5 Powerful Lessons I Learned as a TED Speaker
I was given a gift when TED selected me to be a speaker. Wrapped in acknowledgement and containing opportunity was this one simple email with “Congratulations” in the subject header. After years of training and introspection I was finally getting the nod that I was ready to give back to the universe.
This moment was exactly what I wanted, and it frightened me deeply. In the weeks leading up to this, my life had been flowing through the currents of change, and now TED was the first major torrent. After getting the news I started looking in the mirror every night with a pang of doubt. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this.
Alas, opportunities should never be wasted, especially when it’s one that you’ve been waiting for. I decided that I was going to earn this gift, and with that choice made, I surrendered to the process. With open heart and mind, I embraced the experience, from the first draft to the final bow. What I realized was that this entire thing was way bigger than me, and the only way to absorb it all was to give up control and let it take me where it will.
In the end, this is what I learned:
1. Empathy creates the best art
I’ve always been a writer. Even as a kid I discovered that I had a way with words. I knew how to articulate my thoughts and feelings, and as this talent developed, I was able to find the best combination of words to fit every scenario.
At one point my skill became more of a science than an art. I could paint a story with the right words, but my writing lacked emotional content. It was also around this time that I started feeling more closed off from the world. My emotional focus was only designated to a few people, and I couldn’t bring myself to form any new connections.
TED came into my life at a very transitional moment. I had just ended a four year relationship and was in the process of getting to know myself again. I began reading more, and started embracing aspects of my spirituality that had been long neglected. It came to me that I had been living in a new city for two years now and had no meaningful friendships outside of my girlfriend. All of my attention had been invested in staying comfortable.
Now I was finding myself and soon to be presenting that person to the world. But what made me, me? What had contributed the most to my story?
I realized it was people.
As much as I had closed myself off from the world, it was my few moments of connection that allowed my life to be influenced. The topic behind my TED Talk was almost entirely inspired by one conversation that I had with my friend. We practice acrobatics together quite often, but had never had a meaningful discussion up to that point. When the moment came where I allowed myself to open up to his wisdom, I realized just how connected we actually were.
I took this experience and I wrote my TED Talk around it. I hesitatingly shared my talk with some other friends and allowed myself to trust their feedback. It was a very smart decision. I rehearsed this talk, now polished by the contributions of many people, in front of the TED team the day before the event. They had not seen the final piece yet, and I could see through their smiles that it had hit home. I was in.
Performing the final talk was like telling an enthusiastic story to old friends. It was not so much as what I had to say, but how others could connect to my experience. Locking eyes with each member of the audience, I never felt alone up on that stage. And I had never felt more connected.
In the weeks after TED, I continued to embrace the power of empathy. I opened up to old friends, and actively sought connections with new ones. It’s changed me – how I think, how I feel, and most noticeably, how I write. The emotion is there now.
I have always been a writer. But now, with empathy, I can finally say that I’m creating art.
2. Go deep, not wide
Imagine you’re going shoe shopping. And let’s say you’re into sports, you enjoy night life, and you work in a casual dress environment. Now find one pair of shoes that can be worn in all those settings.
And yet that was the mentality I took whenever I looked for new shoes. I always wanted to find that one magical pair that could serve all my different lifestyle needs.
I carried this mentality over to writing as well. After getting the nod from TED, I wanted to create the most perfect summation of my dynamic life story. There was so much to tell, and I had to be understood! The audience needed to see how all the pieces fell together. Problem was I only had 7 minutes.
Each draft I wrote became more frustrating. Whenever I tried to explain one aspect of my life, I felt compelled to connect all of its underlying stories. I wanted to cover everything, but with the time constraint, I was only able to write something that skimmed the surface. Then I got the best piece of advice I’d ever gotten as a writer:
“You’re going too wide. You need to go deep.”
I realized I was trying to cover 33 years in 7 minutes. Just like those magic shoes that don’t exist, there wasn’t a magic TED Talk that could possibly explain my entire life. So I decided to focus on just one thing – the back flip. I went deep. I talked about control, fear, and everything that led up to the moment of letting go. And what I found was a human connection that expanded beyond my own experience.
To get to the heart of the matter and connect with the hearts of others, go deep, not wide.
3. Tension = weight
To some people, public speaking is a terrifying fear. Luckily for me, there are a lot of other things I’m more afraid of, like falling on my head.
I could handle the idea of talking in front of people, but doing things like a back flip – still a relatively fresh skill – worried the shit out of me. Prior to TED I had not even practiced these moves on a hard surface. Even just doing this on grass felt daunting enough.
I practiced. A lot. As the weeks rolled by and the event drew near, I felt more physically competent, but not yet mentally comfortable. My body was ready from all the training, but there was something I was still holding on to. And I could feel it weighing me down.
