Nearly 2,000 participants took part from all over the world, dozens of speakers and performances enchanted, empowered and enlightened us, an endless series of off-campus sessions, dinners and parties forged new connections, re-ignited old ones, and gave a lot of us COVID. I suppose the COVID part was to be expected.
As a TED podcast host, I was in Vancouver to work rather than simply watch and enjoy, so it meant not missing any talks, since we will be featuring them in the weeks and months to come on the podcast. I also conducted a series of behind-the-scenes conversations with this year’s speakers, which we will append to the end of their talks when they’re on the show.
But there was plenty of time open in the schedule for partying and reuniting with friends, too.
This year, my former NPR colleague and life advice guru, Shankar, spoke on something called the illusion of continuity, which is also the subject of one of my favorite TED talks of all time. I was mainly happy just to see Shankar and hang out with him, as well as make a new friend in the former newsman, Dan Harris, who now runs the meditation app, 10 Percent Happier. Dan really crushed it on the TED stage, too.
My man Hot Rob came out to Vancouver to hang out with me and that was a balm, because these giant conferences where you’re surrounded by a sea of humanity have a way of making me feel really alienated and lonely. (I also felt like this when I covered the Olympics in 2018).
So I’m grateful he was there to kick it and make jokes about rich people like Elon Musk, who showed up on the last day. We squeezed in some Vancouver sightseeing, like a freezing cold bike ride along the sea walk and around Stanley Park. If not for the extremely helpful boost from electric bikes, I would not have made it back.
Ideas I’m excited about spreading: Universal basic services instead of universal basic income, a proper accounting of the climate benefitting labor that whales and elephants and other creatures do just by existing (so that they can be considered worth more alive than dead), and the work of the choreographer and animator Nina McNeely, whose stage production mesmerized us.
TED hired me to be the voice of its daily podcasts at the start of the pandemic, so that means this year’s in-person conference was my first chance to attend a non-virtual TED conference. To be fair, I’d been to TED Women in 2013, but this was the flagship co-ed TED. It was held in Monterey for many years until it moved to Vancouver and the organization started inviting 2,000 attendees, up from its much smaller origins.
Because of the pandemic’s continued foothold and worrying trends, this year TED’s main stage returned to its roots with a 500-person event in Monterey, California, a seaside hamlet where the skies are royal blue, the ocean water is crystal clear and the centuries-old cypress trees look like they jumped out from the pages of a children’s book. All attendees were required to show proof of vaccination upon check-in and immediately led to rapid testing. Once we had proof of both vaccinations and a negative test, we could participate.
Assorted notes and thoughts:
Idea Worth Spreading: I can’t stop thinking about a Canadian-woman named Isha’s talk about how we can raise meat CELLS in a lab instead of full-on chickens or livestock for protein consumption. That this would be so much smarter and sustainable and less cruel to animals, and the earth. Can’t wait for her talk to go up online, because as she says, “We are all philosophically vegetarians. We just don’t want to give up the tastiness of actual meat.” She has a solution for this.
Talk That Made Me Cry: Hrishikesh Hirway, the composer and musician who hosts Song Exploder. His podcast has musicians on to take apart their songs layer by layer and talk about them so that the final product gives us greater meaning and we can understand it more at the musician’s level. He did this for one of his own songs, on stage, and damn we all had chills.
Most Common Refrain: Some variation of “Oh wow, you are way taller than I realized,” which is what happens after I have only met so many people on Zoom over the past 18 months.
Snooty Snacks: Would it have killed them to have a snack station with just Wonder Bread and a bunch of Cheez-Its? Every snack was made of cauliflower or otherwise grain-free, and the drinks were all infused with gut-healthy tumeric or this or that.
Biggest Celebrity Sighting: Lizzo. I mean, obviously. She gave a talk about the history and the cultural importance of twerking and then got a bunch of boomers in the front row to try and shake their asses, which was really a thing to behold.
Most Meaningful Meeting: Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. Maybe I had four tequilas in me, but I started crying when I got to meet “Wendy Mac” in person. She leads “Draw Together” art classes for kids, which I think she started rather impromptu as a way to give parents and kids something to do in the early weeks of the quarantine. I and our girls found it so meaningful and I’m so inspired by her energy, pluck and her brain. To meet her meant so much because I could thank her in person and she was every bit as gracious and fun as you would expect.
By the end, I was volun-told by the TED senior leadership to take part in the town hall, summarizing our takeaways from the conference. So I got to take the TED stage while super hungover and unshowered and stand inside the famous red dot on the stage, where speakers must stand in order to have the cameras capture them just right.
