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The Top TED Talks of 2019 So Far -- and What You Can Learn From Them

Here are six compelling speeches that offer key takeaways for business and life.
The Top TED Talks of 2019 So Far -- and What You Can Learn From Them
Image credit: TED
Entrepreneur Staff
Associate Editor
11 min read

“Ideas worth spreading.”

That’s TED’s tagline, and the organization -- originally launched as a convergence of the technology, entertainment and design industries -- has done its best to stick to that mission since 1984. Talks cover everything from how to recover from activism burnout to quantum computing explained in 10 minutes. Every second, 17 people watch a TED Talk, on average, and the organization’s videos have garnered well over one-billion views.

If you’re looking for a spark of inspiration, here are six of the most compelling talks of 2019 so far, with key takeaways.

3 Psychological Tricks to Help You Save Money (Wendy De La Rosa)

There’s a reason saving more money ranks in the top five New Year’s resolutions each January: We all want to do it, but it’s easier said -- or written down on a resolution list -- than done. Behavioral scientist Wendy De La Rosa aims to change that in her TED Talk, teaching three psychological strategies for overcoming our propensity to spend-not-save.

One preliminary thing to keep in mind: “It’s not about how smart you are or how much willpower you have,” said De La Rosa. Instead, she said, it’s about the environment in which you think about saving. Exhibit A: In one of De La Rosa’s studies, subjects who were shown their income on a weekly basis were able to budget better than people who were shown their monthly income total, she said.

As for the three tricks? Number one is to “harness the power of precommitment,” said De La Rosa. We tend to see two versions of ourselves, our past selves and our future selves, and our future selves are perfect; they’ll have the motivation to wake up earlier, exercise more, save money and more. But we often forget, said De La Rosa, that the future self is the exact same person as the present self. We can use this potential shortcoming to our advantage by forcing ourselves to make saving decisions in advance through an app or automatic account deposits. In another of De La Rosa’s studies, one group of subjects received the following text in February: “If you get a tax refund, what percentage would you like to save?” The average answer: 27 percent. But when another group of subjects was asked -- just after receiving their refund -- how much they’d like to save, they chose an average 17 percent.

De La Rosa’s other strategies: Use transition moments to your advantage -- New Year’s, birthdays, a job change, a move -- and get a handle on small but frequent purchases (for most people, eating out is at the top of that list).

Why Working From Home Is Good for Business (Matt Mullenweg)

Matt Mullenweg’s employees live all over the world, from California to New Zealand. He’s the cofounder of Wordpress and CEO of Automattic, which has a 100 percent distributed workforce of close to 800 employees. Why? In his TED Talk, Mullenweg said he believes that “talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not,” and that the most diverse perspectives inherently come from people living and working in countries different from your own.

“In Silicon Valley, you have the big tech companies fishing from essentially the same small pond or bay,” said Mullenweg. “By making the company distributed, we can fish from the entire ocean.”  A distributed workforce also offers unprecedented flexibility for employees: They can choose the food they eat at their office, noise level, temperature and more.

If you’re looking to skew your own office towards a distributed workforce, the first step is to document everything and leave a trail of your thought process in making different decisions, said Mullenweg. It’s not just efficient for people in different time zones; it’s also helpful for any company over time as people leave and join up.

Mullenweg sees the future of work as being completely decentralized. “I think that companies will evolve to be ‘distributed first,’ or that they’ll be replaced by those that are,” he said.

How to Make Applying for Jobs Less Painful (Priyanka Jain)

If the idea of sending in a resume and cover letter makes you inwardly (or outwardly) groan, you’re not alone. According to a January TED Talk, about 75 percent of people who applied to jobs using various methods in the past year said they never heard anything back from the employer, and 46 percent of people get fired or quit within the first year of starting their jobs.

“For the first time in history, we have more open jobs than unemployed people -- and to me, that screams that we have a problem,” said Priyanka Jain, who’s featured in the TED Talk and is the head of product at Pymetrics, a company pairing neuroscience with recruiting.

Jain believes that a single piece of paper is the heart of the problem. Resumes can showcase someone’s past achievements, she argues, but they fall short when it comes to someone’s potential -- especially in a quickly changing economy, where jobs of the future may require skills no one has yet.

As for the solution? Jain said multi-measure tests, powered by AI algorithms, can help potential employers gauge your memory strengths, levels of attentiveness and other traits. The key, she said, is to make them scalable (which, of course, is what her company Pymetrics aims to do). During her presentation, Jain showcases a brief example of a multi-measure test, in which viewers are asked to clap when a circle turns red and refrain when it turns green. Your results could inform potential employers of your strengths and weaknesses -- e.g., if you clap late after the red circle appears but correctly never clap on green, you likely score high in attentiveness and restraint, similar to successful project managers and accountants. If you clap immediately upon seeing a red circle but sometimes incorrectly clap on green, you may skew towards impulsivity and creativity like some top-performing salespeople.

