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7 Powerful Lessons on Becoming Your Best Self — Learned from the Most Popular TED Talks

Over the years, one of the things I’ve started doing and have really come to love other than writing and traveling is watching TED talks.

TED talks, if you haven’t heard, “are influential videos from expert speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity”. The idea behind their talks, their slogan, is “ideas worth spreading.”

While there are some TED talks I don’t find inspiring or interesting, usually because of the topic, I can say that most talks I’ve watched have left me with some sort of revelation; a few of them are even downright impactful and life-altering.

Here, I’ve summarized the lessons of 7 of the most popular TED talks that’ve personally resonated with me and have to some extent shaped my current mindset. Hopefully you’ll find them as helpful as they have been for me.

1. Your body language may shape who you are — Amy Cuddy

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, talks about the power of body language and its impact on us as human beings.

From studies with hundreds of observations, she noticed two predominant types of body language: a powerful one — strutting, chin raised up, arms flared out to the sides for maximum exposure and the weaker one — crossing of the knees, hands folded, hand on the neck, head downcast.

In a controlled study where two groups of people are interviewed for a job, with one group told to practice power poses in the bathroom two minutes prior to entering the room, the group who performed the power poses were ultimately the ones the employers wanted to hire even though most of the content of what had been said was more or less the same.

Confidence comes from how you present yourself, and more importantly how you feel about yourself. It shows, not in what you say, but how you act.

And the best part is that you can keep do these power poses anywhere, anytime. The more you practice these power poses, the more confidence and potential you have to succeed — it’s just hidden at the moment but one day those thoughts will become ingrained in you and your body will react naturally to it.

This was something I resonated with — after having broken up from a 9 1/2 year relationship 3 years ago and realizing I had no skills, no knowledge on how to survive on my own. I lacked the confidence and the self-esteem to do anything.

After learning to write and allowing myself to be vulnerable through words was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, and the only way I was able to struggle through it and finally learn to write was telling myself that it was something I could do and that I had to potential to write. By believing in myself even though there was really nothing to believe in, I managed to succeed with a little bit of luck, and now it’s become a habit.

2. How to make stress your friend — Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal talks how we’re supposed to deal with stress as opposed to how we’re taught to deal with it.

As a health psychologist who’ve spent years telling people that stress is harmful to the body and then finally realizing that it’s actually bad to do so (studies show that by telling people stress is harmful, it may contribute to cause of death and health problems), she offers a unique perspective on how to deal with stress.

In a study with Harvard participants, she taught them to rethink stress as helpful — that the pounding of your heart is a good thing because it prepares you for action, that faster breathing is a great way to allow more oxygen to your brain — and by doing so, by positively looking at stress as performance enhancing instead of debilitating, the participant’s actual levels of stress decreased.

This helps us realize that oftentimes, stress is mental and it’s all just how we perceive things.

I remember the time when my laptop died right before when I was in Bali, right before New Years. Most of the repair shops were already closed and I wouldn’t have a working laptop for the next two weeks. I did stress out initially as my laptop is my primary tool for earning money as a writer, but instead I looked at it from a perspective of being able to finally take a vacation and enjoy myself and upon thinking that, lost most of the stress I had. It was, in a way, meditative and calming.

3. Inside the mind of a master procrastinator — Tim Urban

This is by far one of my personal favorite TED talks from one of my favorite bloggers — Tim Urban at Wait But Why. He talks about the reason why people procrastinate in a humorous way based on his own experiences and the dangers of it — how it can impact professionals negatively, especially self-starters who have careers that don’t follow specific deadlines.

Procrastination, at its worse, destroys dreams. It makes people feel as if they can no longer achieve the dreams they’ve wanted because by the time they’ve finally realized it, they’ve actually procrastinated and want to do something about it but can’t.

He finishes off the talk by showing a life calendar marked with boxes to represent a 90 year life-cycle with a third of them already filled in to represent those of us who are already over 30. When put in that perspective, it makes you realize just how short life is.

This really resonates with me because in truth, we’re all procrastinators. Even though we like to say we never procrastinate, we actually do. Even authors who write about motivation or life lessons — at some point or another, have procrastinated. This might be a dream, a passion, a hobby, a class, a skill we’ve been meaning to learn or develop but it keeps getting pushed back until years have passed and we think about where all our time have been spent. When I look at the life calendar and realize how little time I have left, it’s a wake up call to not procrastinate and focus on doing things that make me happy instead of getting rich.

4. How great leaders inspire action — Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek is a motivational speaker and marketing consultant. I’ve watched quite a bit of his talks in the past and they’ve always been inspiring.

In this TED talk, he talks about why some people like Martin Luther King, or companies like Apple are more successful than the rest.

“Why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, after year, they’re more innovative than all their competition. And yet, they’re just a computer company. They’re just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media. Then why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? He wasn’t the only man who suffered in pre-civil rights America, and he certainly wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Why him?”

Simon Sinek attributes this success to a pattern he calls the golden circle. It’s people and companies having a vision that people can believe in. Most people know what it is that they’re doing, but not why they do it. Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? You’re aware of the fact you’re doing it, but you can’t explain why or why it is that people should care. It’s not about profits or making money either — it’s beyond that. It’s a set of core values, a belief, a mantra that give people a reason to follow you as a leader.

People wouldn’t have bought Apple products if the marketing message was “we make beautifully designed computers” because that’s what every other company says. But because Apple’s vision is known for changing the status quo, people buy it becomes it indirectly affects how they think about themselves. It’s not the product itself, but the story behind it.

