Steven Pinker’s TED Talk: Is the world getting better or worse?

I read Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, and came away more optimistic about humanity. We’ve made remarkable progress in even the last few decades, not to mention the drastic difference in the human experience over the past two centuries.

The book, though, is filled with an extraordinary amount of data backing up his arguments and is slow going.

TED recently released this video of Pinker’s TED Talk on the subject. In just 18 minutes, Pinker clearly makes his case. If you don’t want to make time for the book, this talk will suffice.

Sebastian Junger’s TED Talk: The consequences of a more disconnected society

This theme, that it’s all about relationships, keeps appearing in what I’m reading and watching. 

I watched this sobering TED Talk today by the author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger. It is a pointed indictment of a culture that is more disconnected and less tribal than ever. 

The rise in PSTD among returning soldiers, he asserts, may be more about the culture they’re coming home to than it is about their combat experiences. 

We are wired for community, for connection, to be a part of something beyond ourselves. If our culture is trending away from genuine, face-to-face human relationships, it’s on us to cultivate that connection. Our health and well-being are dependent on it. 

The quality of your relationships will determine the quality of your life. 

Kurzgesagt: The universe is crazy big

This video* is chock full of insights that clarify complicated concepts about the size of the universe.

And it’s a sobering reminder of just how small we are. The video points out that the local group of galaxies—that includes our Milky Way and the neighboring galaxies that are close enough to ever possibly consider exploring in some way—make up .00000000001 percent of the observable universe. The rest of the universe—basically all of it—will forever be beyond our reach.

In the very distant future, though, most galaxies will be so far from us that their light will never reach Earth. If humans are still here, or if intelligent life exists elsewhere, those future generations won’t see any signs of this vast universe that we know we inhabit.

How nice to be alive in a time of peak, supersize existential angst.

Kurzgesagt (which apparently means “in a nutshell” in German) is a brilliant YouTube channel that uses impeccably crafted, beautiful animated videos to explain science “in a nutshell”, as they say.

*via Kottke

It’s all about relationships

I somewhat randomly clicked on this TED Talk by Harvard researcher Robert Waldinger this week.

He has carried on the research in one of the longest running research projects of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. For more than 75 years data has been collected that has led to some clear answers about what makes for a good life.

Younger people tend to predict that fortune and fame will lead to happiness. That prediction doesn’t hold up.

Studying older people who have lived more life shows there is one key indicator for happier and healthier lives.

It’s actually simple and ultimately rather obvious. According to Waldinger and the study’s research, this is your ticket to a good life:

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

It’s all about relationships.

Not only will you have a happier life if it’s built around positive relationships, you’ll live a healthier and longer life as well:

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

Even brain health and mental function were notably better later in life for those who reported stronger connections in their relationships.

Waldinger closed his talk with this:

“The people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships—with family, with friends, with community.”

“The good life is built with good relationships.”

I think most people will say they want a life filled with good relationships, but how often are we intentional about investing in our connections with family and friends and community?

What if you “leaned in” to the relationships that matter most? Imagine making family and friends your true priority in the way you spend your time and where you devote your greatest energy and creativity.

If you want a satisfying life, career success and financial well-being should be subordinate to the strength of the connections you make with the people who matter most.

If you don’t have close friends, make some. If your family life is suffering, get busy making it better. If you don’t have a community that you support and that supports you, do something about it.

Life as a human here on Earth is ultimately all about relationships.

“There isn’t time—so brief is life—for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving—and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” –Mark Twain



To Scale: A short film to put you in your place

Those pictures of the solar system with all the planets lined up in the order of their orbits are nice ways to visualize where things are in general. But they are nowhere close to representing the true scale of the size of the solar system.

Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh made this amazing short film that actually shows the solar system to scale. They had to go to the desert and use seven miles of open land to put the sun and the orbits of the marble-sized earth and the other planets in their proper perspective.

Watching this film is seven minutes well spent. It’s a clever concept very well executed.

And it’s a great reminder of not only just how small we are (that seems to be a theme here) but also how we tend to underestimate the vast amounts of emptiness out there. Only a tiny portion of the universe is tangible.

It’s good to be here.

How wonderful to be anywhere at all.


Show your work: Star Wars

Seeing inside the process of a craftsman or artist makes me appreciate their work more. Knowing how the magic is made doesn’t diminish the magic; it enhances it. 

