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10 Must-Watch TED Talks for Lifelong Learners

TED Talks for lifelong learners

Becoming a lifelong learner is no longer optional.

To stay competitive in the 21st century, you have to constantly learn, grow, and improve yourself. That is, you have to commit to lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is the ongoing and voluntary pursuit of knowledge, as well as the development and improvement of skills. It can be for either personal or professional reasons. In addition, it can be formal–learning in a traditional classroom setting–or informal, which is learning on your own.

Being a lifelong learner can help you with all of the following:

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  • Keep your career skills relevant–in this day and age, skills that are cutting edge one year are outdated just a few years later.
  • One of the best routes to financial independence is to start a business, even if it’s just a side business. If you don’t have business skills, you can acquire them through self-learning.
  • You can engage in a practice called “second-skilling”: gaining a second area of expertise which compliments your primary area of knowledge. As an illustration, I took a course to get a realtor’s license a few years ago. I was working as an independent attorney, and with a realtor’s license I could help clients find and buy an apartment, and then do all of the related legal work for them.
  • Keeping our brains active and engaged by learning new skills can help keep them in good shape as we get older.
  • Explore other career opportunities–I went from being a lawyer to becoming an entrepreneur.
  • Keep up with your interests by pursuing new hobbies.

So, how do you become a lifelong learner? Start by reading my article on learning skills fast. Then, supplement that material with TED Talks. Which TED Talks? I’m glad you asked. Below you’ll find 10 must-watch TED Talks for lifelong learners.

1. Self-Learning: Ryan Lee

When Ryan Lee gave his TED Talk a few years ago, he was a fifteen-year-old kid who had taught himself to code and create apps and websites. He explains that the way in which he teaches himself new things is by having something very specific that he wants to accomplish with his newly acquired knowledge.

Ryan explains that if you want to learn something new, you should turn it into a project. That is, there should be a clear end result. Here’s an example:

  • Ryan didn’t just tell himself, “I want to learn HTML and CSS”.
  • Instead, he told himself, “I want to learn HTML and CSS so that I can create a cool user profile for this online game I love to play.”

Each time that Ryan embarks on a new self-learning adventure, he’s highly motivated. This is because he knows exactly what he wants to accomplish with the knowledge and skills that he’s acquiring.

Like Ryan, when you want to learn to do something new, turn it into a project.

2. The Power of Believing That You Can Improve

Carol Dweck, PhD, is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She’s best known for her research on mindset, and how it can impact a person’s ability to learn. Specifically, Dweck has coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset”.

Here’s the difference between the two:

  • People with a growth mindset believe that if there’s something they don’t understand, or a skill that they haven’t been able to learn, they just need to try harder. If they fail at learning something new, they simply tell themselves that they need to try a different approach. Then they try again.
  • People with a fixed mindset believe that you either have the ability to learn about a new topic, and the talent to acquire a new skill, or you don’t. If they fail at something, they conclude that they simply don’t have what it takes, and they stop trying.

Obviously, the first mindset–the growth mindset–is much more conducive to learning. You can find out more about the growth mindself by watching the TED Talk below, and by reading my post on Five Mindsets That Will Transform Your Life.

3. You Can Grow New Brain Cells. Here’s How.

When it comes to adults learning new things, there are two brain-related terms that are very important: neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Here’s how these terms are defined:

  • Neurogenesis — the brain’s ability to create new neurons, or brain cells.
  • Neuroplasticity — the malleability of the brain and its ability to create new and stronger neural connections.

When it comes to neurogenesis, I wrote extensively about Sandrine Thuret’s TED Talk on growing new brain cells in this post: How to Grow New Brain Cells and Make Yourself Smarter. Read that post, or watch Thuret’s TED Talk below.

4. How to Learn Anything in 30 Days

Connor Grooms shares in his TED Talk that the previous year he had been in Medellín, Colombia. When he arrived, he spoke almost no Spanish. A month later, he was conversational. Groom revealed the process that he used to learn Spanish, which is the same process that he uses whenever he wants to learn something new.

His process consists of the following three steps:

  • Do research.
  • Create a plan.
  • Execute the plan.

However, Grooms adds that no learning methodology or strategy in the world will work for you, unless achieving the learning project that you’ve set for yourself is nonnegotiable. You have to be absolutely committed.

Think of something that’s nonnegotiable in your life, like going to work. You don’t ask yourself whether or not you’re going in to work each weekday morning; you simply get up and do it. When you’re going to learn something new, you have to have this same level of commitment, or you won’t follow through.