People didn’t show up for Martin Luther King — they showed up for themselves because the vision the King was telling them was the vision that aligned with their own.

I’ve watched this TED talk before in the past but it didn’t really resonate with me as much as it does now. I’ve been recently thinking about why I write, how I write, and ultimately the story I’m trying to tell. Since learning how to write the past 3 years, I’ve noticed at times that I’ve deviated from my original purpose of writing, which is to simply to express my thoughts and feelings on paper; instead, I’ve found myself occasionally writing things I don’t care as much about but would resonate with others and make money. It’s an ongoing struggle between trying to balance posts that are genuinely me and posts that serve to provide a living, but this TED talk for me really does bring clarity to the table.

5. Your elusive creative genius — Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about her personal experiences of being a writer and her worries of not meeting expectations.

She’s written a wildly successful memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, which at its peak of success is so successful people go up to her and ask:

“Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to have any success? Aren’t you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing’s ever going to come of it and you’re going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?”

As a fellow writer, I also constantly worry about not meeting expectations. My fears are the same — what if I never write another post as great as the previous post I’ve written? In a way, it’s discouraging and ultimately terrifying to think about because it implies that your potential is capped.

The lesson Elizabeth Gilbert teaches is to not chase it or worry about it. If it’s not meant to be, its not meant to be and there’s nothing you can do about it — it’s just how the creative process works. Some moments, out of the blue, you’ll have a sudden thought or inspiration and if you do, great, but if you don’t, don’t get stuck up on it. Just show up for the work, do what you love and continue doing that thing because at the end of the day, you’ve still tried your best.

I think this lesson is impactful because it teaches us not to constantly compare ourselves to our past achievements. No matter how great our past achievements were at one point, it’s still the past. Only by continuing to put in the work will we continuing creating opportunities for new creative insight to appear.

6. The happy secret to better work — Shawn Achor

Most of us have the mentality that if we work harder, we’ll be more successful, and if we’re more successful, then we’ll be happier. It’s the way we’re taught, encouraged by friends, family, society and it’s the only way we know how to motivate ourselves. But what we don’t realize is that in reality, that kind of thinking is scientifically broken.

Anytime we reach the level of success we want, we’re actually no longer content with that result as a success. Or in other words, the goal for what we define as success has moved. If we’ve gotten the good grades we’ve wanted, we now have to get even better grades, go to an even better school and when we’ve finally started working, we have to get a job, and then a better job — the cycle continues. Our target for success continues to move further because we keep changing it.

If we can never really reach the level of success we want, how are we to achieve happiness? Whatever happiness we have from achieving that success will have been brief and momentarily.

Shawn Achor ends this with a way to change that, to rewire our brains. By journaling 21 days in a row for 2-minute spans and writing about 3 new things we’re grateful for every day, we can teach our brain to focus on what’s positive and use that as the drive behind our happiness.

I’ve started journaling the past few months and it’s given me new perspective. Money and its represented success has been something that’s really influenced me the past decade or so after college, especially during my time in China. There, you can really see strong examples of people driven by, obsessed over, money because that’s how their culture is shaped. In a country with over 1.3 billion people, you’re taught that money is power and it’s the only way to make a difference. The way money influenced people there also influenced me, so after my breakup and realizing my lack of skills and knowledge of how to survive on my own, the only thing I could think of was to get a job and start earning money. In my mind, money was the cure I needed because it would allow me to start making a living and find happiness.

But after starting working 50, sometimes 60 hours a week in order to feel accomplished and successful, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. Instead of being happy, I was more stressed — was it really worth it to waste more time working at a job I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t passionate about after I’d already wasted 9 1/2 years in a relationship that didn’t work out? It didn’t make sense, so eventually I quit, booked myself a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia and began traveling.

Sometimes happiness has nothing to do with how successful you are. It’s a good measure of how you’re doing financially, and money will make things easier and help you in your quest to find happiness, but ultimately it isn’t the key to happiness itself.

7. What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness — Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger is the 4th director of a 75-year study on 724 men in discovering where true happiness lies. This is the longest study ever to be made, not only by Harvard, but all around the world.

The key to happiness ultimately lies not from wealth, fame or working harder or harder but rather from a person’s relationships. The social connections one has determines their overall health — mentally and physically. These important social ties we have to our family, friends and to our community results in a greater sense of happiness which directly translates to a longer lifespan.

It’s not just about the number of relationships we have either but the quality of them — it’s the close relationships that bring us happiness and on the contrary, why high-conflict marriages, marriages without affection, or stressful friendships turn out to be so bad for our health.

Based on the quality of someone’s relationship, Robert and his team were able to predict at age 50 whether or not a person would still be healthy at age 80 without looking at their health or cholesterol levels. Unsurprisingly, the people who were most satisfied in their relationships at 50 were also the most physically healthy at 80.

This hit home for me. After college, having followed my ex to China, I became more and more estranged with the people I was once close with. Contact with friends and family became less frequent and eventually the only relationship I had left was the one with my ex. It wasn’t until after the breakup, being stranded on my own without anyone to care for me that I truly wished I had maintained the relationships I once had.

Since then, I’ve made it my mission to be the first to reach out whenever I can, to allow myself to be vulnerable to others in order to gain trust, and build quality relationships. I’ve known too many people like my past self who spend all their efforts in nurturing a single relationship, whether or not it’s a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife and I have to say, that’s not the only relationship you should ever focus on. Life and happiness is built on the number of quality relationships you have and it’s always better to have more than just one.


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