April 20, 2013

Mental models

TEDMED 2013…now I get it

Read Time 7 minutes

I just got back from the 2013 TEDMED conference at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.  I’ve always enjoyed watching TED talks online, but I’d never been to the actual conference.  I was told the experience is very different.  That was an understatement.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I don’t think anything I can write about this week will come close to actually sharing my experience, but I’ll try.

I was one of 50 speakers/performers, but the conference is about much more than the 50 of us.  There are nearly 2,000 participants and unlike most conferences where people are spread out over different sessions and ‘breakout rooms’ (a term that, to this day, makes me laugh out loud – I keep picturing a room with broken down cardboard boxes on the floor and nylon pants and 80’s hip hop), at this conference we all experience it together.  No parallel processing.  That it also takes place in such an epic building, overlooking the Potomac River, is another story.

To answer the first question you may have, I do not know when my talk will be on line, let alone where.  It could show up on the TED and/or TEDMED websites.  I’m told it will be no sooner than 6-8 weeks, and probably closer to 3 months.

This was not a typical Peter Attia talk. Information density was somewhere between zero and small. When I was preparing for the talk I had the complete privilege of working with the TEDMED editorial team.  Talk about an All-Star team.  These people are too talented for words.  It was simply amazing to be in their presence.  Jay Walker, the curator of TEDMED (and one of the most intuitive people I have ever met) gave me the most valuable advice when I was preparing my talk.  He said,

  1. Leave your “M.D.” and “McKinsey” personas off the stage.  While those are your comfort zones, get out of those zones.
  2. Don’t try to “teach” people a bunch of facts (even though you love facts); don’t try to “prove” how smart you are; don’t even try to “convince” people of anything.
  3. Engage both sides of your listener – their intellect and their emotion.
  4. Be authentic. The audience cares less about what you know, and more that you care at all.

This was really hard for me!  I love to teach, and I love data, and I’m much better at engaging intellect than emotion.  But with that advice, and the amazing help of Marcus Webb (TEDMED’s Chief Storyteller), I gave it a shot.  In a few months, I suppose, you can be the judge.

There were so many moments this week that just shot me back onto my heels – moments when it didn’t seem like “this” could be happening.  I’d love to share a few with you.

Meeting the man who gave my favorite TED talk of all time

Before you read another word, watch the 2011 TED talk given by Ric Elias.  Seriously. STOP READING THIS NOW AND WATCH IT.  I have watched this talk, perhaps, as many times as I’ve watched all other talks combined. Probably every 3 or 4 weeks, actually.  Why? Because, unfortunately, that appears to be the frequency with which I need a little reminder of what matters more than NuSI. A few months ago I mentioned this to Jay.  He said, “Do you want to meet Ric? I’m happy to introduce you.”  That was like asking a 15-year-old girl if she wanted to meet Justin Bieber.  Except I didn’t scream as loud. And Ric is way cooler than Justin.

The day after my talk, I was introduced to Ric and we spent about an hour together. It was a unique experience to understate it.  Too often when we meet people we “feel” like we know (due to their celebrity), we’re often let down because we build them up to be more than they could ever be.  Amazingly, and I don’t say this lightly, the person Ric is far exceeded the image of Ric I had, based on a 5 minute video.  He’s one of the rare few I’ve met (one day I’d like to write a book about this short list of folks) that I could imagine dropping everything I was doing to go and work with and for them.  Every man should aspire to be half the father Ric has become since that flight.

Medical school connection

The day before my talk, I was backstage trying to figure out where everything was, and I looked up and saw Zubin Damania!  You may not know who Zubin is, or even his YouTube alter-ego, ZDoggMD (though you’ll definitely want to check out his video on screening for testicular cancer, among many others).  But here’s the thing…the last time I saw Zubin was 13 years ago when he was my intern on my internal medicine rotation at Stanford.  For 8 straight weeks Zubin had me rolling on the floor laughing (and enjoying every single moment of being in the hospital with him).  Zubin is sui generis.  I remember staying up nights on call with him, asking him, “Are you sure this [medicine] is the best use of your talent?  I mean, you’re too damn funny and talented to do this!”