What do you want to learn to do? How committed are you?

5. Auto-Learning Through Self-Teaching and Experimentation

The fifth talk in our list of TED Talks for lifelong learners is by Biologist/Geneticist Connor Edsall. Edsall indicates that self-learning is a combination of self-teaching and self-trying. In order to illustrate his point, Edsall refers to four individuals who changed the world although they had little or no formal education.

These four people made great achievements in their respective fields through self-learning. They are the following:

  • Michael Faraday – he established the basis for the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics. Faraday developed his theories through experimental observation.
  • John Hunter – he became known as the father of scientific surgery. Hunter accomplished this through observation, dissection (of dead human and animal bodies), and experimentation.
  • The Wright brothers – Orville and Wilbur Wright invented, built, and flew the world’s first successful airplane. They were encouraged by their parents to design and invent from a young age, and they would often cooperate on simple projects like building kites, creating replicas of a toy rubber band helicopter, and inventing a newspaper folding machine.

Edsall adds that today we have access to enormous amounts of information. However, absorbing information isn’t really learning. In order to learn, you have to get out there and apply what you learn. That is, you have to observe and carry out experiments. You have to try.

When learning something new, keep the following in mind: “Experiri est Discere.” It means: “To try is to learn.”

6. The Curious Person’s Guide to Learning Anything

Stephen Robinson decided to give himself the challenge of learning something new every week, for 52 weeks. He shares his learning adventures in his blog, 52Skillz. Here are some of the things he learned:

  • Doing a backflip.
  • Crocheting a tie.
  • Racing a rally car.
  • Juggling.

Stephen explains that when he was in his last year in college he grew frustrated. He had developed a routine of going to school, going to work, and then going home to consume things created by others (TV, newspapers, video games, and so on). Stephen realized that he was simply maintaining his lifestyle, and maintaining the expectations of others.

He wasn’t following up on what he wanted to do, and he wasn’t really living. That’s when he decided to learn something new every week, for 52 weeks.

Stephen then goes on to show the TED audience how they, too, can learn new skills. He uses “Learn How to Give a TED Talk” as a case study. Here’s the process:

1. Write It Down.

Whatever your learning goal is, you have to get it out of your head and unto a piece of paper.

2. Create Urgency.

Stephen received an email from the Alberta TED Talks coordinator indicating that someone had dropped out of their program, and they wanted him to take their place. This meant he had five days to come up with a TED Talk. Now that’s urgency!

3. Create Accountability.

A TED Talk can be a huge boost for your career, or it can simply get lost among the billions of things that can be found on the internet. The fact that Stephen had a looming deadline created urgency, and the fact that there was so much riding on whether he did well or poorly created accountability.

4. Fail.

Stephen indicates that in order to learn anything new, you need to fail. When he was preparing his TED Talk he wrote several rough drafts which were really bad.

He cautions that you shouldn’t interpret failure as evidence that you’re weak, dumb, or don’t have the ability to learn the skill that you’re trying to acquire. Instead, interpret failure as growth. Anyone who has tried to learn anything new will spend a lot of time doing things wrong. That’s just the way it is.

5. Ask for Help.

When you’ve failed a few times and you aren’t sure what to do next, ask for help. Stephen called some of his friends who were keynote speakers and asked for help in writing his TED Talk. His friends gave him some great pointers which were very helpful in getting his TED Talk in good shape.

6. Follow Through.

On the day of his TED Talk, Stephen showed up, stood in front of the audience, and gave his talk. He followed through and demonstrated that he had successfully learned how to give a TED Talk.

7. The First 20-Hours: How to Learn Anything

In the 7th of our 10 TED Talks for Lifelong Learners, Josh Kaufman goes through the learning process he laid out in his book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!

When Kaufman and his wife had their first child, he was saddened to think that he would never have time to learn anything new. That’s when he decided to find a way to learn skills fast. His objective was to choose a few skills and go from being grossly incompetent at those things, to being reasonably good, in as little time as possible. He discovered that this took 20 hours.