The caveat: If companies like Pymetrics use current industry top performers and their traits to train algorithms, that could lead to bias against women and minorities. It’s vital for diverse teams of people to monitor and review these tools before they’re rolled out on any large scale.

8 Lessons on Building a Company People Enjoy Working for (Patty McCord)

Patty McCord always wanted to be an HR professional, to speak the language of management -- but after her decades-long career in HR, including a 14-year stint as Netflix’s chief talent officer, she’s learned none of the HR jargon really matters and that many companies treat their employees like children. “In fact, I’ve learned ‘best practices’ usually means copying what everyone else does,” said McCord in her TED Talk.

The job of management isn’t to control people; it’s to build great teams. The metric we should be using is customer happiness, said McCord, not arbitrary metrics like whether someone came to work on time or how many vacation days they used. Everyone in the company should understand the business, how it makes money and what success looks like there. And encourage your employees to get excited about change, said McCord: “Beware of the smoke of nostalgia.”

Everyone in your company should be able to handle the truth, said McCord, and if you find it difficult to give employees feedback, it’s likely because you don’t practice enough. “What else do you do in your whole life that you’re really good at that you only do once a year?” she said. “Here’s what I’ve found: Humans can hear anything if it’s true.” Make it a priority to tell people the honest truth about what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong -- while they’re doing it.  

One more thing to keep in mind: Careers are journeys, and it’s rare for someone to want to work towards the same goal for their entire lives. “What if we created companies that were great places to be from,” said McCord, “and everyone who leaves you becomes a great ambassador for not only your product, but who you are and how you operate?”

How to Lead a Conversation Between People Who Disagree (Eve Pearlman)

We’re living in the Information Age, but some feel it’s never been harder to find the truth. Political divides grow deeper, technology seems to create more rifts than it mends and, from sea to shining sea, it’s growing increasingly more difficult for people to talk to each other in a calm, respectful, open way.

Journalist Eve Pearlman wanted to change that, so she spearheaded Spaceship Media, a company prioritizing “dialogue journalism” -- journalism-supported open discussions between people who disagree -- and explained it in her TED Talk. After the 2016 election, she brought together 25 Clinton supporters from California and 25 Trump supporters from Alabama to talk about hot-button issues. The first question: What do you think the other side thinks of you? After getting those stereotypes out of the way, participants discussed guns, immigration, race and education. “What we found, remarkably, is that real dialogue is, in fact, possible -- and that when given a chance and structure around doing so… many of our fellow citizens are eager to engage,” said Pearlman.

Our current state of discord doesn’t benefit anyone, said Pearlman, and people often appreciate the chance to engage curiously, openly and respectfully. They want “a chance to put down their arms.” Many of Spaceship Media’s Facebook groups have spun off into member-run groups, individual friendship and, most of all, real human connection across difference.

“We do our work in direct challenge to the political climate in our country right now, and we do it knowing that it is difficult, challenging work to hold and support people in opposing backgrounds in conversation,” said Pearlman. “We do it knowing democracy depends on our ability to address our shared problems together.”

How to Spot a Pyramid Scheme (Stacie Bosley)

In 2004, a new company called Vemma Nutrition started offering anyone, regardless of education or experience, the opportunity to earn part-time income for full-time work. The only requirements to get started: Spend $500 to $600 on a product kit and recruit two more members to do the same, explains economist Stacie Bosley in her TED Talk. By 2013, Vemma Nutrition had expanded globally and brought in $200 million per year. But it turned out that most members earned less than their initial deposit, and Vemma was charged with operating a pyramid scheme.

So how do you identify -- and avoid -- a pyramid scheme? The primary red flag: A founder solicits an initial group of people to buy into the company and recruit other members, with the promise they’ll earn a commission for each new person who joins or invests. The founder also takes a share. The catch: “As a pyramid scheme grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for new recruits to make money,” said Bosley. For example, the founder recruits an initial group of six, who then recruit six people each (adding up to 36), who then, in turn, each recruit six others: a total of 216. By the twelfth recruiting round, the 2.1 billion new members would be tasked with recruiting over 13 billion others -- more than the world population -- in order to turn a profit, said Bosley. In this example, over 80 percent of the scheme’s newest participants lose everything they paid in.

As for the difference between pyramid schemes and “legitimate” multi-level marketing (MLM) opportunities? Bosley said it’s a question of whether members primarily earn compensation from selling a product or service or from recruiting new members. If you’re considering taking on a new opportunity, keep an eye out for red flags, as many pyramid schemes disguise themselves as legal MLMs.

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