My Meta Takeaway, Shared From Stage: In one of the final sessions, the thinker and author Steven Johnson recounted how there was a fifty year(!) gap between Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough, lifesaving discovery of milk pasteurization and the wide adoption of it. That’s because it took fifty years of journalists, lawmakers and activists working to PERSUADE the public to buy into this. “Science on its own won’t produce meaningful change,” he said. “You need persuasion.” And if there’s a theme that emerged from many of the talks, it’s that the way we contextualize and explain information, the way we try and bridge individual differences or collaborate as a group to communicate, all of that is really important to cultural, societal solutions to problems.
The other metanarrative I am feeling is this: We should never take for granted the serendipity, surprise and connection that come from gathering in person. I met so many people in elevators, sitting under the simulcast tent and in the coffee line (I never drink coffee but made an exception at TED because the pour overs were so damn good). These connections will end up being longtime friends, in many cases. That’s so nourishing.
And so was the nature. We made time to go on a big group bike ride outdoors and see the host town. Felt like riding around in a postcard.
Thank you to everyone who pulled off the event this year and the science — testing and mRNA-powered vaccines — that made it possible for us to gather, together.
“It felt vaguely like being forced to live in a building splintered by a wrecking ball before the rebuilding had begun. Quarantine didn’t just take things away; it revealed — with a harsh, unrelenting clarity — what had already been lost.”
This year forced us to our knees. Like so many others, I found myself disoriented and trapped inside, falling to my emotional nadir. We lost Kobe Bryant. John Lewis. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And some 300,000 Americans to the plague. We yearned for the days when the rule of law was a given. America as we know it came apart at the seams. Even our best efforts to bridge differences won’t work by themselves, they require that the digital platforms shattering reality in the name of “consumer choice” will have to dramatically change or be regulated into doing so.
I experienced COVID year primarily as a loss of innocence — the year I finally, finally had to grow up. At one point this summer, we were under stay-at-home orders (for rioting) in the midst of stay-at-home orders (for coronavirus). Did we ever think we’d miss each other like this, that we’d yearn for the joy of company and coincidence, serendipity and surprise, the magic of sharing poorly ventilated spaces with strangers? Grief, loss and identity shift defined 2020, both in the universal sense, and in a personal one.
Despite a year of radical change, I write this post feeling privileged and contented. The threat of the virus took away so much — loved ones, freedom, hugs, travel, an entire way of life I took for granted. But it gave, too. A return to nature. A stillness in which, egad, we could be alone with our thoughts. Time for introspection! And for me, a real deepening of my relationships. Because there were no longer the “friends” you just run into at a drop-off, or at conferences, you had to be intentional about how you spent your time and who you reached out to check-in on. I was more deliberate with my friendships than ever, and I felt that intention among the loved ones who supported me.
I’m also fortunate to be surrounded (more than ever, since they aren’t in school) by my loud, vibrant, healthy kids who remind us how adaptable humanity is at its essence. To borrow from Des’ree’s anthem from my millennial coming-of-age, we gotta be a little bit badder, a little bit bolder, a little bit wiser, harder, tougher.
Moments of Unadulterated Joy:This gas station in LA, the day the networks finally called the election for Joe Biden. These kids, experiencing the drum solo in “In the Air Tonight”
MVP New Friends: Jenn and Drew, who are the parents of my daughter Eva’s good friend Leif. They were rocks as we made Sunday pool time a regular thing to get through this hell year. Sarah Svoboda, who is my producer at VICE, became one of my closest girlfriends overnight. Rob, with whom I’d split giant breakfast burritos after five mile runs. I am now simultaneously fatter and in better cardiovascular shape.
MVP Snack:Brown sugar boba popsicles saved my 2020. I became an accidental boba pop influencer! My only other influencing was for the Saved by the Bell pop-up in West Hollywood, which was a special treat.
The Energy To Bring To All Things: It’s what I call the Michaela Coel energy, after reading this landmark profile of the singular artist who brought us Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You. We say this, from here on out: ‘This is what I need. Are you good enough to give it to me?’ Not ‘Am I good enough to deserve the kind of treatment that I want?’
Regrets: Never did learn how to play the ukulele. Barely made progress on my book, which was supposed to be mostly done by now, in a parallel universe. My relationships felt very COVID-blocked, to different degrees.
