"So if a 15-year-old who didn't even know what a pancreas was could find a new way to detect pancreatic cancer, just imagine what you could do." "Damnit! Fifteen? Of course he gets a standing ovation. I'd stand up too if I were there. Man, what am I doing with my time? I feel fat. Ugh...I'm going to tweet him."
It was an addiction. A source of intellectual stimulation not usually this widely-accessible. The vast sea of '10 things you do when...' and 'You won't believe...' articles and YouTube videos of VHS home videos that've overstayed their TV airtime welcome made internet browsing shallow.
But highly-intelligent experts offering such mental intrigue -- and in layman's terms -- were an instant hit with me. These Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences were so enticing, that for years I would refresh my podcast list on iTunes, getting my daily dose of inspiration. I'd listen to them when going to work, or even at the gym -- with the belief I could exercise the mind as well as the body. I was hooked.
Ethnographer and leadership expert Simon Sinek's 'Start With Why?' talk has one of the most views in TED talk history (14,227,889 views on TED's website, 2,383,509 on its YouTube channel). In all honesty, probably 20 of those views were from me on my own time -- add another three viewings at different jobs I've had where there's been a staff viewing of it. A common reaction to a good TED talk is one of wonder, of energy, passion, creativity, even euphoria. I'm feeling useless, frustrated and confused.
I'm not fat. I've just watched too many of these. I've taken too much of a good thing, and now it's left me with a bitter taste -- it's possible my venture into the less-curated but still-extensive TEDx talks that have made me compare myself to everyone else and their annoyingly amazing talents.
I had watched so many 5-20 minute talks that I began doubting my own skills and passions. Was my job -- or career choice -- not right for me? My CV seems a bit sporadic -- it's somewhat of a prerequisite for our generation to be multi-skilled in an ever-changing workplace -- but does this mean I'm not truly an expert at anything? How can 15-year-old Jack Andraka achieve something so amazing as to find a new way of detecting pancreatic cancer, and I've done nothing?
Heck, at the very moment when I finally released my first book -- something that took a lot of time, hard work, anguish and personal vulnerability -- I failed to notice this as a personally monumental achievement. Instead I looked at Lady Gaga -- who is only a few months younger than me -- and the legacy and success she's amassed.
This dream to be an author was finally accomplished, and yet I was comparing myself to famous people my age. I saw myself as just a blip on an invisible radar.
The type of person one aspires to be after their fifteenth viewing of Sir Ken Robinson or Hans Rosling is an unobtainable being. There's nothing one can do when there are no goals to aspire to. And for me, I couldn't recall any goals I was striving to achieve.
There's something important to remember. These videos are a showcase of the best people in an industry. If you were to watch a 'Best Football Goals 2000-2013' DVD, of course there's a mixture of amazement for the kind of agility and reflexes some athletes have, and also of regret of never amounting to that level of talent. At what point do these kind of pep talks stop inspiring, and start becoming overwhelming?
In Simon Sinek's newest talk -- not at a TED conference, mind you -- he speaks of dopamine, the chemical released into your body once you've achieved or won something. This neural reward system is also highly addictive. That feeling you get when crossing off something on your to-do list? Dopamine. A TED talk to me was like crossing off a to-do list in the hopes I'd come up with my life's purpose.
I remembered my time in high school, and my ambitious goals to travel the world, work in a new country and -- yes -- write my own book. I had a list. They were almighty, but they were achievable. And I did achieve them. What happens when you've crossed off everything on your to-do list? Write a new one, of course.
I had experienced more than I could have ever imagined back in those wishful thinking days 10 years ago. I didn't want to be a pop star. If I wanted to be, I would've dedicated my life to it -- and learned to sew steaks together. Instead I did my own thing, achieved what I set out to do, then became distracted and caught up in the overwhelming message to 'dream big' without setting new goals. I was essentially drinking ten cans of energy drink, raring to go with a passion to achieve surging through my veins, but nothing in the horizon to run to.
It's about time to write another list.
New to-do list:
Step 1: Get good enough at something.
Step 2: Remove this article if invited to speak at TED.
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Image Credit: TED talk