And that kind of transparency inspires me to push through the messy misfires and tedious small steps on the way to making my own art. 

Even the world’s greatest masterpieces didn’t emerge instantly pristine. Imagine how many discarded drafts and crumpled sketches and trashed recipes came before the lauded final product. Trial and error and daily effort and persistence don’t grab headlines, but the art wouldn’t be art without the work. 

Want to make something great? Do the work. 

Inspired by Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work”, I regularly share behind-the-scenes glimpses of projects I’m working on. Let’s demystify the creative process and encourage others to dive in and make something remarkable, too.  

All of us can make art. If it’s something you care about and making it would be meaningful to others, it’s art. Your work, your hobby, your passion. 

I love this video that was just released showing the work being done now on the upcoming film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens:

This is the kind of thing you would usually see only after a film has been released. But the creators are “showing their work” in progress, and it gives a sense of just how much they care about what they’re making. Now I have a new hope (see what I did there?) for the future of this grand story. 

Staying beginners

Tony Fadell, the former Apple employee who led the original iPod team, talks about the importance of “noticing” in this TED Talk about design.

He refers to his old boss, Steve Jobs, and his continual exhortation to his staff on “staying beginners”, to constantly try to see the world with fresh eyes and as the customer might see things. 

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” –Shunryu Suzuki

Be The Punchline: Focus on what you can give, not what you can get

ht Presentation Zen

So good.

This comedian’s career flipped when he realized he should focus on what he could give the audience, not on what he hoped to get from them.

It’s called giving a speech, right? So, if you’re called on to speak, consider this an opportunity to give something to your audience. What gift would be worthwhile and meaningful? Don’t apologize or half-heart it. Be solid and come strong with your gift.

Don’t be like so many who start a talk with “I’m sorry to be taking your time” or otherwise apologize for standing in front of them. If you’ve got a meaningful gift to share, be confident and bold.

I do like getting a great response from an audience – laughs, smiles, applause, questions. But if I focus on what I have to give, I’m more likely to get a response that matters.

Beyond public speaking and stand-up comedy, this question just works. “What can I give that would be valuable to someone?”

SLOMO: “Do what you want to!”

This short film is well worth fifteen minutes of your attention:

ht Charlie Hoehn

This former doctor has found bliss roller-blading* by the beach. He chucked his living-by-the-rules-and-society’s-defaults kind of life and just started doing what he wanted to do.

He was inspired by a chance encounter years before with a 93-year-old whose life advice was: “Do what you want to!”

That story reminded me of Joseph Campbell recounting this story in his 1980s television series with Bill Moyers:

Campbell: Remember the last line [of Babbitt]? “I have never done the thing that I wanted to in all my life.” That is a man who never followed his bliss. Well, I actually heard that line when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to eat out in the restaurants of town for my lunch and dinners. Thursday night was the maid’s night off in Bronxville, so that many of the families were out in restaurants. One fine evening, I was in my favorite restaurant there, and at the next table there was a father, a mother, and a scrawny boy about twelve years old. The father said to the boy, “Drink your tomato juice.”

And the boy said, “I don’t want to.”

Then the father, with a louder voice, said, “Drink your tomato juice.”

And the mother said, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.”

The father looked at her and said, “He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do. If he only does what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.”

And I thought, “There’s Babbitt incarnate.”

That’s the man who never followed his bliss. You may have a success in life, but then just think of it—what kind of life was it? What good was it—you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.

 “Follow your bliss” is not a call to a shallow, selfish life. It’s the call to listen and to act. To not just follow the expectations of others. To not just get locked into a groove that someone else made. Live your life.


*As an aside, I was intrigued by Slomo’s neurological explanation in the documentary of the science of the joy of accelerating. Because, the inner ear and gravity and the center of the earth…

Recently, I’ve been borrowing my seven-year-old daughter’s scooter at every chance.

Me, to my kids: “Hey, girls! Do you want to go ride your bikes…?!”

Me, to myself: *…so I have an excuse to ride the scooter*

I delight in zooming down our steep driveway and onto the road. And when we go around the block, I live for the smooth, even descent where I can just glide downhill back to our house, the wind in my gray hair. It puts a smile on my face and creates this simple little pleasure that most fifty-year-old men rarely experience.

Slomo, I get it. Skate on.



