January: My Top 5 talks

And in no particular order;

Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave
Isabel Allende: Tales of Passion
Lisa Kristine: Photos that bear witness to modern slavery
Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity
Michael Pollan: A Plant’s Eye View

3:2…. Go the girls!


Day 31- A Kinder Gentler Philosophy of Success

Is success really earned? And if so, do we assume failure is deserved?
In this humorous talk Alain de Botton dissects our idea of success and explains why we’re not jealous of the Queen!

Modern society is more equal than ever. We may be as unlikely to end up the next Bill Gates as a peasant would have been to rise to the French aristocracy in the 17th century, yet we believe we should be able to. The first question asked at many a dinner party remains,’So what do you do?’ Expectations and hope for our careers and lives are at an all time high. Magazines and books describe how we can ‘have it all.’ It may be easier than ever before to make a good living. The ability to rise to where we please is a beautiful thing; or is it?

It turns out that this spirit of equality is closely linked with envy. Ask most people in the world if they’re jealous of the Queen of England and they’re likely to answer in the negative. She lives in a huge house, has this life of endless boring engagements and an odd family. In short, we can’t identify with anything she does. But imagine you went to school with the President of America? Would you feel inadequate, knowing you once beat Barrack Obama in a spelling competition and now you earn ten times less than him? Apparently many of us would. In every self-help section there are dozens of titles on dealing with low self esteem. While there is a high value put on success, the consequences of failure can be crushing, and this has a detrimental effect on our self worth.
Modern society has a lot to answer for. We have nothing at our epicentre that is non-human; most people in developed countries worship human achievement far more than any Gods or idols. Our heroes are human heroes. In
Ancient Greek theatre, the tragic plays examined why people failed and afforded them a level of sympathy they may not have received otherwise. At the other end of the spectrum, today we have the tabloid newspaper, specially designed to highlight failures on a daily basis. In the middle ages, a pauper was described as unfortunate; in modern America, somebody at the lower end of society can be described as a ‘loser.’ It’s probably not surprising that rates of suicide are higher in developed countries than anywhere else in the world.
The unfortunate truth is that we often don’t make our own decisions about what constitutes success. Instead, our impression of a successful life is influenced by media, advertising, our parents, friends, colleagues. De Botton re-iterates that we can’t have it all. Chasing the perfect career is great, but theres always a trade-off. So let’s probe away at our notions of success and make sure our ideas are really our own.

Day 30: The Surprising Science of Happiness

Can we happy if we don’t get the things we want? Harvard professor and the author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, Dan Gilbert tells us we have a psychological immune system which lets us feel truly happy even when life doesn’t go as planned.

Over the last two million years the human brain has tripled in mass. In evolutionary terms, this is huge. The brain not only got bigger; it gained new structure. Major gains include the frontal lobe and pre-frontal cortex. Amongst its many functions, the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for experience simulation. Everyone has this ability. Ben and Jerrys don’t have liver and onion ice-cream because they made some and tasted it; we can sit in an armchair and imagine how it would be disgusting! Using this ‘experience simulator’, we can also synthesis the emotion of happiness. Most of us just don’t believe it.

Gilbert proposes that synthesised happiness is every bit as worthwhile as ‘natural’ happiness (also known as getting what we want!) He has the scientific data to prove it. A study of people following major life traumas shows that if it happened more than three months before, it has no impact whatsoever on happiness. Paraplegics and lottery winners have the same levels of happiness after one year. Quotes from people who’ve been subject to everything from natural disasters to marital breakdown can often testify to this. Take the words of Moreese Bickham, 78 years old when he was released from a Louisiana State Penitentiary after serving 37 years for a crime he didn’t commit; “It was a glorious experience.” Or there’s Pete Best, the first drummer from the Beatles; “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

On hearing such statements, most of us roll our eyes and think, ‘Well, you must not have wanted it.’ We discredit the idea of the psychological immune system in favour of the natural happiness model. Gilbert says this refusal to believe is mainly economic. A shopping mall full of Zen monks is hardly going to be profitable, as none want ‘stuff’ enough.

