is not ‘normal’ for most of us, especially if talking about something personal as Andrew did.  It’s really the height of vulnerability, and I could not have appreciated this without going through it.  I give talks all the time and never get nervous. Once, as a surgical resident I won an award and had to present my research to an auditorium of experts numbering over 1,000. It didn’t really faze me.  It was a technical talk about CD25+CD4+ T-cells and tumor regression.  What’s not to be comfortable about?  But a talk like this was very different and, for me at least, much more difficult.

I think the world is a better place when folks can get up and share a story that may be out of their comfort zone…to share vulnerability, but doing this comes at a cost.  As you know, we live in a world where anybody can hide behind their anonymous name and cartoon avatar and spew as much venom as they want at you. You bear your soul. They ambush you. And truth be told, it actually hurts.

A few weeks after my talk went up on the TED site, I found myself getting frustrated at some of the really negative comments – not just people disagreeing with my hypothesis – but outright personal attacks. I’m all for debate, but it’s clear many folks can’t do it respectfully on the internet where all social norms vanish. Ironically, it was clear most of these comments were written by folks who had actually missed the entire point of my talk entirely.

When I read some of the comments under Andrew’s talk, it really hit home that I was far from alone in experiencing this.  I was blown away at how many completely moronic, even homophobic, comments were posted in response to his talk.  It was, again, so apparent that they had missed the entire point of his message.  So, if a few hundred people can bastardize the message of people I respect and look up to, surely I can’t be too upset when they do the same to me.

Parting shot

I’ve read a number of criticisms of TED over the past few years. But I think most of these criticisms miss the point of TED. I recall what Jay Walker said to me last year, “Peter, TED talks are not about showing the audience how smart you are.  They’re about trying to give people a gift…something they will remember, even if they don’t necessarily agree.  You want to challenge how the audience thinks, and share a different point of view.”  I agree with that, and I think there’s even a bit more.  Life is hard enough sometimes.  Once in a while it feels nice to forget about whatever it is we worry about and be inspired by the stories of others.

I hope you find some inspiration in these talks.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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  1. Your statements in your talk, underlinded by your Top 10 choice underlines your lack of credibility. Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock have challenged the relative close mindedness of TED, TED has failed to make a step forward and you don’t mention them. So, in your talk you bring up the question of the TRUE CAUSE. You may still have to go a way, way beyond nutrition and exercise in order to find the true cause of insuline resistance, the true cause of bad eating habits, the true cause of SELF-DESTRUCTION. And once you have gone BEYOND you will see, everything will be transformed. You will even not feel sorry for your past mitakes anymore, you will just be FREE.
    PS: I like to listen to TED talks including yours. Just keep in mind: being chosen by TED for a talk may mean: you are chosen to enforce the basic illness of our society. Just a hypothesis. If you are interested I can go into details about the why though.

  2. Hi Peter.
    I wasn’t sure where to ask you this. I wanted to know whether it is possible to build muscle in the absence of insulin. My main goal (besides improving my HDL/TG/insulin resistance) is to gain back the muscle I lost after 5 years of not working out. I know of a study that showed that protein and carb consumption PWO did not increase protein synthesis than just protein alone but I also read that insulin stimulates protein synthesis by directing ribosomes to make more protein and that insulin transports amino acids into muscle cells.

    I wonder if a cyclic ketogenic or a slightly higher carb non-ketotic diet will help build more muscle than a strict ketogenic diet that I am on now after I am done losing all the fat I have to lose.

    BTW I lost twice as much weight on a ketogenic diet working out only once a week than I did on a 120 g Carb diet working out 5 times a week, and I felt euphoria on the third day of the keto diet (which I now miss).

  3. ………………….

    Fat Doctor Series 3 – Ep7 – Neil Bakewell

    These series of BBC gastric bypass video’s on youtube are quite interesting – and since many people may not ever find them – ——————————————–

  4. Olá, acabei de assistir sua palestra no TED sobre resistência a insulina, e fui as lágrimas. Há muito tempo digo que esse julgamento é cruel e pode destruir uma pessoa. Fico muito feliz de ver sua sensibilidade para o tema e disposição de colocar-se para o mundo, como alguém aberto a novas respostas, a questionar as “verdades”. No meu Top list dos 10 melhores TED, vc está incluído, acredite, comigo você já cumpriu sua missão.

    Um forte abraço em você e muita luz em sua jornada.