My Gamechanger: Jungian depth psychology with a dream analyst. This is the most woo-woo I’ve ever sounded, I realize. But after dipping in and out of traditional, more conventional cognitive behavioral therapy for most my adult life, Friend Jenn told me about her dream analyst and I started seeing him over Zoom and I have never had a clearer and deeper understanding of my inner life. I feel more whole and more grounded in an organizing philosophy for meaning than, well, ever. I credit it with keeping me contented through the crucible that was 2020.
Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:
Watching TED Talks is my day job, so I did a quick tally and it turns out I watched at least 252 TED Talks this year. They covered topics far and wide, and come from the main TED stage, TEDx stages around the world and other TED programs, like TED Salon and TED-Ed.
I have such breadth of random knowledge now that it’s a shame there are no parties anymore, because I keep thinking I will be amazing at cocktail chatter.
On my Instagram Stories, I asked y’all to ask me anything about my TED-viewing experience. Since InstaStories don’t last — they disappear after 24 hours — here’s how I answered:
What was the most valuable thing you learned among the TED Talks you watched?
Actually just last week I watched Lori Gottlieb’s talk from TEDxDupont 2019. She makes a point that will stay with me: That most of our life struggles boil down to two themes — freedom or change. But something we neglect to think through in our quest for change is that it requires an unshedding, an unbecoming — that to grow and change, we must also experience some loss and grief.
If there is one big idea I have really spent the year interrogating and emphasizing through my work this year, whether it’s my book (which is about capitalist-driven definitions of beauty that drive an endless cycle and competition toward unachievable standards), or through my newish social science and parenting podcast, Labor, it’s about the fallacy of emphasizing personal responsibility over systemic fixes.
Whether we’re talking about climate, health and caregiving policies, how we treat poor people or reckon with race, it all boils down to this: The US consistently asks individuals to take both the blame for systemic problems and the responsibility for solving them. This strain is synonymous with neoliberalism, which dominates the globe’s economic systems, and especially so in American society and culture.
The toxicity of this idea is made tragically clear in our largely preventable COVID hellscape this year. Ed Yong writes:
“Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says.”
I also serendipitously got to reinforce this idea in a TED Talk I introduced this summer, from the journalist George Monbiot.
Starting today I’ll be in available in your feeds every weekday, hosting the daily TED talk podcast, which is the fittingly-named TED Talks Daily. It’s one of America’s top 20 podcasts and downloaded a million times a day, all over the world. Not only do I love working with the good folks at TED already and love being able to host this from anywhere with an internet connection, I can’t wait to connect with the global TED community. From the TED announcement:
TED Talks Daily, which is downloaded one million times per day, is one of the most downloaded shows, and not just in the US — it’s been featured in Apple Podcasts’ top ten charts in 130 countries around the world (more than any other podcast)…
“TED Talks Daily has long been a favorite way for audiences to engage with TED Talks, so we’re looking forward to adding onto the format,” said Colin Helms, head of media at TED. “What listeners have come to know and love about TED Talks Daily will continue, but with Elise as our host, we can build a richer backdrop for our talks.”
Ever since moving here I’ve craved and sought LA’s multi-hyphenate, project-based way of life. (Which is to say, I wanted to be job promiscuous instead of contractually locked down to one single employer.) So in addition to my other hustles, my dear friend Rachel and I co-founded a media company, and brought on another rad mom friend, Meghan. Reasonable Volume (yes named after Milton’s riff in my fave film of all time, Office Space) is already off & running and making bespoke pods & projects, so let’s make something together.
It probably goes without saying that I left my full-time role at NPR but in true LA-style, I am staying “attached,” like they say in Hollywood, to NPR projects as a roving host at-large. Public media remains vital and maybe now more so than ever.
And with guidance from my smart, savvy agent/friend/life coach, Howard, I sold my book project, Flawless, examining K-beauty, gender & power to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This year I have to actually write it.
OK that’s the update. Change is hard but constant. I’m trying, like everyone else, to keep my head above water and stay open to all of it. My cadence these days is every other day or so I’m totally fine and find a lot of joy in my quotidian quarantine life, and every off day I’m in total despair and think of all the calamity and uncertainty nonstop. The only way through it is through it, but I hope that we can all stay connected and supportive to one another during this wild time to be alive, a wild time to be a human.
Yesterday I was talking with Reeve about a difficult decision and how I didn’t know how to weigh it because it’s between two great choices. He said that there’s no way you can really do pro/con lists for decisions like that, a nugget of knowledge he learned from this TED Talk on the topic.
The gist is it’s almost impossible to make a difficult decision on the merits of the competing choices alone. Instead, you should use tough choices as opportunities to make a decision based on which values to affirm. If this makes no sense, it will if you watch the talk.