More research points to the fact this psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck. This is the difference between dating and marriage, freedom and incarceration. Unfortunately, we continue to maintain too much choice, not knowing that boundaries to our longings and the constant chasing of experiences is actually making us unhappy. When we overrate our fears and longings, we make bad decisions. Unbounded ambition leads to lying and cheating to get what one wants; unbounded fear leads to recklessness. Yes, we should have preference which leads us to one future over another. But these preferences shouldn’t be overblown. In the words of Shakespeare;
‘Tis nothing good or bad; But thinking makes it so.’

Day 29: Deborah Scranton’s War Tapes

In 2006 Deborah Scranton’s documentary, ‘The War Tapes’, was released, winning several accolades including ‘Best International Documentary’ at the Tribeca International film festival. This documentary was the first of its kind, giving actual soldiers serving in Iraq their own cameras to shoot footage over the course of a year.
Scranton begins her talk by describing the means in which she gained access to the soldiers. After receiving permission from the brave General Blair, she was tasked with visiting Fort Dix, where her main challenge was to get the soldiers to volunteer. The first question they asked? “What the fuck do you know about the National Guard?” She managed to get over twenty volunteers, including five soldiers who filmed continuously.
Scranton is an empathetic woman who obviously has a great relationship with her subjects. She shows intimate and powerful footage from the documentary; a group of soldiers rushing to the scene of a car bomb; an interview with a man describing the feeling of walking on skin on the ground; a wife who said her husband wasn’t the same man. There are individual stories too. A man named Paul Anthony, who only spoke about the war at TED because Scranton ‘had his back’, is in the audience. She tells the story of another returned Marine who approached her after a screening of the film in tears; a scene in which an Iraqi woman was run over by a Humvee reminded him of when he’d accidentally killed a child who stepped in front of his vehicle as his gunner was throwing out sweets.
Scranton found at every Q + A session that the people who stayed behind until last to ask questions were usually soldiers. Herein lies the power of film, a point made repeatedly on TED and otherwise; it get’s people to talk. Scranton challenges every individual who says, ‘I support the soldiers,’ to take action and do just that, whether through donating to a charity or reaching out to a Veteran neighbour. Operationalise those terms.

Day 28- We are the stories we tell ourselves.

“I tell a story and therefore I exist.”

Shekhar Kapur is a Golden Globe winning director, whose films include ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘The Four Feathers.’ In this talk, he describes powerful ways to unleash creativity and improve the art of the story.

As a child, Kapur used to lie in bed crying because he was unable to touch creativity. He would look to the horizon and ask his father how far the universe went. His father, a doctor, told him it went on forever. The young Shekhar struggled with this, as in school they were told immeasurable things didn’t exist. Yet it is this power of not knowing which creates a story.

The subtext is one of the most powerful tools in modern storytelling. Kapur tells us he often prefers to go onto a film set in a state of panic. Out of chaos comes truth. Five good moments of organic work can make a difference in a film.

Kapur looks for four aspects to a story; the story on the plot level, the psychological, the political and the mythological. Often he ends up with four contradicting stories. He believes the presence of such contradictions ultimately lead to harmony within the story.

We see examples of this structure at work in the clips from Kapur’s films about Queen Elizabeth. The film opens with the young Elizabeth dancing, when Leicester asks to join her. The symbolism here paints a young woman in love who saw great joy in her life. A later scene shows Elizabeth in an altercation with her lady in waiting, who has just announced she’s pregnant with Raleigh’s child. Kapur uses sweeping, downwards camera shots from the cold stone walls of the palace to illustrate that the architecture is bigger than the character of Elizabeth. In this scene she comes to terms with her own sense of mortality and from then on embraces the spiritual Elizabeth. While the screenwriter in this film told a story of the Queen, Kapur based his story around the Gods (mythological), while his leading lady Cate Blanchett describes it as the story of a woman coming to terms with growing old (psychological).

