These inspirational speakers have helped keep our minds busy, engaged and curious this year.

When we first entered our collective confinement, we brought you a list of our ten favourite TED Talks of all time to catch up on. Back then, there was, amidst the trepidation, a genuine sense of an opportunity lurking in lockdown, an idea that we might use the time wisely to learn new skills, to catch up on things we’d never had time for before and to sharpen our minds. Yet as the weeks and then months and now full year wore on, we all became a little weary of the Pollyanna-ish impulse to make the best of the situation and, to put it plainly, were in too much of a grump – having neither written bestselling novels nor actually got fit – to eulogise all of those productive things we could now find the time for.

Yet the spoken word has been a comfort throughout. It was better, we soon realised, when we ceased in our quest for self-improvement and instead just listened to podcasts or the radio or Audible for enjoyment. And chief amongst our means of escapism has been TED, which has continued to publish interesting people saying thought-provoking things throughout which, in turn, has prompted us to think about something other than what we’re having for dinner or watching on the box that night. Some have been relevant to the pandemic; others not so. All have been illuminating in their way.

Here are just a few of our favourites from the past year.

Imagine If


Sir Ken Robinson


We kick off this list with something that isn’t, in fact, a talk at all. Rather it is a call to action in honour of the life and work of educator Sir Ken Robinson, who delivered the most popular TED Talk of all time, when he asked the question: do schools kill creativity? Along with thousands of others, we were terribly saddened to hear of his death in 2020. This snippet, in which he sets out the one thing that sets us apart from the rest of life on earth, sums up his brilliance at articulating human potential in microcosm. That thing? ‘Our inexhaustible power of imagination’. As he says, ‘We don’t just live in the world as we find it. We create civilisations, theories, technologies. And we reach beyond the planet.’ To commemorate his life and his extraordinary ability to make us see and honour the creativity inherent in ourselves and our children, Ted–Ed invites people to re-imagine parts of our lives that we take for granted by finishing the sentence, ‘imagine if’. Should you wish to take part, you can record your own TED-style talk about your vision for a better world. Find out more here.

When The World Is Burning, Is Art A Waste of Time?


R Alan Brooks


R Alan Brooks grew up in Atlanta where, he says, he didn’t know many white people, despite living in the shadow of white supremacy. As a direct consequence, people in his community learned to make themselves less visible, afraid of standing out lest it give anyone a reason to lynch them. Yet Brooks was a straight-A student who rapped and loved comic books – in other words, conspicuous. After working in insurance companies and keeping his head down, in 2016 – just as Donald Trump was making his bid for the presidency and the extreme far right across the world were becoming emboldened – he decided to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He explains, ‘I thought about revolution, how whenever society needs to change, that change is inspired at least in part by the artist. I thought about how dictators and despots regularly murder and discredit artists. Hitler's people came up with a term specifically to discredit artists: degenerate art. They were burning books and paintings. But why, why were the leaders of the Nazi party dedicating their attention to destroying art? If art really has no power, if it's really a silly waste of time, then why are dictators afraid of it? Why were Nazis burning books and paintings? Why was McCarthy so dedicated to blacklisting artists in the 1950s? Why was Stalin's government so focused on censoring artists in Russia? Because art scares dictators. Because they understood something that I've been struggling to understand my entire life. Art is powerful. Art is important. Art can change hearts and minds all the way across the world.’ Listen and be inspired here.

