Performance monkeys on the TED stage

What started out as an intellectually stimulating event has degenerated into a series of shallow performances

Charles Assisi

[By TEDxAmsterdam (Flickr: Maurice_Mikkers-2049.jpg), (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons]

Like many people, I am among those who derive much joy from listening to TED talks. The format is a compelling one: A great idea presented by an articulate speaker in not more than 18 minutes.

The conferences resonate across the world; speakers take pride in flaunting it as a badge of honour if they have been selected to speak at one; audiences lap up every word of what is being spoken about on stage. What started out in California with some of the world’s most influential thinkers as participants a little more than 25 years ago is now a global phenomenon.

Because these talks took off so well, the organizers thought up TEDx—a TED-like event that can be organized anywhere in the world by a local community. But the organizers carefully curate the speakers, who have to adhere to TED’s format and rules; and if they make the cut there, they stand a chance to go on to the global stage.

As is my wont, when I need a break, I often head to listen to TED in the hope that I may hear something interesting. It was on one such occasion that I stumbled on a talk that sounded incredibly promising. “Why I read a book every day (and you should too): The law of 33%” by Tai Lopez.

Lopez kicks the talk off with a compelling proposition: “Everybody wants the good life, but not everybody gets the good life, right? Imagine for a second. If right now, today, how much more successful you would be if you just started a company 50:50 with Bill Gates as your business partner and he was using every trick of the trade that he used to build Microsoft into one of the biggest companies in the world?

“Imagine how much money you would have in your bank account today—how much more money, I should say—if Warren Buffet was teaching you how to invest in the stock market, showing you what he used to build Berkshire Hathaway into a $140 billion company. Imagine how much happier you’d be today if the Dalai Lama was your personal guide, showing you how to find fulfilment in life, in the little things that most people overlook.”

He got my attention right away. I latched on to every word of what he was trying to say because on stage was a man who had just promised me by the end of all that he had to say was I could read a book a day. Between what resides on my shelves and Kindle, I have a few thousand books, a good number of which continue to remain unread—not for lack of interest, but a function of daily exigencies that often take over.

He continued in the same vein and I continued to hear him out: “You should divide up your life and spend 33% of your time around people lower than you. You can mentor them, you can help them. And they will help you back by making you feel good about yourself. Right? It’s good to know somebody’s doing worse than you. That’s that 30%.” He followed it up with something about 33% of people who are at your level and ought to be friends. And then there are those in the 33% who are 10-20 years ahead of you. Those, he argues, are the ones who ought to be your mentors. “I call it the 10x Rule,” he said with a straight face.

“All right,” I muttered to myself. “Come to the point.” He finally did.

“How do you read a book a day? Sometimes I take a week. But sometimes, books only have one or two things that are worth reading. In fact, most books only have that.” So, Lopez suggests, you take a good look at the cover, then the back of the book, a hard look at the table of contents to figure if there is something in there that matters, flip through the book to see if something else that catches your attention, read it, and you are done.

“See yourself like a gold miner just looking for that one nugget. Then put it back on the shelf.” That out of the way, he went on to say something about Stoics versus Epicureans. The audience applauded, I nodded my head in appreciation, he soaked it all in, and I was ready to listen to another talk.

This one sounded equally compelling: “How to multiply your time” by Rory Vaden. He sounded all the more credible because one of his books, Take the Stairs, appeared on The New York Times bestseller list in 2012.

Starved as all of us are for quality time to do all of what we want to, Vaden raises a pertinent question. After warming up to the audience later with a heart-warming story of a brown-haired two-year-old girl who wanted her daddy to spend time with her, he launches into the central premise.

“In fact, there is no such thing as time management. You can’t manage time, time continues on whether we like it or not. So, there is no such thing as time management. Really, there is only self-management.” Profound, I told myself.

What followed next was a brief history of time management. Iteration one of time management, Vaden points out, gained traction in the 1950s and ’60s. The next iteration emerged in the late 1980s led by Stephen Covey. “He gave us something called the Time Management Matrix, where the X-axis was urgency, and the Y-axis was importance, and the beauty about this was that it gave us a system for scoring our tasks, and then based on how they scored in these two areas, we could prioritize tasks, one in front of the other.”

