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. Peter, Have you seen the Swedish physician, pubic health guy and stats guru. He does done more than one, including the Washing Machine one and another energy and global development and climate change. Both are worth seeing.
    Cheers, Paul

  2. OT, but yesterday was really an historical day here in Sweden. For the first time a government autority on health, the Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment declared that:

    1. Low carb diets are in the short run (6 months) the most effective dietary treatment of obesity (and they assume that the reason for why about different diets tends to give similar results in longer running studies is because of lower adherence to diets meaning that a low carb diet might be more successful if adhered to)

    2. There is no scientific evidence for low carb (high fat) diets causing harm (i e cardiovascular disease), on the countrary, they are associated with favourable changes in bloodsugar, HDL and triglycerides, the commity concludes.

    read more about this great news in English at:

    The reason I bring this up is NuSI. Your first trial will be a reletively short in ward trial… but I guess as you move on you’ll have to do longer running studies on free living people. I suggested to You before that Sweden might be a good alternative for such studies since a low carb, high fat diet is more socially accepted here. Opinions polls shows that about 5 % of Swedes are strictly sticking to the LCHF diet and another 20 % are partially sticking to it. Yesterdays news is another game changer here. It will be a lot easier from now on to get approval from an ethical commity to conduct studies with diets very low in carbs and very high in fats (including saturated fats).

    • I second the Allan Savory talk, if his work pans out it is a big deal (and probably increase the availability of grass-fed meat, speaking self-centeredly). Savory gets some criticism because there isn’t research, afaik, backing up his claims, though this apparently this could be due that research to aggregates the data for his land management systems and others (authors of a recent USDA study admitted as much). It will be interesting to see better constructed research.

  3. Remarkable…sent the number one talk to my friends and staff. It is good to keep your perspective in life…try not to wait until something forces you to remember what is important like I did.

    Hey Peter off topic but what do you think of this article?

    Dangers of Zero-Carb Diets, II: Mucus Deficiency and Gastrointestinal Cancers

    I learned over on Peter’s blog that Optimal Dieters have been dying of gastrointestinal cancers at a disturbing rate. Recently Adam Jany, president of the OSBO (the Polish Optimal Dieters’ association), died of stomach cancer at 64 after 17 years on the Optimal Diet. Earlier Karol Braniek, another leader of the OSBO, died at 68 from duodenal cancer.

    A Polish former Optimal Dieter who has now switched to something closer to the Perfect Health Diet noted that gastrointestinal cancers seem to be common among Optimal Dieters:

    The impression we get is that there’s rather high occurrence of gut cancer, including stomach, duodenum, colon … [source]

    I want to talk about why I think that is, since the danger that the Optimal Dieters are discovering was one of the key factors leading us to formulate and publish the Perfect Health Diet.

  4. Several of these are on my top 10 list as well. Will definitely be listening to the ones I’m not familiar with — most likely in one sitting 🙂

  5. Peter, I’m a veteran (30yrs +) triathlete that is considering adopting a ketogenic diet … in particular after hearing about your work with Ben Greenfield. I’ve tried any number of different nutritional strategies over the years and have been “primal” for the last 7 or 8 with more success than failure. After reading your blog, it seems to me that claims of people being “fat adapted” or “fat burners” without being in NK would be just FALSE. My favorite is the female triathlete who has written for Loren Cordain who eats 100% PALEO, but ingests as many as six or eight gels in a day during iron man training and racing. I believe I understand that NK allows you to burn “dual fuel” i.e.: fat and glycogen. But without the ability to burn fat in the first place, aren’t you just a sugar burner?

    • Fat adaptation is a subjective term, but it’s a “continuous variable,” not a “discrete” one. One can increase fat oxidation (over glycogen) at a given work output without being ketotic. But ketosis is the most “extreme” form of this adaptation.

  6. I’m sure you could have a very interesting conversation with David Blaine – if you ever do, please share! I’m not sure if he’d be open to discussing the details of his methods but it seems like he’s aware of the importance of diet and the downstream effects on metabolism. I’m curious what he’d be willing to disclose. He mentioned that he fasted for many of his events and that he did a 7 day fast going into his first failed attempt. He explained that it was to slow his metabolism, but wonder if he was aware of the influences fasting had to his level of fat adaptation and the influence that would have over his RQ. Interesting stuff.

