Recently, I found myself in the audience for one of those “inspiring” talks of the sort made popular by TED. You know the type of thing. Some confident person with good vocal control and a headset runs about a lot, shows some pictures of brain scans and says “isn’t the human capacity to change A-MAZING?” and we all agree. Less because we have any clue about how to read a brain scan, but more because this speaker claims to. And, that they know when to stop and stare intensely for a moment as if to suggest, “I am totally looking at the future right now. I can see you there. And you’re a-mazing.”
Between you and me, I did not attend this thing out of genuine interest. I was, in fact, researching an amateur paper (OK, Facebook post) with the working title “why neuroscience is mostly rubbish made up by people with rubbish arts degrees”. So, the chances of me reacting in a starry-eyed way were, I’ll own, pretty slim. But, I wasn’t actually there to assess the style of the thing; just its content. After five minutes, though, I found that it was the “inspiring” style that began to manage the content.
There is no greatness inside me at all. I know because I have looked and found only the following: a few neuroses, occasional short-lived eruptions of niceness and an avocado sandwich.
In the TED-style talk, people can, and do, go on about anything. So long as they talk earnestly and stop every so often to gaze into the a-mazing future, they can sell any old stale bun from the half-bakery of bad ideas at an intellectual profit. And, they largely say one thing: you are a-mazing.
This is not to say that all ideas canvassed by TED-style speakers amount to this—only the popular ones. Occasionally, I will see some tiny scientist pop up on my social media feed and they do a very creditable job of, say, explaining the dimension of time to a physics dimwit like me. Anyone who can explain complex theory in under fifteen minutes to a forty-something layabout who claimed to have debilitating period cramps for all of year 10 science is, obviously, a gifted communicator. I can forgive such people their “inspiring” flourishes and, if they enhance my knowledge of space perception, I can probably even excuse them for using words like “journey” or “vision” or smiling like a particularly smug Buddha as they click through their PowerPoint.
But, most of the time, the ideas are not so substantial that they can excuse the empowering wizardry so usual in the TED-type talk. And, in fact, the ideas are so largely enslaved to a particular style, they produce a single message.
The key to unlocking “greatness” is not shiny like Elizabeth Gilbert.
I mean, what is Elizabeth Gilbert even saying in her famous “creativity” talk, viewed more than 11 million times?
What is at the core of another popular “inspiring” talk by the musician Amanda Palmer—a lady who basically takes the advertising slogan “I’m worth it” and applies it to her bank balance?
What does Tony Robbins say? Or this guy Simon Senik? Or Cameron Russell, who is one among many conventionally attractive women who uses the “inspiring” talk format to take off a few of her clothes and say “See! I can be an ordinary lady, too!”
They say: greatness is inside you.
Look. Even though I was largely absent for much of year ten science, I can tell you with absolute methodical certainty that there is no greatness inside me at all. I know because I have looked and found only the following: a few neuroses, occasional short-lived eruptions of niceness and an avocado sandwich.
As pleasurable as it is to be addressed by a best-selling dynamo in a headset who is convinced of your capacity to “shine”, it’s also a bit deluded. Now, I am not saying here that you, like me, contain little more than an avocado sandwich. You may have the capacity for great endeavour inside you. But, unless you have also enjoyed sufficient social support for that greatness for much of your life, this is meaningless. The author of Eat. Pray. Love. isn’t going to unlock this “greatness”.
Your Inner Creative Flow is influenced less by a talk on “the power of yes” than it is on whether or not you grew up in a suburb with functional footpaths.
The key to unlocking “greatness” is not shiny like Elizabeth Gilbert. It is, in fact, surprisingly dull. It is barely seen in boring things like social stability, income equality, good public health and education. Your Inner Creative Flow, or whatever it is, is influenced less by a talk on “the power of yes” than it is on whether or not you grew up in a suburb with functional footpaths.
And, why are we so darn fixated on our “inner greatness”, anyhow, when the world that surrounds us is intersected by such poorly maintained footpaths?
Greatness in individuals is, of course, marvellous etc. But, it’s not the mark of a great society. The measure of a great society isn’t how many exceptional people it produces. Perhaps, the measure of a great society is one of people so content, they don’t even want to watch an inspiring talk that promises that it’s My Time to Shine.
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Image by Miguelángel Guédez (Flickr).