That out of the way, he then launched into how he thinks time ought to be managed. “What we have noticed is the emergence of a new type of thinker, somebody that we refer to as a multiplier, and multipliers use what we call three-dimensional thinking. While most people only make decisions based on urgency and importance, multipliers are making a third calculation which is based on significance, and if urgency is how soon does something matter, and importance is how much does it matter, then significance is how long is it going to matter. (…) when we assemble our to-do list, we say: ‘What’s the most important thing I can do today?’ But that is not how multipliers think; multipliers instead ask the question: ‘What can I do today that would make tomorrow better?’ ‘What can I do right now that would make the future better?’ They are making the significance calculation.”

I must confess again, after having heard the talk delivered with the kind of conviction he brought to the stage, I told myself there was enough material here to ponder over.

Call it a sudden moment of epiphany if you will, but for whatever inexplicable reason, suddenly scepticism kicked in.

Through all of the 18-odd minutes Lopez was on stage, pardon my expression, he was bullshitting. The core of his argument was this: Look at the cover of a book, read the flap on its back, browse through the table of contents, if anything gets your attention, read it, and you are done. Some more looking around later, and it turned out Lopez is a smooth talker who made a ton of money starting life out as the promoter of a website called Elite Global Dating. It promised to connect rich men from across the world looking for arm candy.

A closer look at Vaden’s talk points to some interesting things. Two slick slides on what the first- and second-generation of time management looked like, he introduces a third one, but with fancy words like “multipliers”, “three-dimensional thinking” and “significance calculation”. But there is nothing radical he has to say—save what every productivity hack routinely repeats—don’t check email all of the time, focus on the task at hand, make time for the family and other such assorted noises.

My limited point: So, what if his book made it to the NYT bestseller list? Packaged rubbish in any form is packaged rubbish. Surely, surely the millions of people who routinely listen to the few thousand carefully curated talks on TED can’t be so dumb. And whatever happened to the so-called scepticism I was trained to practise as a journalist who routinely listens to an overwhelming number of platitudes?

So, I thought it only appropriate to look a bit harder at what I, like many others, maintained was intelligently curated content. It didn’t take too long to figure out I was hopelessly behind the times. As early as 2013, Harvard Business Review had published a detailed report on all of what was wrong with TED.

It was prompted by a talk titled “Vortex-based mathematics” by Randy Powell, to which a professor based out of Stanford University raised a storm by calling it “Wow. Such f*** b****. I am a theoretical physicist who uses (and teaches) the technical meaning of many of the jargon terms that he’s throwing out. He is simply doing a random word association with the terms.”

The report prompted a good many news outlets to investigate the machinations of what is widely considered a place for the world’s intellectual and elite to congregate and discuss ideas of global significance. When I last checked, the entity that is TED earns upwards of $45 million in revenue. At the very least, participants pay $8,500 to be a part of this three-day event held at plush locations, in spite of which the speakers are not paid. Mind you, not for lack of funds.

Having gone through all of the literature and criticism of the event that is TED, I cannot help but agree with a review of the event by Matt Robinson of the New Statesman.

He posited events like these are all about making people feel good about themselves—that they have emerged cleverer and more knowledgeable; that they are part of an elite group that engaged with the world’s finest minds to make the world a better place to live. “TED’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Ideas worth spreading’, it should be: ‘Ego worth paying for’,” the critique concludes.

I am not suggesting here that all of the content that exists on TED.com is rubbish. There is some compelling content. But the hype around it and the overwhelming amount of nonsense that has infiltrated the portal offers a strong case to give up watching TED talks that promise you the world in 18-minute nuggets. There is no easy way out, but to read more and listen in to livelier, deeper conversations.

If that sounds like hard work, then turn to TED, a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers”, as described by the globally acclaimed statistician and author of Black Swan, Nassim Taleb.

(This article was first published in Livemint.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is currently co-founder and director at Founding Fuel. He writes a weekly column as well under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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