Jason Silva: The Power of Ideas

I like the twist in style in Jason Silva’s latest short video, The Power of Ideas:

Great stuff, as usual, from Silva. It’s nice to see him varying the forms of his videos.

And this line in it from Tom Tobbins:

A cyclone of unorthodox ideas capable of lifting almost any brain out of its cognitive Kansas.

Nice, right?

Being willing to not just allow new ideas to reshape your view of the universe, but to actively seek out mindscape-shifting, dogma-crushing insights… courage –foolhardy, old-fashioned, to-hell-with-the-collateral-damage courage– is required.

The power of ideas, though, is worth the bumpy ride.

Band camp and intrinsic rewards

I was in the marching band in high school. Trumpet and French horn. I was no great musician, but I especially enjoyed the camaraderie. During the summer we all had to participate in band camp, where we learned the music and the show we would perform at football games and in competitions. (There was no actual camping, by the way. Not sure why it was called a camp.)

It was tedious and hot. Georgia-in-August hot. Putting the show in during the first days of camp took a lot of do-overs as everyone was learning where to go and when. After the band director would stop the show to correct something, we were then exhorted to hurry back to the sideline of the field to start over.

Well, it was hot. And tedious. And most teenagers in August who were waking up early maybe for the first time all summer are inclined to move slowly as they do this hard thing. And the director and the band officers would implore everyone to hurry, to run to get back to the starting point. It was mostly a futile effort getting a hundred high school students to run in the August heat across a dusty field.

I, however, was that kid who made a game out of it. I put a smile on my face and raced back across the field to the line every time, cheering and acting silly as I passed by many of my fellow band members. If I was going to have be out in the heat of an August day in Georgia doing this band practice, I might as well try to have fun.

If I’ve got a choice (and I do), I’m going to choose to be happy. And sprinting across the field at band camp while joking with friends made the tedium less tedious and added a dash of fun. I hoped to make someone else smile along the way as well. There were always a few of us who chose to make it fun.

Not many of my classmates, though, chose a similar response. Most dragged their feet and complained the whole way back to the line. Getting the band back in place to start over was a chore every time.

One day the director gathered the band up as practice was starting and offered a challenge. He would give fast food gift cards to those band members who showed the most spirit and energy running back to the line that day.

Well, every time we stopped and had to start over that day, the whole band went crazy, running back to the line with hyped up glee, yelling and cheering. One of my friends, who could have been the poster boy for the feet-dragging whiners previously, was all of a sudden Mr. Spirit, whooping and running each time we had a do-over.

Almost everyone seemed to be responding to this new motivational tactic. Except, it seemed to have the opposite effect on me. I hurried back, but not with my usual enthusiasm. Now, with a prize at stake, my motivation was gone. I didn’t want to be seen as faking it just to get some free food. And I did not win a spirit award that day. My friend, Mr. Spirit, did.

I remember feeling perplexed by my response. Why had I been bothered by the reward? Why was that enough to tone down my enthusiasm?

The reward for me previously had been an intrinsic one. It was the fun I had doing the thing. But when the reward was a free hamburger and being acknowledged in front of my peers, I put the brakes on. I didn’t understand the psychology then, but I now know that the extrinsic inducement sabotaged my motivation that day.

The next day at band camp there were no more gift cards to be awarded. And everyone went back to business as usual, with just the usual few choosing to delight in running back to the line just for the sake of it, not for any prizes. Those rewards had a very limited impact.

I know there is research now showing that extrinsic rewards turn out to have limited success and work primarily for tasks requiring a low level of mental and emotional investment. Bonuses and prizes and other external payoffs just don’t have the impact and staying power that everyone assumes.

Intrinsic rewards, though, are where the real juice is, especially for higher level work and organizational excellence. Finding how to tap those for yourself and those you lead can open possibilities for deep satisfaction and exceptional performance.

Check out Dan Pink’s TED Talk explaining what he discovered about the power of intrinsic motivation.


David Foster Wallace: “This is water”

Merlin Mann pointed out that this great video, which had been taken down for copyright issues previously, is back on YouTube.

It’s from the late, great David Foster Wallace’s memorable Kenyon College commencement speech. And it’s as brutally honest and surprisingly insightful as any commencement speech ever dares to be.

Instead of offering lofty platitudes and exhortations for success, Wallace shines a light on the reality of “day in, day out” life. And life happens just one moment at a time.

