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8 of the best TED talks for writers

Writers don’t want to talk shop 24/7. (At least, I don’t.) As a jill-of-all-trades wordsmith who enjoys writing as a day job, a side hustle, and a hobby, I battle burnout frequently. And that’s precisely why some of what I consider the best TED talks for writers aren’t about the craft at all. Some of these talks examine motivation, inspiration, failure, hindsight, self-doubt — those uniquely human experiences we all share.

The original introduction to this post read, “Need some inspiration to live your best life and write your best work?” Ugh. I cringed upon reading something so inauthentic, dishonest, and uninspiring — the exact opposite of what I strive to be.

These TED talks for writers — by writers, a TV personality, a filmmaker, and a history professor — provide a refreshingly honest look at the writing life and all the obstacles that come with it. I hope you take as much from them as I did.

Anne Lamott: 12 truths I learned from life and writing

You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs –your truth, your version of things — in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.

At the top of my list is what I consider the best TED talk for writers, period. I wish I could quote the entire talk. Lamott’s witty nuggets of wisdom made me laugh, cry, reflect, and refocus. Among her assertions are that all truth is a paradox, that everyone is broken in some way, and that publication and “temporary creative successes” won’t heal us.

Joshua Prager: Wisdom from great writers on every year of life

There are patterns to life, and they are shared. […] We don’t simply live these patterns. We record them, too. We write them down in books, where they become narratives that we can then read and recognize. Books tell us who we’ve been, who we are, who we will be, too. So they have for millennia.

This short talk details Prager’s quest to find literary wisdom on every year of life. He compiled it all into a list “to provide [himself] and others a glimpse into the future, whether [they] made it there or not.”

How beautiful is that? To be able to reflect on each year of life, even those we haven’t yet lived, through literature? He establishes that everyone ages differently, which makes it all the more poignant. The individuality of each level of human experience is truly astonishing.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius

You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. […]  And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

The author of Eat, Pray, Love addresses something that’s intrigued me for a long time: the artist’s “curse,” the (often justified) assumption that artists, specifically writers, are mentally ill or depressed. She offers a solution to this by first providing a brief history of the “creative genius”.

The ancient Greeks believed that external, divine entities — aptly named “daemons” — gifted humans with creativity in short, random bursts. In other words, the artist wasn’t entirely responsible for their work, whether it was good or bad, because they had help creating it.

Gilbert wants that view to resurface, because it provides a “psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.” Separating the writer and the muse takes away the assumed inherent anxiety about the results and reactions to the work. As long as the writer shows up every day, sits in the chair, and does the work, good things will come, whether or not the muse decides to show up.

TL;DR: This is, hands down, one of the best TED talks for writers hoping to transform their creative process.

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation

[Motivation is] built much more around intrinsic motivation. Around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, they’re interesting, or part of something important. And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Pink argues that the rewards and incentives we offer our workers don’t, well, work; larger rewards equal poorer performance. Those claims are backed up by scientific evidence. Although his talk is aimed at businesses, the case he makes for motivation applies to all forms of work, especially writing.

We writers often incentivize our writing process. Write 1,000 words, eat some cake. Finish that first draft, go on a long, much-needed vacation. But how many times have we still failed to meet our word count despite those rewards? (In my case, too many to count.) Motivation in the 21st century should revolve around three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These are things that most (if not all) writers possess by nature, and they must drive our work.

Kirby Ferguson: Embrace the remix

Our creativity comes from without, not from within. We are not self-made. We are dependent on one another, and admitting this to ourselves isn’t an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness. It’s a liberation from our misconceptions, and it’s an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin.

Ferguson reiterates something that many writers already know: everyone steals from each other. He proves this with a few Bob Dylan soundbites, which he plays alongside the original melodies that Dylan “remixed.” He says the three elements of remixing songs — copying, transforming, and combining — are the “basic elements of all creativity.” He goes on to say that treating creative works as property only harms the creative process, and doesn’t do anything to “[promote] the progress of useful arts.”

Young-ha Kim: Be an artist, right now!

Art is about going a little nuts and justifying the next sentence, which is not much different from what a kid does. […] Kids do art. They don’t get tired and they have fun doing it. They have fun in the moment and they keep playing in the sand. […] Kids don’t do it because someone told them to. They aren’t told by their boss or anyone, they just do it.

Kim encourages us all to stop making excuses for why we can’t create art and unleash our inner child. We should be more like children, who make art because they enjoy it, not because they care whether anyone else does. We’re all born artists, until we give in to the “artistic devils” that convince us our art isn’t good or useful. Kim says we should “run fast so the devil can’t catch up.”

This talk is in Korean, so you’ll need to read the subtitles, but it’s worth it.

Larry Smith: Why you will fail to have a great career

You’re afraid to pursue your passion. You’re afraid to look ridiculous. You’re afraid to try. You’re afraid you may fail. Great friend, great spouse, great parent, great career. Is that not a package? Is that not who you are? How can you be one without the other? But you’re afraid.

In this talk, Smith calls us out on our bullshit. Having a great career requires two things: pursuing your passion and refusing to buy into the idea that hard work equals career success. Smith tells us, “Look at the worldview you’ve given yourself. You’re a hero no matter what.” We make excuse after excuse because we’re afraid, because we’d rather hide behind our relationships instead of taking action.

If you find this talk hits a little too close to home, ask yourself two questions: What’s your passion? And why are you afraid to pursue it?

Sarah Lewis: Embrace the near-win

Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. Mastery is about sacrificing for your craft and not for the sake of crafting your career. […] We thrive not when we’ve done it all, but when we still have more to do.

In this uplifting talk, Lewis differentiates between success and mastery. Success, she says, “is a moment.” Mastery is a “constant pursuit”, and comes when the artist recognizes the importance and the value of the incomplete. It’s easy to see how we writers can apply this to our own craft.

How many manuscripts and story ideas have we collectively abandoned? How many works have we slagged off as flawed rubbish, unworthy of praise, “in other words, a near-win”? Lewis encourages us to work toward mastery, not success. Although success is often motivating, “a near-win propels us in an ongoing quest.”

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To master your craft, you have to be comfortable with and kind to yourself. That’s the main takeaway from all these talks. Externalize your creative drive. Invite the daemon in. Don’t let the artistic devil pester you. Sit down and work. Pursue your passion. Forgive yourself for what you perceive as shortcomings. Don’t be so hard on yourself — after all, you’re only human.

What would you add to the list of best TED talks for writers?

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