  7. Great list Peter! Thanks! Just for the record your TED talk gave me a gift and I think you for it! I remember it almost word for word and your ‘inability to control [your] emotion’ definitely didn’t get in the way of your message – if anything it make it even more powerful!

  8. Hi Peter, I believe that if you and any ther people enjoyed Mr. Lessig’s talk they would greatly enjoy the book “The Liberty Ammendments, Restoring the American Republic” by Mark Levin. He also agrees that we have wandered seriously from the Founders’ intentions and offers solutions… that are not Republican versus Democrat…but meant for all Americans. I hope some of your open-minded readers who were engaged by this talk will read the book. One of Mr. Lessig’s points about how money corrupts the process could be because we have career politicians now; as Mr. Levin points out, we were designed to have citizens step forward to serve a brief term, and then return to their homes and businesses. Even the people who wrote Obamacare are now high-paid consultants hired to explain to companies what the law is and how to comply. I didn’t know that the Ted Talks were based around liberal ideas and assumed a liberal audience. He was blatant about that (and at times a bit condescending). I was suprised that he was so exclusionary…

  9. Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk, “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence”, is a personal favorite. I particularly liked the idea that we humans evolved to be the uniquely cooperative species that we are.

    This might sound silly, but your TEDMED talk touched me so much that it made me cry. What followed in the weeks immediately after was an obsessive amount of research into nutritional ketosis and ketogenic diets. My mother is a Type I diabetic. My obese father, and his mother are Type II. With my family history, I don’t think it’s a matter of IF I develop insulin resistance, or diabetes; it’s a matter of when. I’ve been in NK for the past month, and for the first time in my adult life I’m winning my battle with obesity. I plan to stay on this path, and hopefully avoid the illnesses that afflict my loved ones.

    Your talk gave me hope, and the tools to live a healthier, happier life. Thank you so much for doing what you do, and please know that your ideas have changed at least one life for the better.

  10. Thanks for sharing! You might enjoy the talk by a fellow Queen’s University alumn on the gift that technology gave him — the ability to read:

    I’m sorry a handful of people missed the message from your talk. I thought your talk was profound — as did the 10+ people I shared it with. Please keep sharing your thoughts so we can help more people understand the message.

  11. Peter,

    I’ve been wanting to let you know how important your TED talk was for me, and since you brought up the subject today, this is the perfect opportunity. I watched your talk a couple of months ago and have been exploring your website since then.

    I am a 52-year-old woman who was diagnosed with diabetes about eight years ago, and, though my condition is not yet as advanced as hers, I can easily imagine myself as the diabetic woman you encountered at the hospital. Hearing your story about your own journey with weight gain and questioning the conventional wisdom about nutrition, and your own heartfelt regret about how you judged her, allowed me to stop judging myself for failing to reverse my diabetes over the past several years, in spite of educating myself about it and “knowing what I needed to do.” What you shared inspired me to let go of a debilitating sense of failure and adopt a new mindset about my body’s inability to process sugar.

    Simultaneously, yet independently, I discovered Mark Sisson’s “Primal Blueprint” and embarked on the “21-Day Challenge.” After only two weeks, I’ve experienced such a dramatic improvement that I do believe there is no going back for me. I’ve lost about 12 pounds and my morning/fasting blood glucose has dropped about 100 points. I feel great and have very little fluctuation in my energy level throughout the day. I’ve no doubt I will improve to the point of being able to give up my nightly dose of insulin, I hope in the near future.

    So, THANK YOU, for your courage and your message and your continuing research in spite of the unfounded criticisms. It has made a big difference in my life. (By the way, on the subject of nasty anonymity on the Internet, Jaron Lanier makes some great points in his book You are Not a Gadget.)

  12. The minute I saw the title of this post, I thought, “I wonder if Brene Brown will be on this list” … and there she was! Now, I’m off to watch the rest of them.

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