I’ve gone back to this talk regularly for its sharp reminders about real life and real freedom.



Imagining a future on the frontier beyond Earth

This gorgeous short film by Erik Wernquist imagines humans exploring deep into our solar system. The images are stunning in their beauty and in the vision they offer of humans venturing to the frontier beyond our own planet. And there’s Carl Sagan’s voice and poetic words. So good.


Why should we even dream of such ventures? Because we are human, and we’ve been wandering and searching and exploring from the beginning. We journey. It’s what we do, and it’s how we are wired. And in journeying we find ourselves and attempt to make sense of our place.

The sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled… The open road still softly calls. –Carl Sagan

Imagine what it would take for even a small portion of this filmmaker’s vision to become a reality. Epic, gargantuan investments of brainpower and resources and will, right? But, remember, the previous generation sent men to the moon. That was back when computers filled rooms. They fit in our pockets now.

Can’t we fit dreams like this into our future and honor our nature as wanderers? If our physical survival doesn’t depend on it (and it might), at least the survival of our questing spirit and restless curiosity ultimately may be at stake.

This may be centuries away, but it’s on us to point ourselves in that direction.

via Kottke

The truth about art

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. –Pablo Picasso

Jason Silva keeps making good stuff. I appreciate his effusive expressiveness. He’s got charisma, and I love how he’s using video to convey in short bursts his passion for ideas and feelings that awaken possibility and shine a light on what could be.

This Paradox of Art video is a good reminder of the value of art and the power of effective art to communicate truth beyond its own form.

I remember as a teenager being frustrated reading poetry in high school English class.

“What does it mean?” “I don’t get it.” “What’s the point?”

I was trying to read poetry as if it were prose. I grew to understand that art could point to something far from its explicit expression. As I grew in my own depth, the beauty of art began to reveal itself to me.

I don’t have to get stuck to the words in a poem. Those words should send me to an understanding or insight or emotion that I otherwise wouldn’t experience were it handed to me directly.

And when I try to express myself, I need to remember to embrace the freedom offered by metaphor and mystery. I don’t have to serve it up straight and cold and direct. In fact, allowing and encouraging the audience to ponder and search and discover is preferable. As Kubrick said, giving your audience “the thrill of discovery” will allow your art to connect even more deeply than if your truth was just handed over.

Of course, art is infection, as Tolstoy explained. So, don’t make your work so impenetrable that it has no effect.

And all of us are artists, we all can create and offer something of value. Get busy creating and trying to express your truths as artfully as you can.

I want to be a better friend to my dog

I heard this Billy Collins poem about dogs today while listening to the TED Radio Hour*:

I laughed, but now I want to be a better friend to my dog, Mosley.

*The TED Radio Hour is such a stellar podcast. If you haven’t discovered podcasts yet, this is a great one to subscribe to to get started. Every episode is solid.

The Revenant
by Billy Collins

I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you – not one bit.

When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.

I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair and eat,
a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.

I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and – greatest of insults – shake hands without a hand.

I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.

You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.

The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.

While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all my strength
not to raise my head and howl.

Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place

except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner –
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.

Digital AND analog

This talk by master penman Jake Weidmann about the dying art of penmanship is fascinating:

Weidmann’s talk makes me care about penmanship. He’s got a great stage presence and makes a somewhat obscure topic something worth talking about.

I have terrible penmanship. I’m left-handed and struggled as a kid trying to use a fountain pen. My gnarled death grip on the pen would have me smudging the wet ink with my hand. I remember being frustrated and a bit embarrassed about my sloppy writing. The only average grades I ever got were in 5th grade for handwriting. (Most schools today don’t even teach, much less grade, handwriting.)

So, I later took to a keyboard with enthusiasm and became a decent typist. To get in to the journalism school in college I actually had to either pass a typing test or take a typing class. I passed the test and can write pretty fast with a computer keyboard. (I think the journalism school not only dropped the typing test a year or two after I graduated in 1986, but probably even shipped out all the typewriters soon after as they made room for computers.)

Now, I find myself resistant to writing anything more than a few sentences by hand. I’ll use my phone or iPad or computer keyboard when possible. They’re convenient and fast and guarantee a neat, legible, electronic copy of what I write.

