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. I have watched most of your Top 10, I use to travel by train to work and looked forward to catch up on the daily TED talk video. It has been a source of inspiration as well as providing clarity during chaotic times. Sometimes it is entertaining and sometime thought provoking. Videos about how scientist clone and grow organs, give sight and sound back to people or have military veterans be able to feed themselves with bionic limbs always fascinates me.

    My favourite TEDtalks video is without a doubt the commencement speech by David Foster Wallace called This is water. Technically not a TED video, and has been removed from but is still available online if you search and I first learned about it through the TED video podcast subscription. The TED version of the video was just an excerpt from the whole speech and was cleverly animated. But the message and impact of the speech itself changed my life.

    Reading up on what happened to David makes it even more powerful.

    • Wow. This is brilliant. I don’t know how I missed this. About half way through, when he references the person who commits suicide, it’s hard not to be sad at the irony.

    • Is that really irony? I see it more as he actually ‘proves’ what he says. He was depressed for many years and following his logic he was already dead during those years so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he eventually committed suicide.

      Its a great talk in any case and not the last time I’ve listened to it.

  2. I thought the emotion you showed in your TED talk was part of what made it so powerful. My fiance and I watched it together and when it was over we turned to each other and each said, “Wow.”

    I’m so glad I found your blog via that talk. I went to my PCP a few months ago to talk about preventing diabetes, since my mom was recently diagnosed and she is physically active and not overweight. I thought I was being a good proactive patient, but my PCP just told me to stay skinny, missing the point of my question entirely. The kind of information I’m finding here is exactly what I was looking for, and in a lot more detail than what my doctor could have told me in a 7 minute visit! Thank you so much. This is really empowering work that you’re doing.

    • Cari, glad to hear that you’re thinking proactively about this issue. Equally sad to hear that your PCP’s understanding of insulin resistance is as bad as mine was a few years ago. Much work remains to be done.

  3. Peter – thanks so much for the posting; as always I look forward to whatever it is you have to offer (and I’ve been wondering a bit where you’d gone . . . not that I’d be able to keep up with all you do. Just sayin’.)

    Thanks again for a perfectly marvelous, laughter and tear-filled afternoon.


    p.s. [Want to point out what is, no doubt, a typo: “It didn’t really phase me.” should be “faze me” — in case you want to fix it.]

  4. I love TED talks, but unfortunately I’ve seen a string of bad ones lately. I think the brand has gotten a little bit diluted with the TEDx talks, but 90% of the TED talks I’ve seen have been awesome.

    • I agree, Joshua, and actually think, when you look at all comers, only 10% of talks given under the umbrella of TED (i.e., TED, TEDMED, TED Global, TEDx) are worth watching. Fortunately, that’s still a pretty good number. Hope this list gets your recent streak reversed.

  5. “disappointed in my inability to control my emotion, which I felt may have got in the way of the message I wanted to deliver.”

    NO — totally made the talk- finally after facts and figures and solid scientific questioning – there was humanity and passion – glad it ended how it did

  6. Sorry this doesn’t have to do with TED, but I was wondering: What happens to excess fat calories ingested while in ketosis? In other words, is it possible to get fat by overeating fat while in ketosis?

    Thanks! Love your work.

  7. Unfortunately, TED just agreed with Monsanto to not host any more environmental speakers against GMOs. TED has caved to corporate influences. It’s a shame because TED used to be a great resource for inspiration and information but now it’s censored.

  8. Thank you for the list and the other commenter’s suggestions. I admit I didn’t believe that the emotional ending to your talk was in fact genuine, I apologize and admire your tenacity with your work and contributions in low carb/ ketotic diet and the sequellae of better health overall. I often recommend your site to my patients. The best to you.