Here are Kaufman’s four simple steps for rapid skill acquisition:

  1. Deconstruct the Skill –most of the things that we think of as skills are actually bundles of skills. Take the skill that you’re trying to learn and break it down into as many sub-skills as you can. This will allow you to identify the sub-skills that you need to concentrate on in order to achieve what you want.
  2. Learn Enough to Self-Correct. Identify three to five resources you can use. You want enough knowledge so that you can start practicing and self-correcting as fast as possible.
  3. Remove Practice Barriers. Remove all distractions and anything that will get in the way as you try to learn the new skill.
  4. Practice for At Least 20 Hours. Kaufman explains that most skills have what he refers to as “the frustration stage”. It’s that initial stage at which you’re grossly incompetent at your new skill, and you know it. It’s very uncomfortable to be at this stage, and you’ll probably be tempted to quit. The way to get over this stage is to pre-commit to practicing whatever it is that you’re trying to learn for at least 20 hours. That will help you to push through the frustration stage and stick with the practice long enough to reap the rewards.

Kaufman used this four-step process to teach himself, among other things, to play the ukulele. You can watch him play the ukulele in his TED Talk below.

8. Learning Styles and The Importance of Self-Reflection

You’ve probably always heard that some people are visual learners, others learn better by listening, and still others are kinesthetic learners. Well, it turns out that’s a myth. Yep. You heard here first. Tesia Marshik does a great job of debunking this myth in her TED Talk.

Marshik also points out that incorporating multiple sensory experiences into one lesson is the best way to make the lesson more meaningful and memorable. For example, if you’re teaching someone about the sound that a musical instrument makes, do the following:

  • Have them listen to the instrument (audiatory).
  • Let them watch someone play the instrument (visual).
  • Allow them to hold the instrument and see what sounds they can make with it (kinesthetic).

Watch Marshik explain why there’s no such thing as learning styles in her TED Talk.

9. How to Get Better at Things You Care About

If you decide to watch only one of these TED Talks for lifelong learners, I recommend you watch this one.

Eduardo Briceño explains that people reach a point at which they stop getting better at the things that are important to them. Almost everyone reaches a point of stagnation, even if they’re working really hard. However, there’s a way to fix this.

Briceño indicates that the most successful people and teams spend their lives alternating between two zones:

  • The Learning Zone; and
  • The Performance Zone.

When you’re in the learning zone, your goal is to improve. In this zone you carry out activities designed for getting better at things that are important to you. In the learning zone, you try things which you haven’t mastered yet, which means that you’re going to make mistakes. However, you look for ways to learn from those mistakes so that you can improve and grow.

When you’re in the performance zone, your goal is to do something as well as you can. In this zone, you concentrate on those things which you’ve already mastered, and you try to minimize mistakes. In this zone you execute to the best of your ability.

The key to continous improvement is to spend time in both the learning and the performance zones. A great way to see the difference between the learning and the performance zones is through examples. In his Ted Talk, Briceño uses Demosthenes and Beyoncé as examples.


Demosthenes was one of the greatest orators and lawyers of ancient Greece. When it was time to act as an orator or lawyer, he performed masterfully. However, he would also take time to improve his craft by doing things such as the following:

  • Since persuasion is so important in the practice of law, he would study acting;
  • He would practice his speeches over and over again in front of a mirror to perfect his style of presentation; and
  • Demosthenes would even practice by the ocean so that he would have to project his voice over the waves.


Beyoncé is one of the world’s best-selling music artists. When Beyoncé is on tour, during her concerts, she’s in her performance zone. The audience is treated to her masterful performance.

But every night, when she gets back to the hotel room, she switches to the learning zone. She watches a video of the show she just gave to identify opportunities for improvement for herself, her dancers, and the rest of her crew. The next morning, everyone receives notes on what adjustments to make. Then, they spend the day working on those adjustments so that they can improve before the next performance.

To sum things up: you build your skills in the learning zone, and then you apply those skills in the performance zone.

10. Can You Get An MIT Education for $2000?

As I wrote in post on 10 Ways Taking MOOCs Can Improve Your Life, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a great tool for lifelong learners. An example of someone who used MOOCs to teach himself valuable new skills is Scott Young.

Young decided to try to get the equivalent of a four-year degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in just 12 months. He used courses put up on the internet for free by MIT to build a computer science curriculum with 33 classes. The curriculum was almost identical to the one followed by students who actually attend MIT. The only cost was for a few textbooks which cost him about $2000.

What do you want to learn? Follow Young’s example and create a curriculum for yourself based on MOOCs.


I hope you decide to take the time to watch the 10 Ted Talks for lifelong learners which I curated for you and listed above. It will help you to take your self-learning to the next level. Live your best life by committing to lifelong learning.


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