Well, let’s just say, nothing I saw this week surprised me.  Zubin is a rock star and the world is a better place because of his humor and brilliance, and the way he actually combines them. Zubin’s talk was, without question, the peak of TEDMED 2013 entertainment.

If that wasn’t enough, two days later (the day after my talk), a woman stopped me in the lobby and said, “Peter, I really loved your talk.  Thank you for sharing that story.  I hope other doctors hear this message.” I thanked her and we chatted for a minute, the whole time I’m thinking, “Gee she looks really familiar…,” when it finally hit me.  This woman, Dr. Ramona Doyle, an amazing pulmonologist, taught me respiratory physiology 16 years earlier at Stanford!  What made this so special, though, was hearing what she does today.  In addition to her “day job,” she runs a free clinic for uninsured patients in South San Francisco.  Her stories were amazing.  She seemed happier than ever.

The most moving talk

The last talk of Session 7 (there were 10 sessions, each with 5 speakers, for a total of 50 speakers/performers), was given by author Andrew Solomon.  Since you’ll all be able to watch this for yourselves in 2 months or so, I won’t say much. But, if you think back to Jay’s advice to me, Andrew gave a seminar on how to do this.  Andrew is a very special man, and though I was only able to speak with him for 10 minutes backstage, it was clear that he was cut from a different cloth.  A very special cloth.  When his talk began, I thought I knew where he was going.  And I was looking forward to it.  But where he went instead, well, I can’t describe the emotional rollercoaster.  If you can only watch one talk, and I hope you can watch many more, Andrew’s is the one to watch.

Greatest human spectacle

Charity Tillemann-Dick, a remarkable singer, who has undergone a double lung transplant due to primary pulmonary hypertension, simply lit up the room with her soprano voice.  I just could not imagine for the life of me how this woman could sing with such a beautiful voice not powered by her ‘native’ lungs.  In Charity’s case, there was also a deeply personal reason I was so touched by her story.  It highlights the importance of organ transplantation. As she shared with us, life is neither a marathon, nor a sprint.  It’s a relay.

After her talk (and song), I caught up with her back stage and shared the story of my friends, Jeff and Teena Webster, who lost their son Aaron in September 2009, one day before I swam from Los Angeles to Catalina Island – a swim I dedicated to Aaron.  Aaron’s story is both tragic and glorious, as 13 people now live with a part of Aaron in them, including a man who was probably a week away from death due to liver failure.  Today, that man has a tattoo on his arm that reads: Aaron Webster, my hero. 

Best line of the week

Spoken by a juggernaut of a woman, the amazing America Bracho, who is empowering impoverished communities in Southern California by creating participants out of patients, left an impression on me.  Sounds crazy until you hear her tell you and then watch her show you. Make sure you watch her talk when it’s out.  Like Andrew’s talk, this moved me to tears.

She was asked, essentially, can this model she has deployed work with anyone?  She said, “no, you must choose the right people.”  The clincher: “Recruit the heart. Train the brain.”  As someone obsessed with building a great team, truer words have not been spoken.

Most surreal moment

A team of artists created portraits of each speaker, which hung as banners.  A man named Robert Brinkerhoff, who I had never met until my talk, created the following image of me.  I realize this may sound strange, but this struck me as very touching.  Someone who didn’t know me put that much time into trying to represent me?  Very humbling.  Thank you, Robert.


Closing thoughts

I don’t know if they will ever read this, but if they do, I really want to thank the following people at TEDMED for guiding and encouraging me to share my story, which I was very reluctant to do.  There are so many people behind the scenes whose names I don’t know, but who I owe my gratitude.  I really want to thank Jay Walker, John Benditt (and Gary Taubes, who suggested me as a speaker to John), Lisa Shufro, Lindsay (none-of-my-boys-are-named-Harry) Potter, Pritpal S. Tamber, Jon (the-apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree) Ellenthal, Alyssa Picchini Schaeffer, and Marcus Webb, without whom I could not have told my story.  And, Steve Maler.  You gave me the confidence I needed to be so vulnerable, my friend.