  9. Love these, Peter. Thanks for posting.

    To further the discussion, I will say that I’m not entirely persuaded by Dan Pallotta’s views on charities. Caveat: this is the first I’ve been exposed to Pallotta’s ideas, and I’m not an all an expert on NPOs. But having done a bit more research on the organizations he ran, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he’s entirely blaming outside forces for the failure of his NPOs, without taking much, if any, personal responsibility. (Maybe he takes a more nuanced position in his book.) It seems that participants abandoned his events after feeling they were mismanaged. That has to count for something. I do agree with him that NPO administrators should be compensated fairly, even generously, but to imply they should be compensated at the level of private-sector CEOs is extreme. As has been discussed many times elsewhere, corporate CEO compensation in the U.S. is often bloated. I know that’s not the only point he makes. I also think that overhead, for both NPOs and corporations, has to be taken into account. Having said all this, I’m very glad he’s challenging the paradigm.

    On another note, in case commenter Yossi Mandel is still following this thread, I’m pleased to say I’m pals (not close friends) with Brian Malow, science humorist whose (non-TED) talk Yossi recommended. He’ll be pleased to know he’s gained a good reputation!

  10. Peter,

    Just watched your Ted Talk. I have to say i agree with you 100%. I’m 63 and have been Type 2 for 15 years and have often faced the issues you spoke about. If I can be of any assistance in your research feel free to ask.
    Thanks for what you are doing.

  11. While I’m not 100% anti-GMO, I don’t like this letter written by TED last year, I just saw today. Makes me wonder how rigorously science is being pursued these days…According to TED, it seems they may not want good science, but science with corporate interests. Isn’t any diet protocol an ‘alternative medicine’ ? Sigh

  12. hi all. i v slipped out of ketosis after my first week of it a couple of days ago. now i m back in. i woke up with a 3.1 of ketones this mornin but my blood sugar was 63! tested twice. i ate bout 200 grams of lentils for about 10 grams of carbs and immediately felt better. would 10 grams in one meal kick me out of ketosis? and most of all is a 63 fasting BS dangerous? thaanks….

    • Also.. lab just emailed me the latest results.

      Previous test two months earlier under a lowish carb – moderate fats second test last week after one month of very low carb and high fat

      INSULIN: from 5.7 down to 4.2
      Fasting BG: from 87 down to 79 (fasting BG of 98 under my old mediterranean diet)

      CHOL: from 130 up to 179
      HDL: from 45 up to 70 ! (HDL of 35 under my old mediterranean diet)
      LDL: from 75 up to 86
      TRIGL.: from 40 up to 55 (TRIGL. of 150 at age of 29 under my old mediterranean diet)

      Also i have always had borderline low WHITE BLOOD CELLS averaging a 4.2 for the first time ever i have now a value of 6.8. Do you think that might be related to the diet?

      Peter i know u r very busy but whenever possible i d like to know what do you think about my question on the effect of Low carb and ketosis on lipomas and involuntary facial twiching (from my post of the 22nd of september under your “Ketones and Carbohydrates: Can they co-exist?”)

      have a good one. Luca

  13. I’m a thin 60 y old with high metabolism, always thin, but still wanting good health and longevity. I was reading yet another experiment on low methionine – As reported before, rodents on a low methionine, ad lib diet have lower blood insulin, glucose, T3 hormone and IGF-1. VLC diets are alleged to offer the same result, especially to “normal” people who otherwise gain weight.

    We all know that rodents aren’t primates. But could lower methionine offer a way forward for people of thin physique? I’ve been on 100-120 g/day for 8 years. VLC diets of <100 g/day don't agree with me but I don't gain or lose weight on any carb. intake. Even on 100-120 g/day I've lost some muscle mass since 2005, muscle mass which I can ill afford to lose.

    I can't help NuSi with obesity but I'd gladly take part in research if you wish to investigate the minority who stay forever thin. Surely we and not the obese people are the oddity? It's rather hard to understand the evolutionary advantages of being thin and it's easier to see the advantages of having a thrifty metabolism, assuming that food is scarce.