However, I do switch to thinking through some ideas by sketching out mind maps on my whiteboard and on the big notepad on my desk. I’ve got a clear separation between the digital and analog work spaces in my office. It’s nice to change gears and brainstorm with a marker in hand then turn back to the computer to input and polish and tweak.

The digital side of my workspace


The analog side of my work space (My family came in this afternoon and added their own touches to my work. My daughters cannot resist writing and drawing on the whiteboard.)

This talk about penmanship is a good challenge to care more about how well and how often I write by hand. Maybe I’ve been holding a pen all wrong all my life. My wife has lovely handwriting and is meticulous and careful about making her writing just right. She should have a font named after her.

I don’t think you need to ditch your handy digital tools. We don’t have to choose sides. You can use both. And if you’re lost in the distractions of your electronic life, try grabbing a pencil or some colorful markers and a big sheet of paper or massive whiteboard. They’re all just tools. Use them to bring out your best.

A tiny splinter of pain

When I’m having a moment in my life that should be pure joy, it rarely ever seems complete, never purely blissful. Even in the most delightful, carefree times, there always seems to be a tiny splinter of pain in my consciousness or a small, indefinable ache of sorrow that tugs at the moment.

What is that? The fleeting nature of the present moment? The awareness that change is the only constant, that everything is ultimately terminal?

Experiencing beauty and joy and authentic moments of connection reminds us that we can never truly possess those moments or freeze things the way we yearn for them to be.

Maybe this is what impels the creative impulse in us. We try to capture the moment of beauty or rapture or even heartbreak as best we can so it can be preserved to summon that feeling again or to understand it better. To immortalize somehow our mortal and ever changing experience of the mystery we all are living.

This Jason Silva video reflects on the dilemma we all face as finite beings searching for meaning and joy:

“This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods.”
–Abraham Maslow

Diana Nyad’s audacious pursuit

I’m spending this weekend at the lake with my family. It’s a final summer getaway before my girls begin the school year on Monday.

Being on, around, or in water is good for my soul. Yours, too. There’s even a popular new book, Blue Mind, that explores the science behind why water makes us happier.

As I was swimming in the open water of the lake this morning, I thought of Diana Nyad, the great distance swimmer who recently, and finally after four failed attempts, conquered the daunting 100+-mile swim from Cuba to Florida.

She decided to revive her swimming career only after turning 60 and then put herself through as difficult a physical and mental challenge as you can imagine. She swam through shark infested waters and nearly died from horrific box jellyfish stings on a failed attempt, and then gave it yet another try.

She’s done a couple of dynamic TED Talks that tell the story of this seemingly foolhardy quest. Here’s the most recent, after achieving her goal:

Her previous TED Talk is inspiring as well.

Nyad has an ebullient, charismatic stage presence. She lights up the room. Her enthusiasm for her daring approach to life is infectious.

What will you do with your one wild, and precious life?


Drew Dudley and “lollipop moments”

Life can turn in a moment. A seemingly small gesture, an act of simple kindness, can make a big difference. In a world of people busy distracting themselves, being present and attentive and kind has become a superpower. You can be a hero for others just by paying attention and caring.

I was reminded of Drew Dudley’s excellent TED Talk today and sent it to my student staff. It’s a call to be excellent in the little things that make up what he calls “everyday leadership”, to be kind and present and to acknowledge those who have made a difference for you. Awaken possibilities where you can and pay forward the kindness you have received. Consider the “lollipop moment” that inspired Dudley’s talk:

Dudley is a terrific speaker with a simple, yet powerful message. It doesn’t take much to be a transformational leader. No titles or degrees are required. No need to seek permission. Just look for opportunities, no matter how small, to be helpful and to be kind.

And what if you thanked those who created lollipop moments for you?

Consider picking one day each week to find someone to thank – Thankful Thursday, maybe. Call or write a note or send a text, whatever works for you. Think of a teacher or former colleague or an old friend or family member. Even a random acquaintance who might not know you personally or even remember your shared moment would appreciate being thanked.

“We celebrate birthdays where all you have to do is not die for 365 days, and yet we let people who have made our lives better walk around without knowing it.”

–Drew Dudley

And just thanking someone for a possibly forgotten lollipop moment might create a new lollipop moment given back to the original giver. You can change the world – which really just means changing a person’s world – simply by creating meaningful moments, moments of kindness and hope and courage.