What the 20 Most Popular TED Talks Tell Us About Ourselves

It’s undeniable that the TED organization and its ultra-quotable, inspirational talks have taken over. Between the TED Radio Hour — which, despite being pretty new, has quickly become one of the most successful new public radio shows/podcasts ever — the TED conferences, and the formal-ish TEDx events that are springing up across the world, this is the era of “ideas worth spreading.” But TED isn’t just about listening — it’s also about teaching. And while the talks themselves clearly have a lot to teach us, it’s the subjects that we, are viewers, tend to gravitate toward that seem to have the most to tell us about what we, collectively, are hungry to know.

In a curated playlist of the 20 Most Popular TED Talks, TED has pulled together the talks that “fans can’t stop sharing.” The top five are:

How schools kill creativity, by Ken Robinson
Your body language shapes who you are, by Amy Cuddy
How great leaders inspire action, by Simon Sinek
The power of vulnerability, by Brené Brown
My stroke of insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor.

Other favorites include 10 things you didn’t know about orgasm by Mary Roach, Your elusive creative genius by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model., by Cameron Russell.

So what do these subjects tell us about the kinds of information people are seeking out?

First, it’s hard not to notice a few common threads, including creativity, leadership, and insight/inspiration. Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert sheds some light on where she believes creativity comes from, while education expert Sir Ken Robinson tells us that, early in life, we’re stamping it out. Conventionally beautiful woman Cameron Russell assures us that appearance isn’t enough to make a person more confident or happy, while researcher Dr. Brené Brown dives deep into where insecurities come from (hint: it’s a lot to do with other people, and a lot to do with what we’re most afraid of). Among the top 20 TED Talks, there are also those which look explicity at happiness, at success, at innovation — and how those things seem to be intimately linked. These talks confirm what we already suspect, tell us what we’d like to hear, and challenge the things we thing are givens.

However, there’s also a definite kinesthetic, hard-science trend, too. Body language, the human mind, the human body, human sexuality; we want to know not just about how our bodies and minds work (and how they work together), but how every body works. These talks can show us how to navigate our careers, our relationships, and even the world at large with a greater degree of certainty. We can borrow ideas from great leaders, we can cross our arms less, we can assume that everyone around us is feeling vulnerable, too.

It’s also important to look at what is missing. Negativity seems all but gone — instead, the talks focus on what viewers can do, what they have the potential to be. Inside ball is also absent; these aren’t the same kinds of talks you’d see at more traditional conventions, which go into advertising lingo, or business-speak. No one is getting onto the TED stage to talk about vertical integration or marketing or selling. That’s not what TED is about.

Instead, the most popular TED talks are the ones that give people hope and tools and something to think about. They tell us about what we’re doing wrong, sometimes, sure — but they offer advice and optimism. They tell us about ourselves, and, maybe more interestingly, what we want to know about ourselves.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.