Business TED Talks

Favorites of 2012: On being wrong about business talks

Business talks are boring.

Among all the things I was certain of when I started writing for TED, that one was near the top of the list, just under ‘ice is cold’ and ‘brains are gooey.’ I worked as a physicist for a few years before switching over to writing (with a short jaunt in between in comedy), so just never cared much for business. My time as a scientist was spent doing research, talking to people about research, lecturing about research, annoying family members by going on and on about research and, very occasionally, sleeping. My time as a writer is spent doing the dishes as a way of procrastinating. Neither lends itself to thinking about the problems of organizing a corporation, crafting an advertising message or thinking about work/life balance. The idea of watching a talk about these things was just — err, why would I do that?

At TED, I was hired to write about the science talks, and it was wonderful. I got to talk to science luminaries like Janna Levin and Ben Goldacre. I watched everything TED published, of course, including all the great art, culture and, yes, business talks. Not everything can be perfect.

As I watched more talks, though, one theme started to emerge that I fell in love with — the idea of being wrong. There was, of course, Kathryn Schulz’s amazing piece on the vital importance of being wrong, but the talk that hit me the hardest was by Mike Rowe, the host of the TV show Dirty Jobs. He told a beautiful, funny, and not at all safe for work talk about a time he was completely, horribly wrong. I won’t spoil it for you (watch below), but imagine that you thought you were giving a kitten a cupcake, and it turns out you actually gave them a piece of dry bread laced with ipecac. What he did was kind of like that

I loved Rowe’s talk, partly because it’s a riveting story, but also because the feeling of being wrong –which he describes perfectly  — is so central to science. As a scientist, when you come up with a new idea, your first job is to figure out all the ways it could be wrong. If you don’t, someone else will do it for you, and you’ll look like an idiot. So you develop a finely tuned mental shredder that attacks each idea as it comes and tears it apart. Only if it fails to find a problem do you let the idea out in the wild. Rowe’s talk made that feeling of discovering you’re wrong incredibly vivid, and also put it in a context I’d never seen before. It wasn’t just science where this happened.

And then, at TEDGlobal this year, I saw the talk at the top of this post, by Margaret Heffernan. Her talk begins with a story about Alice Stewart, a doctor who was trying to find the source of a cancer epidemic. She worked very closely with her friend George, a statistician. Every time Alice had an idea, George would do his damndest to prove her wrong. That was crucial — if George tried to prove her wrong and couldn’t (and she knew he was really trying), that gave her the confidence she needed to believe she was right.

Now, the second half of Heffernan’s talk should have been boring to me, because Heffernan used that story to talk about how businesses do — or at least should — operate. But it wasn’t — her talk was revelatory. Here was someone from the business world not only talking about a vitally important part of science, but what she said convinced me I was thinking about it all wrong. That mental shredder, the thing that made sure you never said anything wrong in front of people, that was backwards. No one can figure out if their own ideas are right or wrong, not with certainty. You have to tell them to other people to get feedback and, yes, criticism. It took someone from far outside science to show me that.

So, I’m not going to claim I love all business talks now, but I’m certainly going to be paying a lot more attention to them.

Another fun thing I was wrong about — that brains aren’t gooey. Apparently, they’re more of a gelatin consistency. Who knew? I mean, lots of people did — just not me.