The One-Minute Secret To Forming A New Habit


Christina Carter


Christina Carter has spent much of her career coaching people on habit formation. And yet, as she confesses in her talk, even she struggled to form any kind of routine at the start of lockdown. Despite all her best intentions, she’d find that a whole day could have passed by without her having got dressed (who hasn’t been there?) or even brushed her teeth. After her early attempts to establish a running routine faltered, she cottoned on to the secret: simply, we need to be willing to be bad at things. She explains: ‘The truth is that our ability to follow through on our best intentions, to get into a new habit like exercise or to change our behaviour in any way, really, doesn't actually depend on the reasons we might do it or on the depth of our convictions that we should do so. It doesn't depend on our understanding of the benefits of our particular behaviour or even on the strength of our willpower. It depends on our willingness to be bad at our desired behaviour. And I hate being bad at stuff. I am a go-big-or-go-home kind of a gal. I like being good at things, and I quit exercising because I wasn't willing to be bad at it.’ And when motivation wanes, she says, we do the easiest thing. Then, in order to get an exercise routine going, she began to run for just one minute each morning. ‘To establish an exercise routine, I needed to let myself be kind of half-assed about it. I needed to stop trying to be an actual athlete.’ Amen to that. Listen here.

Why I Photograph The Quiet Moments Of Grief And Loss


Caroline Catlin


When Caroline Catlin was studying art and psychology, she began to feel unwell. After every doctor she saw dismissed her symptoms as nothing to worry about, she began to doubt herself. And yet, when she pushed for further investigation, it transpired that her instincts had been right all along. She wasn’t well; not at all. In fact, she had a rare brain tumour. When, finally, she was admitted to hospital, she began to pay attention to the human stories that surrounded her; the worlds contained within individual rooms. So, when she heard of a charity seeking volunteer photographers to take images of critically ill children and their families, she offered her skills without hesitation. And, in the midst of her own grief at all the losses that she may yet have to concede in her own fight, she found hope in the love that filled those rooms. This is a powerful and emotional listen – hear her speak here.

The Strange History Of The World’s Most Stolen Painting


Noah Charney


In 1911, the Mona Lisa – these days, perhaps the most famous painting on the planet – was stolen. In fact, the theft did it a favour – at least in terms of its profile. Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterwork wasn’t actually that well-known at the time; its disappearance from the Louvre, however, caused a sensation in which Pablo Picasso was even a suspect (he was, of course, innocent). In the 1990s, Boston’s sublime Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was broken into, when thieves stole some never-recovered 34 paintings – including those by Rembrandt and Vermeer– in the most expensive art heist of all time. But did you know that the most stolen painting in history is, in fact, the Ghent Altarpiece, which goes back six centuries? Over just over five minutes, Noah Charney rattles through its history, telling us how it has been burned, forged, and raided in no fewer than three different wars. Listen and watch here.

The City Planting A Million Trees In Two Years


Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr


Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2015 – just two months after the end of the devastation caused by the ebola outbreak – she was driving home when she noticed starkly that the once-lush green forest cover had totally disappeared. Extreme weather patterns combined with the need for housing and the sale of forest land to developers had combined to create this stark and horrifying result. She says, ‘Wanting to do something about this was one of the factors that led to my decision to run for mayor of Freetown, a position I've held since 2018. And one of my favourite initiatives is to make Freetown a tree town once again. Our goal: to increase vegetation cover by 50 per cent in Freetown by the end of my term in 2022. That means we will plant a million trees within the next two years. And we start by planting the first 500,000 seedlings this rainy season. For this to work, we need to involve everyone. We need to make our city collectively proud of what we can do together to protect ourselves and our homes.’ As she explains, the initiative will not fix climate change, but it will encourage biodiversity – all while bringing people together in a single mission. Listen to the inspirational story here.

Is Human Evolution Speeding Up Or Slowing Down?


Laurence Hurst


Over the course of just five minutes, educator Laurence Hurst covers some pretty huge ideas. He tells us how, over the past 3000 years, we have witnessed the efficiency of how humans adapt to their environments – however hostile. It’s not, he tells us, simply acclimatisation; it is genetics, as they are fine-tuned over centuries and millennia to withstand conditions other humans might not survive. People in Siberia, for example, are adapted genetically to live in very cold conditions, while the Bajau people can dive 70 meters and stay underwater for almost fifteen minutes, their unusually large spleens acting as oxygen stores just as they would for a seal. Here, Hurst examines more recent changes and what modern medicine has meant for our evolution. Fascinating stuff. Listen here.

By Nancy Alsop
April 2021

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