M dash
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How listening to TED Talks gave me the confidence to talk to strangers

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I still remember the day when the number of TED Talks posted to the TEDx Talks YouTube channel broke the 100,000 video threshold. 100,000 videos. That’s insane.

Fast forward to today, the number of TEDx Talks has grown to a staggering 150,130, and 3,240 on the official TED YouTube channel. I love crazy numbers and statistics like that so I just thought I’d throw that in.

TEDx Talks and TED YouTube channel as of 02/08/2020

As you can by now guess, I’ve recently been getting into watching more TED Talks. Instead of mindlessly browsing YouTube or surfing the web, I put on a TED Talk. It’s not a daily ritual or anything, but I try to get through one whenever I can.

But why do you watch TED Talks?

Because I’m interested in discovering new ideas that can change my life. That’s the whole driving force behind TED: “Ideas worth spreading.”

But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would be watching as many TED Talks as I am now if I hadn’t watched Emerson Spartz’s Midwest TEDx Talk titled 9 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. In his talk, he suggests that we simply watch more TED Talks. This is what Emerson says:

The smartest most creative people in the world are sitting there and they’ve got ten minutes, and their job is to blow your mind. Now that’s what learning should be. So watch TED Talks, watch hundreds of TED Talks. You see a guy talking about physics and he makes it seem so alive, watch more about physics, watch more about chemistry, whatever it is, just dive in and keep going.

“But TED Talks don’t change your life unless you change.”

Of course they don’t. But how many people do you know watch TED Talks with the sole intention to change their life? I mean, who even does that? That just doesn’t happen. Sure, “TED Talks don’t change your life,” but who said they would?

More times than not, I find myself putting on a TED Talk to expose myself to new ideas, and the thought that “this TED Talk will change my life” doesn’t even cross my mind.

TED Talks can change your life, just don’t set that expectation up for yourself.

That’s the thing about ideas, they’re fluid in the effect they have on us. So if you come across a TED Talk that doesn’t “speak to you,” all that means is that it didn’t inspire change in you. It didn’t make your heart sing. You didn’t see how it could apply to your life at that particular point in time. Or maybe the ideas presented in the TED Talk just wasn’t meant to “change your life,” but rather to educate, inform, or entertain.

A short list of TED Talks I’ve watched recently:

So watch TED Talks, watch hundreds of TED Talks … whatever it is, just dive in and keep going.

Some things I’ve learned:

Omid Scheybani reminded me that “each stranger out there is actually just another friend that we haven’t met yet.”

Karen Dolva: “There’s nothing cool or brave or great about going through life alone. So please, call the friend that I know that you all have, and just be bored together. And then let people in. Because when you lean on others, you’re helping them and you’re helping yourself.”

Emma Seppälä taught me that when you smile at someone, mirror neurons activate their smiling micro-muscles, and even if they don’t smile back, chances are they’ll smile at the next person they see.

Maria Scileppi’s adventures in making a new friend everyday for a year taught her that “you don’t have to know someone well to have a profound impact on them.”

How TED Talks have shaped my journey so far

After watching TED Talk after TED Talk about smalltalk, friendship, social connection, and most prominently, talking to strangers, I became convinced that I should give talking to strangers a shot. Hearing others’ stories gave me the confidence that I could do the same.

Never in a million years would I have ever considered doing something like this. I’m still very socially awkward and recovering from social anxiety, doesn’t that excuse me from doing this?

Apparently not. Here’s how it went down:

It’s Friday night, February 7th. I had just finished class at 8:20, completely exhausted and out of energy from the presentation I just gave. I hop on the train home, find a seat, and load up an audiobook into my headphones. Soon enough, a Chinese man with a luggage sits down next to me.

At this point, I’m on red alert. I’m thinking, “wait can I actually talk to this guy?” After hearing all the awesome stories in the TED Talks I watched, it became apparent to me that I could do it too.

But of course, I procrastinate. My mind starts thinking of excuses to not start up a conversation. “Maybe his English isn’t very good, I should just stay quiet. What will he think of me? It’s not the right time, I should wait until we get to the next station.”

I don’t know what happened inside of me — maybe it was the cold shower I took that morning, but I just opened my mouth and started talking.

“Are you going to the airport?” I ask.

Startled, hearing the word “going,” he interpreted that I was getting off the train and got up to let me out.

I smiled and ushered him to sit back down, and started asking him some basic questions. I could immediately tell the conversation wasn’t going anywhere, it was all on me to guide where it went. The man was from Shanghai and came over for two weeks to travel, to which he loved walking around the city and eating food.

Before I had to leave, I showed him what I had drawn on the backs of each one of my fingers during class. I had drawn a smiley face on each one of my fingers.

He smiled, and I smiled. To be honest I’m not sure who smiled first in our interaction together, but it made me feel good to see that I could brighten up someone’s day. Though we didn’t understand each other well linguistically, smiling is a universal language that everyone can understand.

Though the conversation didn’t flow as it normally should have, I still count it as a win. I didn’t expect to pull myself to do this, but I did. I did what was scary, and I’m proud of myself for that.

The next question on my mind, who am I going to meet next?

Thanks for reading!🙂




M dash ( — ) is a way of life — one of joy, peace, & passion.

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Milton Jang

Milton Jang

I write about life, personal growth, self-awareness, and mindful tech use for the 21st century. [avatar artwork by laure sillus]

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