    Adriana Ferrareto

  5. Hi Peter–we love your blog! I wanted to weigh in about Dean Kamen. I’ve had the great good fortune to get to cover Dean as a journalist and then work with him as a videographer/producer for the past 8 years at the annual FIRST Robotics championships (now held in St. Louis). He is on my (very) short list of People I Wish I Could Be Instead. He invited us into his home when I was a correspondent for a now-defunct TV network called TechTV for a day of interviews and let us wander unsupervised into every corner of his home, including his unbelievable workshop and helicopter hangar, and he even let us into his closet to film the all-denim wardrobe he wears every day–literally 20 or so identical outfits! : ) I have seen Dean up close in many situations at FIRST, including dealing with the media scrum accompanying his celebrity pal (which would drive any sane person crazy) and I have never seen him lose his cool or treat those of us who are not as smart as he (which is basically everybody) with the contempt we probably deserve. Dean has done more for humanity than any 10,000 people picked out of a phone book; it’s a humbling experience to be around him… if Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about philanthropic outliers, Dean would surely be in it. I wish we could come up with a way to get you associated with FIRST; it’s a great org and a thrill for me every year to be in a stadium with the top .0001% of teenagers from around the world. (Surely in that high-IQ cadre, I am the outlier : ) We found you because of our interest in Gary Taubes’s work, and speaking of Taubes, I have said about him that we will come to regard Why We Get Fat as the most important work of medical journalism ever published. It’s taking a bit longer than I’d expected for a very fat nation to realize that he has opened the door to a solution (and we are really glad you’re working with Gary) but I stand by my opinion: in time, Gary’s journalism will be acknowledged as the history-altering work it is. And you are clearly helping make that change possible in your own very substantive way–congratulations and good luck!

    • Rick, wow! I can’t believe you’ve had that kind of experience with Dean. Can’t imagine how special that must have been. Thank you for sharing. (I’ve also passed your kind words along to Gary.)

  6. Dear Dr. Attia,
    I found your website a couple days ago, in my search for a way to finally get to the bottom of the biggest problem of my life – my addiction (or whatever it is!) to sugar and my bottomless pit of hunger. I am turning 50 next month, and I have quickly been headed toward being the fat, sick woman in your TEDMED story. Over the past 30 years, I have yo-yo’d on more than 130 pounds – in my effort to be healthy and avoid diabetes! My older sister died at 55 of diabetic complications, a double-amputee, nearly-blind and 400+ pounds, and I have been on the verge of giving up, thinking I was simply doomed to repeat her desperate failure in my own life.
    You have given me hope in the information you share in your blog and in your TEDMED talk! I am ready to ditch the nutrition information I have received my entire life and start eating the foods that will improve my health and increase my energy. Thank you so much!
    And, by the way, you were perfectly vulnerable and genuine in your TEDMED talk, so ignore those haters. You rocked it! 🙂
    Sandy, Vancouver WA

    • Sandy, very sorry to hear about the suffering your sister endured, but conversely happy to hear that you are now encouraged that your fate is not set. While the genetic hand has been dealt, one way or the other, what you can do will have a greater impact. If you have not done so, I highly recommend the book of Dr. Richard Bernstein.

  7. Peter, thank you for your TED talk and for sharing your favorites. Most importantly, thank you for expressing your compassion and wish for forgiveness from your diabetic patient. My wife of 35 years died of diabetic-induced kidney failure, so I have lived with that terrible affliction first-hand.
    I have just watched several of the talks, and just finished the one by Andrew Solomon. Yes, they move me intellectually and emotionally. Even tears of joy in some cases, sadness in others. There will be no peace in the world until each of us has peace in our hearts. What gifts these people have given us by sharing with us their own journeys and learnings! As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
    Warm regards,

  8. I very much enjoyed your talk and I saw it at a time when I was realizing that if I don’t do something and do it soon, I’m going to start having serious health problems associated with my weight. Thank you for your favorite list, they were all wonderful! I very much enjoyed everyone’s recommendations in the comments as well. Through TEDTalks I found Brene Brown and Jonathan Haidt, whose work I found quite enlightening. I think the 10% estimate when it comes to good TEDTalks is much lower than the number I would offer, but to each their own.

    Your talk is definitely on my top list and I think that Brene’s work about shame may offer some insight as to why your emotional state at the end of your talk bothers you. 🙂 I fought it touching and humanizing and authentic, which are never bad things. I look forward to reading your blog and educating myself.

  9. Dear Peter,

    You just gave me great and eternal hope for the future of medicine and optimal health. You eloquently explained in your TED talk about “what if we are wrong about obesity” that you erred when you thought the obese diabetic was responsible for her illness(and losing a toe) but the young pancreatic cancer newlywed was not responsible. YOUR TED TALK is one of the ten best!!!!! Please reach out and educate nurses/NPs/PAs/diabetic educators–BYPASS for now the Teflon MD s and Pharma and other stubborn groups. WE in the trenches. with the patients. at the bedside and in the exam rooms. WE can get the word out. I promise. SHOUT it from the mountaintops. We are ready to learn and spread the word.

