Many people associate TED talks with grand visions for the next several decades—radical architecture, blueprints for global change, demos of never-before-seen technology.
While TED2019 had plenty of such ambition, it also featured pragmatism. Here are three tangible actions—endorsed by TED speakers from multiple disciplines—that people can take today to help shape a better future.
1. Rethink: Our obsession with speed and efficiency
Technology has a habit of making things faster, quicker, and more scalable. But historian Edward Tenner points out a problem: such efficiency can often have unintended consequences. In the 19th century, the Irish potato was a technological marvel—a consistent, scalable food source for millions. But that scalability led to disaster when a mold-based blight spoiled multiple potato crops, leading to mass famine.
“The problems with efficiency today are less drastic but more chronic,” Tenner says. He points to the unintended side effects of digital solutions like electronic medical records. They’ve helped many large organizations, but actually created extra work for smaller ones. He mentions the algorithmic tools we use to reject and ignore imaginative stories that don’t fit the established rules of modern film and literature.
Similarly, sleep scientist Matthew Walker bemoans our culture’s disregard for a good night’s rest. He cites a series of studies, showing how even a moderate lack of sleep leads to memory loss, reduced learning, higher suicide rates, and higher rates of cancer. “It’s time for us to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep,” he says. “Without embarrassment. Without the unfortunate stigma of laziness.”
Tenner says a better mindset starts with “inspired inefficiency.” He says “data and measurement are essential. But they are not enough. Let’s leave room for human intuition and human skills.” That might mean reducing our impulse toward ruthless efficiency. “Take the scenic route. Say ‘yes’ to serendipity.”
As for sleep, Walker notes that less caffeine and alcohol will always help, but he also advocates for cooler temperatures and schedule regularity. “Keep it cool. Aim for 65 degrees. Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time. Regularity is king. It will anchor your sleep and improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.”
2. Ask: What are we optimizing for?
When founder and CEO Jack Dorsey first began to grow Twitter, he and his team chose a few metrics to emphasize. Twitter users would see their follower count in a big, bold font, a number that would encourage self-promotion. They also built in “favorites” (which later became “likes”), which helped users endorse tweets by tapping a heart icon. Today, he questions whether either decision was the correct one.
“If I had to start the service again, I probably would not emphasize the follower count as much,” says Dorsey. “I would not emphasize the ‘like’ count as much. I don’t think I would even create ‘like’ in the first place—because it doesn’t actually push what we believe now to be the most important thing, which is healthy contribution back to the network.”
The metrics Twitter’s early team chose have had profound consequences on Twitter today. The company is scrambling to tamp down harassment, to replace toxicity with healthy conversation. Dorsey envisions new metrics that measure what people learn and walk away with, rather than raw followers or number of likes and retweets.
Misinformation expert Claire Wardle speaks to a similar issue. She says most social networks were built by hyper-rational engineers, but that most users don’t think the same way. “We don’t have a rational relationship to information; we have an emotional one.” Unfortunately, this means the most successful social posts tend to spark outrage and anger; thoughtful or constructive contributions simply don’t grab us in the same way.
Both Dorsey and Wardle agree that we always need to be reevaluating our metrics. Even if we’re hitting our numbers, are those the right numbers? Are we giving ourselves a pat on the back for something that might actually be harming our community and our relationships? The same can apply to individuals. Where are we choosing to spend our time and our money? And for what ultimate purpose?
3. Share: Outside your comfort zone
The advent of smartphones and the internet has given us more ways than ever to connect, but in many ways, technology has allowed us to become more isolated. We submit charitable donations on lifeless, impersonal online forms. We wallow in our loneliness while projecting a false, happier version of ourselves in social channels. And we often become robots at social gatherings, playing it safe and fading back into routine politeness.
“Don’t reward your donors with pens or calendars. Reward them with the opportunity to see the specific impact their donation is having.” -Elizabeth Dunn
Three TED speakers called behaviors like these into question. Happiness researcher Elizabeth Dunn said she wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of giving to charities. She’d been giving to the usual big names, the brand name charities you see most often on TV. It wasn’t until she sponsored an immigrant family—and actually met them at the airport—that she finally realized the human satisfaction that comes with helping others.
Dunn has a message to charity organizations. “Don’t reward your donors with pens or calendars. Reward them with the opportunity to see the specific impact their donation is having.” She implores individuals to find and meet the humans receiving the donations, wherever possible.
Screenwriter, author, and artist Jonny Sun has a similarly human-minded message: embrace your loneliness and share it with others. “When someone shares that they’re sad or afraid or alone, it makes me feel less alone.” In 2017, he published a collection of cartoons. Through his art, he was frank about his insecurities, but ultimately, warm and optimistic. His collection of comics—featuring lovably awkward woodland creatures—has been a source of warmth for many readers.
Finally, conflict mediator Priya Parker wants us to rethink daily gatherings. It starts with learning to “cultivate good controversy.” Parker laments that many of today’s meetups—like birthday parties and baby showers—are too safe, too predictable. “The best gatherings learn to cultivate good controversy,” she says.
This might mean establishing “pop-up rules,” like banning opinions, and asking for stories instead. Or hosting a dinner where the first person to check their phone has to pay the bill. She says she’s been pleasantly surprised by the new connections she’s made once people have been forced outside their comfort zones. “Gatherings at their best allow us to be seen for who we are and to see. Because how we gather is how we live.”
More TED: All the words TED guests use to describe being in a flow state (chart)