Life is full of similar contradictions; men and women, night and day. We look for harmony in these. The sky at 4 in the morning, where the first flush of blue breaks out, is an attempt for night and day to harmonise with each other. And harmony is the suggestion of something far more embracing and eternal than simple resolution in a story


Day 27: David Hoffman on losing everything

Since the beginning of 2013 dozens of houses have been destroyed and hundreds evacuated from uncontrolled bushfires in Australia. One of the most recent programs I’ve heard about involves the collection of photographs of the victims by friends, neighbours, former schoolmates and work colleagues. For most, these trinkets that make up a life constitute one of the main losses following a housefire.   
David Hoffman is a collector. He keeps articles related to his films, photographs, letters and posters. Eight days before TED2008, his house burnt down and he lost everything, including 175 films and 16 milimeter negative.   
Hoffman looked at his belongings; a desk that took 40 odd years to fill, the only copy he had of a print from when his film, “King, Murray” won Cannes in 1970.  He wondered if ‘he’ was his ‘things.’ Then he remembered something he’d heard as a kid, “Make the best of a bad situation.”   In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, he called his daughter and friends to start digging through the ashes in an attempt to piece together the bits of his life. His next project is going to be called, ‘Bits and Pieces.’   
Hoffman spoke at TED before this, in 2007, when he shared footage from his documentary, ‘Sputnik Mania.’ He was fully appreciative of this chance to speak with an audience in Monterey about his way of dealing with his loss. He was, as he should have been, extremely proud.  

Day 26: Why domestic violence victims don’t leave.

Why do women stay in an abusive relationship?

Leslie Morgan Steiner is a wife and mother of three who was educated at Harvard and has worked for Fortune 500 companies for most of her career.  Not your typical domestic abuse victim? Here she outlines the abuse she suffered at the hands of her first husband and describes how she found herself married to a man who frequently put a loaded gun to her head.

Leslie was 22 and working in her dream job in New York when she met Conor, a Wall Street banker. He was sweet, funny and smart. He also created the illusion that she was the dominant party in the relationship; idolising her, wanting to know everything she was doing and believing in her. This is stage 1 of the cycle; Gaining the victim’s trust.

Step 2 is to isolate the victim. As Leslie said, he came home one Friday and announced he’d given up his job as ‘she was enough for him.’ He wanted to move to the country, away from the history of his abusive family and start their life. Leslie wasn’t keen to leave her job, but she thought this was what soulmates did, so they moved to New England.

Step 3 is where the abuser introduces the threat of violence. Shortly after they moved to New England, Conor bought three guns, ‘for protection’. He first physically attacked her five days before the wedding, blaming it on the wedding stress. He abused her twice on their honeymoon and then once or twice weekly for two years.

She wasn’t alone. In the U.S., one third of women experience domestic violence or stalking. 15 million are abused daily. Why did she stay? Leslie’s answer is she didn’t know he was abusing her. Instead, she thought of herself as a strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man.

The most painful reason why women don’t stay is Step 4. Step 4 of the cycle is murder. 70% of domestic violence related murders happen when the woman has left. There are other severe repercussions; loss of financial support, stalking, loss of children.

After suffering a final sadistic beating Leslie left her husband. She told everybody; the police, family, friends, strangers. She wrote a book called ‘Crazy Love’ and has heard hundreds of abuse stories since.

The first person I mentioned this talk to, midway through a normal Saturday morning, told me she was abused by her first husband. A friend recently made a brave short film to highlight the problem. I assume I don’t know anybody who’s been affected, yet had I not mentioned this talk, I would never have had the conversation I had today. I’m sure there are many more such things that need to be said in the world; so get talking!

A short film by the talented Vanessa Dang highlighting this disturbing topic