I have no idea how I got to be one of the people there this year.  I felt such a responsibility to give back to TEDMED, as I’ve received so much from TED and TEDMED over the past 7 or 8 years.  Though Ric Elias’ talk is my favorite, there is a huge tie for second place (including Virginia Breen, who I just happened to sit beside by random luck during Andrew’s epic talk – once you’ve seen Virginia’s talk and Andrew’s talk, you’ll understand why this juxtaposition was so powerful).  The talks I fall in love with are simply the ones that move me the most.  I spend my whole day learning things.  What I crave is inspiration.

A day after my talk, a woman came up to me in the common area.  She was crying. Just sobbing.  She said she cried through my entire talk.  She couldn’t figure out why.  What was I saying to bring out such emotion, I thought? I apologized. But then she said the most insightful thing that, I think, explains why some of these talks just really move us.  She said, “Peter, it wasn’t what you said, or even how you said it.  You just made me look at myself differently.  These emotions pouring out of me are about me, not you.  You just gave me a different way to think about myself.”

I think that sums up why these talks are so special to me.  It’s about the mirror inside me and everyone else.  I did learn many things this week and met people I want to know better. But for 3 glorious days on the Potomac, I didn’t think about my world or my vision.  I simply got inspired and moved by everyone else’s.

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

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    • Too cool. Very keen to see your talk. Fascinating to know that there is a team of specialists who help speakers prepare. May I ask…is this eating regime an all or nothing proposition? I have a 12-year old son who eats 2 meals a day at home a la few carbs high fat style. At school the best we can request is wheat free. He still carries more weight than I think is healthy. Also wonder about lipid profile. He’s on 300 mg 3x day tegretol which possibly complicates things.

    • I just wanted to thank you again for your TED talk. I was so relieved to find it. My mother died of Diabetes complications in November last year, I know I am becoming / or am Insuline resistant. I also have problems with lactose and gluten. I am tired all of the time, not helped by the fact that my parter has restless leg syndrome which has been getting continually worse of the last 30 years resulting in him being off work and regularly missing sleep for up to 3 days since about the same time my mum died. I am so exhausted. This imformation is providing me with a lifeline that will help me slowly get myself back together. 🙂

  1. The way you feel about Andrew Solomon’s talk is the way I feel about yours. Thank you for sharing, sincerely

  2. Peter,

    Congratulations on you recent talk at TEDMED 2013. I was very excited when I saw that you had been invited to speak. I am writing from Alberta and have been following your blog since only January of this year. It is nice of you to share how others have inspired you, just as you have inspired so many. I look forward to seeing your talk once it is finally released (I was able to find a 2 min teaser posted yesterday). Thank-you for all that you have been doing and for all that you will be doing for the next few years to come. A second congratulations is in order for the 40 Million dollar funding that NUSI has received. I have no doubt that you will continue to inspire and with any luck, this inspiration will bring change.


  3. Peter, thank you so much for this. I did go immediately to Ric’s talk and it was all you said it was. I did not have a dry eye.

    I’m looking forward to yours. I’m sure that the thread of emotion will be as real, and I’m glad that you have done this.


  4. I was lucky enough to watch your talk live online through my medical school. It was extremely inspiring and emotional for me. I can’t wait to see the kind of impact it has on the medical community.

  5. Wow! I had never heard of TED before and now I can’t wait to view this year’s talks. Thanks for sharing your experience and YES, I went straight to watch Ric just like you said to and when you said to…it was enough to create the desire to see what everyone had to share! So cool!

  6. Hi Peter,

    Thank you so much for posting this. I have to say, in the list of most memorable and greatest talks from TEDMED, your own talk ranks right up there in the top five. Maybe top 3. You and America Bracho moved me to tears. In particular, as a healthcare practitioner who had frequently felt judgmental towards patients and families, your own story resonated with me. Particularly when I found myself dealing with a health issue that was almost instantly resolved when I reached outside the box and sought my own answers.

    You rock Peter, and I hope you continue speaking and sharing your story as well as your research. We need more people who are willing to consider alternative viewpoints, and who realize that we are all individuals, and therefore, a “one size fits all,” or in many cases, the “one size fits no one” solution is not the answer.

    I am currently in the air, en route home from TEDMED. But I just had to write now, and let you know how much you inspired me.


