TED Talks as One Night Stand

Last week, I wrote a bit about the limits and virtues of TED Talks as a vehicle for ideas that can transform how we work and live. I love TED Talks and usually find them wildly inspiring. The trick is what to do with that feeling. Where can we carry that sense of inspiration? How do we apply it?

Jim Rettew offers great insights on the nature of TED and what we should be doing with it. You should read “Are TED Talks a One Night Stand With Ideas?”

Rettew offers two essential insights for me. The Biggest Ideas are usually statements of problem rather than statements of solution. He offers Picasso’s Guernica as an example.  To be fair, Guernica is a different sort of thing than a talk, but the example gets Rettew to this statement:

Great Ideas, then, don’t merely easily please us with their immediate utility — often, they break our hearts with desperate futility; with both the aching impossibility and sure inevitability of the trials and tests of human life. But that’s precisely what makes them Great.

Which leads to Rettew’s other essential point about the TED Talks way of sharing: “It gives us the climax of epiphany, without the challenge and tension of thought.”

The habit of thinking represented by TED Talks delivers the quick thrill of insight without the underlying work of thought, reflection and bewilderment.

Rettew sees trouble not specifically with TED Talks, but rather the Ideas Industry. TED Talks are just a useful exemplar.

TED Talks are powerful, useful and generally helpful. The trouble is with the easy trust that TED Talks can create. The TED Talks website is an epiphany machine. Since viewers receive these epiphanies without the preliminary discomforts of confusion, critical thought and experience, the machine delivers the appearance of solutions as a form of entertainment. We can feel better about things because smart people have come up with great ideas. Action is not required. We aren’t asked to actually do anything.

Great Ideas, Rettew tells us, require something from us. Great Ideas require action. We are more than pundits and consumers.

As bloggers, we are part of the Ideas Industry. When I post, what is it I am doing? Am I contributing something useful that can be used to make something useful happen? Am I just a conduit for the comfort of other people’s epiphanies?

Maybe the idea of epiphany is what I am actually working with in this series of posts. The assumed belief that useful insights and solutions always arrive as epiphanies, and that progress always happens in unexpected, brilliant leaps forward.

We need those leaps sometimes, to be sure.

More often, progress comes from slow, steady application of reason, hypothesis and process of elimination.

The Idea Industry tells us that epiphanies are required to make things better. The problem is that epiphanies are not something we can count on everyone to provide. If we are going to improve things that matter, we need to get everybody into the game. We need to encourage both kinds of thinking.

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