There’s a move called a flash kick. It’s a back flip where you whip one leg ahead of the other, essentially kicking mid-air, and then landing on that same leg. I wanted to finish my TED Talk with this flash kick, and I was scared to death I wasn’t gonna pull it off. The final few weeks had not yielded the graceful landings I was hoping to achieve. As much as I tried to muscle through it, I just felt slow and heavy.
My very last practice was like the end of a training camp. All the hard work had been done, and it was time to just feel the movements. Stepping onto the floor, I emptied my thoughts and released the tension from my body. I threw a flash kick. It landed perfectly. My body felt like a whip, loose at rest yet ready to snap into any movement at my command. I had to say I was a bit shocked. Where was this feeling four weeks ago?
Of course, then I was in a different state of mind. Expectation and worry created a huge amount of tension on my body, and I carried that extra weight with me to each practice. During the final run, there wasn’t any point in cramming additional input. All I had to work on was letting go.
What you hold on to, you carry. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders, and let go of that weight.
4. Visualize your reality
Prior to doing my TED Talk on the big stage, I had done it a hundred times already. On the commute to work, in the shower, in front of my imaginary living room crowd. And guess what? The audience LOVED IT every time.
That was the reality I had created for myself.
Without getting deep into metaphysics, I can say that visualization is a powerful tool. Thoughts are energy, and when you focus enough of the same thought/energy, you create matter. Ask any world class athlete and they will tell you that they use visualization in their training. The successful gymnast is the one that has perfected their routine a dozen times on the floor and a hundred dozen times in their head.
When I was training movement for my TED Talk, I got over-focused on the physical practice. I would drill rep after rep, hoping to ingrain the movements in my muscle memory so that they could be executed subconsciously. It got to the point where I was throwing moves blindly, so intent on chasing the feeling of the move that I was losing awareness.
My mentor told me that I needed to focus on visualization. She said to do each movement three times in my head before doing it once with my body. Adults have a more cognizant understanding of movement than children do, and rely less on physical repetition to acquire a skill.
So I visualized, over and over. During my last practice, during rehearsal, during the morning of the event. I saw the crowd react to my words, I saw my feet landing on the floor, I heard the applause when I gave my practice bow. And when I finally went up on that stage, I just let it happened.
The body follows the mind. Visualize and lead it to the right place.
5. Listen to your intuition
I almost didn’t apply to TED. I had submitted an application the year before and got rejected. This time, I wasn’t even aware that applications were open until a coworker casually mentioned it and said that I should apply. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not. Even after a year, my ego still told me that TED would not understand my message, that applying to give a talk was not worth pursuing.
“Luck is what happens to us when fate gets tired of waiting” – Gregory David Roberts.
Luckily, a voice inside in my head told me to apply. It was a gentle, encouraging voice, devoid of ego. It seemed to say, “See what happens, this could be your opportunity to give back”. This message was also reinforced by my best friend. So on the night the application was due, I got to writing. I spent hours crafting my story. I submitted my application at 11pm. A window popped up. “Sorry. We are no longer accepting applications at this time.” I had missed the deadline.
I KNEW THIS WAS A WASTE OF TIME!
A bit of further research made me realize that they had extended the deadline.
SO YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE!
I took that extra time and revamped my entire application. What once was something that sounded like a term paper was now a unique story with my own voice. I knew what I wrote was good, way better than what I wrote a year before. And apparently TED took notice.
Once I got accepted by TED, the voices of intuition started coming full force. One of the first big decisions I had to make was whether to stick with my original talk or scrap it and choose a new theme. Ego said to stick with what I’ve written. After all, it sounded grand, authoritative, and I had spent hours working on it. However, my intuition told me told me to go with a deeper, more vulnerable story, and to use the very recent interaction with my friend as the foundation. And luckily enough, that was the form it took.
Everything that happened over the next couple of weeks seemed to support this decision. Songs that mirrored the soundtrack of my past would come on in restaurants. Lyrics told me to “Let go”. Chapters in books seemed to keep pace with the events and thoughts in my life, their contents offering me help. It got to the point where even the TED venue wanted me to succeed, flamboyantly advertising Scion (how my name is pronounced) as their official sponsor.
All I could do was keep following my intuition. When it told me I should talk to this stranger, I did, and she ended up being a talented photographer who took some amazing photos of me. When it said I should open up to my college friend, I did, and was able to emotionally unravel a past that I always avoided. And when this whole TED experience in Boston came to a close and I was boarding my flight back to Sacramento, the universe winked at me and put the 4 digit number of my street address as my flight number.
“Welcome home, my friend. You have more work to do, but know that I’m always here to guide you” – Intuition