  7. Wonderful post! Ric’s talk is amazing and I so look forward to seeing yours and the others you’ve mentioned in a couple months! Do let us know when it’s available.

  8. I just watched Rick’s talk, it was a very timely reminder to me to live in the moment and be a good parent (though i did shout at the kids to keep quiet so I could hear it). Just what I needed actually. I heard you also received a standing ovation. Congratulations, I’m really looking forward to watching. Thanks Peter.

  9. That was a great post, Peter! Do you know if Gary Taubes ever got invited to speak at TED? Perhaps he’s kind of “retired” from speaking for a while? Also, a suggestion is to try to find a talk given by “Scully” (sorry forgot his real name). He was the pilot of the aircraft that landed in the Hudson River. His talk is also great because he discusses fear and how it really only exists in the mind, not in reality. Kind of hard for me to explain, but it’s great.

    Love TED! Seek ou Steve Jobs’ speech from Stanford. I think it’s the #1 rated clip on TED–it’s great! Kind of similar to Ric’s. So much good stuff on that website.

  10. Fantastic post and email. saw through Ric’s TED task and shared with a friend over an outdoor fire , rum 21 and wind chimes. Can’t wait for your TEDMED talk to go online. Enjoyed your writing and your insights about life and health, Peter. Keep them coming, please.

  11. I work in the research side of a med school so had access to the TEDMED talks. I planned my week around getting to watch you. You did an amazing job, although I admit the scientist in me wanted those details that you had to leave out (but you succeeded in bringing me to tears too). I am finding myself obsessed with this topic and am fully convinced that correcting the “backwards hypothesis” of obesity is critical. I read more publications now than when I was a Master’s student. Any advice of what I can do to contribute in some larger way? Does NuSi take volunteers?

    • I guess best advice I can give, Jessie, would be to try to avoid the mistake everyone is subject to…selection and confirmation bias. Rather than correcting the backwards hypothesis, I think we should strive to test it. That would be an essential first step – to test it with open minds and at least a willingness to be wrong. Of course, there are many questions embedded within the conventional wisdom, but I have to constantly remind myself if I fail to consider all options, I may miss something. Remember Feynman’s famous quote?

  12. Thanks Peter and having to come to know you a little bit of course you could not but share this. Whenever we have experiences like this we want to shout it from the roof tops. It’s 4 o’clock on Sunday morning and I’m up. Probably worried a bit, it’s freezing again and there are plants in the greenhouse. (this is between Toronto and Kingston). Fed the wood stove and scanned the e-mails. Yours. And forwarded Ric’s TED talk already to the kids. May I make one suggestion to the old guys among us (I am 71) : don’t waste too much time regretting. There is an awful lot in everybody’s life to be regretful about. Don’t ! All that you have ever done, all that you have ever experienced has added to who and what you are today. It is neither good nor bad. That is only a perspective. Ric’s talk is one among many that will add to who you are today and tomorrow. I think it is safe to say that the people who will read this are already a special bunch. They have realized that life is too precious to fritter it away with stuff and more stuff. That’s probably also one of the reasons they ended up on this site and subscribed to the updates.

  13. Hi Peter – I am the sobbing woman. I’ve already emailed my endocrinologist at Yale with your site/blog and am interested to see what her response will be. [For readers, I have both a metabolic disorder and thyroid disease, both diagnosed only recently – years after being treated like a gluttonous slug by doctors.] A friend asked me yesterday how TEDMED was. I responded that it was transformational, and that’s largely due to you, Peter. So while the talk may have been outside your comfort zone, it was revelatory for me, and I’m grateful. Sharing your experiences and knowledge with such fluency and compassion is a great gift to so many. Leigh

    • Leigh, I don’t know where to begin. I’m glad we were able to meet last week. I hope your current doctor treats you the way you deserve to be treated.

  14. Had not even heard of TEDMED. Thank you again for opening my eyes to a bewildering source of inspiration and energy. I am tremendously happy you had an opportunity to share your story.

    Please do not sell yourself short or the work you are supporting, you deserved to be up there. You and Gary have the potential to shift Western culture. The magnitude is unfathomable.

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