  10. Peter:
    I put ‘fasting TED talk’ in Google 2 hours ago, and your blog was in 8th place.

    After reading your thoughts (quickly), I have gotten a lot of value from your TED recommendations (and watched more than several). I seem to remember you questioning how your own TED talk went over (written relatively soon after you gave it). Curiously, I watched it. I thought it was great. And, to me, the part you questioned (in your blog) regarding your emotional effect, made your presentation WAY more powerful than it would have been without it. (My eyes got wet too.)

    Thanks for your contributions.

  11. Peter,
    Thank you so much for your TedMed talk on diabetes. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me. I am not a Type 2 diabetic – I have had Type 1 diabetes for almost all my life (30 years) – but I have often had poor treatment by doctors even as a Type 1. I have also been questioning the insulin resistance obesity link for some time although for most of my life I was not kind to Type 2 diabetics (who would want to get clumped in with that group and how horribly they are treated?!). In my two pregnancies, I got insulin resistance on top of my already Type 1 self. I noticed how I gained weight so easily even though I had even cut down on carbs and continued to exercise as I did prior to pregnancy. I began questioning why I was gaining so much weight (besides normal baby weight). Your talk made me see that others are questioning the same things. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your honesty and information. Thank you so much and I hope to hear more about what you are doing in the near future. It would be great if you could speak at the World Diabetes Conference. I would love for more diabetes specialists to hear what you have to say. Many thanks!!

  12. Hi Peter,

    Just watched Andrew’s talk. If you ever meet him, tell him I said “thankyou”. Hit me very deep. “Meaningful” is an understatement.

    I think I better share my story (I don’t know if I’ve told you). If Ben Greenfield has mentioned anything about me to you (which I highly doubt, but if so, I’d be more than flattered), then you probably already know. If not:
    I’m aspiring to be an elite AFL footballer, despite having been the typical “fat” kid for most of my life. I stopped being that kid about 5 years ago, lost ~40kg of weight, and currently have a vo2max of 52 (elite, for my chosen sport). I am still very slow and nowhere near an acceptable level of fitness. As for my skill level, I’m playing a relatively high standard (under 19s, EFL in Victoria, one of the best local level leauges in the state), but I’d be lucky to be in the top 20 players in my team.
    So, I’m pretty much trying to achieve the impossible. At least, many others would/do view this as impossible. I don’t.
    This is the number one reason why I’m studying exercise and sports science at university.
    Everything I do in life is to make me a better footballer. Whilst I’m not trying to say footy is more important than love, family, friends or happiness, I’m trying to highlight my motivation for my dream.
    As things stand, I’m at 25% body fat (according to DEXA). Been trying a ketogenic diet for the past 6 months. Haven’t quantified things (I have no idea how to work my ketonix ketone breath analyser), and I reckon I’ve implemented it pretty badly.
    I’ve had a serious in-depth conversation with an ex-footballer, who’s also a motivational speaker, and I still remember his words “you will not play AFL………..this is not realistic……” etc etc. Suffice to say, nothing is going to deter me from attempting to achieve my goal. I’ve thought long and hard about this, amongst other things.
    In contrast, I’ve also had people give me the impression they believe in me more than anyone (Ben Greenfield and Dr. Micheal Smith are 2 people who come to mind, and my closest friend James Dickie as well).
    I really wanna highlight how difficult my goal will be to achieve, but how positive my attitude is towards it, and that I’m aware some folks think I’m setting myself up for failure. Those folks are irrelevant to my life.

    So, that’s my story. I think you can continue to have a great influence in it, Peter, and I hope it continues to be a positive one.

    Here’s some videos that I think are pretty cool. Not all TEDtalks, but all inspiring and/or intriguing

    the last one is by another person I happen to respect as much as you. I sometimes think it’s sad that so many people know Jim Carey for his comedy and not for the other sides of him.

    I too have a list of people I’d like to meet (before I die):
    – Ben Greenfield
    – Ben Goldacre
    – Jim Carey
    – Peter Attia
    – Kirsten Drysdale
    – Paul Harrison
    – James Hird
    – Matt Bellamy (and MUSE)

    I find myself adding to this list a lot.

    Sorry for the length of this one. I hope you can relate to tl;dr situations haha

    Thankyou so much for this list of talks, and I hate to make it seem like I’m pissing in your pocket (excuse my Australian 😉 ), but I rate your TEDtalk as one of the best. The emotion definitely enhanced the talk, for mine. Have heard different, but I liked it all the more. Thankyou.

  13. I don’t remember seeing this one in the comments section, and definitely not my previous comment (i just saw it for the first time).

    Apollo Robbins – The Art of Misdirection

  14. Peter- For what it’s worth, I didn’t think your emotion during your TED talk got in the way of its effect at all. I mean, obviously since you shared Brene Brown’s talk you’ve probably now come to that conclusion as well- but personally, it moves me A TON when I observe someone sense their own vocational gravity. I’ve been very grateful for the work you’ve produced and shared. Thanks.


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