    • David, the CR research is heavily confounded, in my opinion, by an inability to distinguish between *which* restriction is actually providing the benefit. Is it just the # of calories, irrespective of what they are? One of the biggest studies ever done on primates (Nature, last year) showed no difference in CR, BUT the CR group was loaded with sugar. This reinforces my belief that it’s not the CR per se, but the specific restriction of sugars and refined carbs that is having the effect, likely through IGF-1 signalling and improved glucose homeostasis.

  14. Doc, even though you posted something different than the usual, people still comment as the usual 🙂 Anyway, we just love the knowledge you share with us in this world where you are bombarded only with messages promoting the bad carbs as being good stuff.

    I watched several of the videos. Thank you!

  15. Hey Peter,

    Loved your TED Talk and just discovered this blog. I’ve been searching for some guidance on how to check my heart disease risk. I have a strong family history on my dad’s side of heart disease–two uncles, my dad, and my grandmother all had open heart surgery. I’m 41 and my cousin on my dad’s side who’s my age just had a 99% block in his main artery before getting a stint. I am not on a low carb diet, but it makes sense to me and I’m thinking of starting. I just went to a cardiologist who recommended we start with a fasting blood test to check my various cholesterol levels. Would you recommend I start a low carb diet before the blood test, and are there other things aside from cholesterol/lipid profiles I should ask my doctor to test for to gauge my heart disease risk? And blood test or not, how would you recommend someone in my position asses their heart disease risk?

    Thanks For Your Help,


    • Jason, the series I wrote on cholesterol (“The Straight Dope…”) will be what you want to familiarize yourself with. It can be dense at times, but it will answer all of your questions.

    • Jason, I would also recommend a couple of youtube talks by Dr. Tom Dayspring (who I believe was in part a source of information for Dr. Attia). In particular, he did a couple of talks at the end of last year with a gym owner that really lay everything out in a cogent manner much of what you need to know to understand cholesterol issues — and would be a nice complement to Peter’s cholesterol series.

  16. I really, really enjoyed your talk on Ted and so happy to have found your blog. I’m a 41 year old married, mother of two that was diagnosed with insulin resistance about two years ago. I’ve always been an out-of-the-box thinker and did a little research on my own regarding how I could fix this issue on my own and what I was doing wrong in my everyday life. I stumbled on Dr. Rob Thompsons book “the low starch diabetes solution”. Everything made so much more sense and he too had first hand experience and used himself as a guinea pig (for lack of a better term) to see why the advice he was giving his own patients for years wasn’t actually doing anything to change the problem of insulin resistance for the better.

    After following his program of reducing all starches and most sugars and power walking about 20 mins a day I was able to lose 20 lbs and physically I felt much better. When I brought this idea about inflammation and starch that I had learned and had results with, she balked at the idea and acted almost offended that I would even question her knowledge. It’s so frustrating to be on the patient side of the table when we are trying to be open minded and doing our best to find causes of what ails us, so that we don’t have to take band-aid prescriptions for everything.

    I just want to say that I’m so glad there are others, like you, in the medical field that are willing to question conventional medical school teachings. The world needs more people like yourself with open minds to challenge old school ideals that just aren’t working and for some diseases, they are reaching epidemic proportions. Thank you.

    • I’m sorry, I meant to say …” When I brought this idea about inflammation and starch that I had learned and had results with, to my doctor, she balked at the idea and acted somewhat offended that I would even question her med school knowledge.” She believed that inflammation was only something that happened on the outside of the body as a result of injury. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a young doctor, in her very early 30s, with such closed minded thinking. Needless to say, I will be looking for a new doctor.

      • Well, I wish I could say I was surprised, or that this must be a very rare event, but unfortunately, I think a lot of doctors are stuck in this mindset. The good news is, little by little, the tide is shifting and more doctors are becoming open to the idea that food can impact systemic inflammation.

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