Monday, 19 May 2014

Lonely? At least I’ve got TED. Kate

I’m not referring to a cuddly toy that lives in my bed; if I was, that would be Lucy the Lemur (all my toys had alliterative names) and yes – she still lives there, and no – I’m not ashamed! The TED I’m referring to on this occasion is, for those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to encounter it yet, a non-profit organisation devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’. It has a ‘critically acclaimed, award-winning website’ ( ‘featuring inspired talks from the world’s leading thinkers and doers’. Their mission is beautiful in its simplicity: SPREADING IDEAS.

TED started out in 1984, originally as a conference bringing together people from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design – hence the name. However, since then it has broadened its remit, its platforms and accessibility; now, along with conferences, a collection of the best talks are made available free on the web (and as of November 2012, TED Talks had been viewed more than one billion times), and there are other off-shoots, such as local events run independently (TEDx) and speakers performing and presenting all over the world (TEDGlobal).
 The aim is that the conferences and talks bring together ‘the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers’, and, with a refreshing lack of hierarchy, how prestigious or well-known they are does not change how long their slot is: they all have to present in 18 minutes or less. This is one of the greatest joys of the TED talks themselves: their brevity. Interesting concepts, ideas and research, communicated clearly, entertainingly and accessibly. There is little pre-amble, navel-gazing or academic self-indulgence; with only 18minutes, the talks are focused, direct and cut to the core of the question or argument the speaker has chosen to tackle. 

When I say they make me less lonely that’s in fact only one of the many emotions their stir in me. Categorized on the website into sections, which include ‘inspiring’, ‘funny’, ‘beautiful’, ‘informative’ and ‘courageous’, you can select what you feel you’re most in need of a dose of – a quick bit of inspiration, something to remind you of the beauty in the world, a cerebral work-out – and choose from the range of talks at your finger-tips. I like having something on to listen to when I’m doing boring chores, and definitely find sorting washing goes more quickly when I’m turning over complex puzzles, weighing up social arguments, or having a giggle. I’m also, if I’m completely honest, not that good at spending long periods of time on my own. Sometimes not even short periods of time! My own pop-psychology reading of this – and one which I think actually holds some weight – is that the root cause of this is that I’m an identical twin, so never had much practice at it. Even in the womb I had company! Regardless of why, I do know I get lonely quickly, and so knowing that I can find a short burst of stimulating distraction in a few clicks is reassuring, comforting. My other go-to is Radio 4, oh and doing crafts, which my friends tell me makes me both ridiculously middle class and middle aged – but my twin sister does tapestries and makes hummus, so I think it’s important we keep things in perspective.

Loneliness can be a wolf howling in your stomach, or a dog scratching at the door. TED talks won’t help with the loneliness we can feel in a crowded room – unless you’ve got very subtle headphones and don’t mind rejecting any attempt at conversation! – but they can be a small form of solace when you’re sitting at home, by yourself, in need of an external focus.

The mental health charity Mind has a page on their website about Overcoming Loneliness, which as well as suggesting ways to connect with the world around you, also mentions the utility of learning to spend time alone, feeling comfortable and at ease in your own company. I sometimes find when I’m on my own, my immediate instinct is to reach for the phone, but I know I’ve personally learnt that if I give myself the challenge of getting through chunks of time without calling someone, it proves to myself that I don’t need someone else there all the time. I don’t need validation; I can chat to myself; if I get bored and restless, that’s not the end of the world and I can find my own solutions. Sometimes I also challenge myself not to put music or the radio on, as well, so that I’m not always blocking out silence or the meanderings of my own thoughts. If we distract ourselves all the time, then when do we think? When do we rest?

But if ‘the rest is silence’ (Hamlet pun – couldn’t resist), then my head will probably explode. Anyone who knows me can confirm I don’t do silent for very long. All things in moderation, I say, and sometimes I get more of a break from an eighteen minute mental holiday into the world of a fascinating idea, than my own internal monologue. And being stimulated stirs me out of loneliness and boredom; it energizes and invigorates. Like Lucy the Lemur, I can cuddle up to an idea (although in a less literal and physical sense), cling  on to it like a rock in a storm, enjoy it like a chocolate chip in disappointing cereal, hang out with it like teenagers at bus stop, or run with it like a hare on ketamine.

Five tip-top TED talks to get you started:      

·        Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity
·        Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability
·        Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight
·        Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice
·        Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend (Lando wrote about this talk in Issue 50 of Equilibrium)

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