20 Inspiring TED Talks for Recent College Grads

by Staff Writers

TED started in 1984 as a one-off conference meant to unite thinkers and creators from three worlds: technology, entertainment, and design. Since 1990, though, the conference has been held annually and has come to embrace a broader scope in which interesting figures from all areas are brought to speak on a variety of topics, usually discusses through a lens of what's happening in the world and where we're headed. The talks are limited to 18 minutes (though some on this list run slightly longer), during which time the speakers are challenged to give "the talk of their lives," and many do. TED's site hosts more than 700 of the talks for free, viewable by everyone looking to learn more about the world and get inspired about the future, from college students to industry pros. Here are 20 of the most inspiring talks that might have a special appeal to recent college grads now making their way in the world. When you're feeling a little lost, these can guide the way:

  1. John Wooden: Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who died in June of this year, gave an uplifting talk at TED 2001 about the nature of success, which he defined as "peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable." His winning feats are still unmatched, but his talk is inspiring for the way it teaches grads how to live off the court.
  2. William Kamkwamba: Think you've got it tough? William Kamkwamba grew up in Malawi in the kind of poverty most Americans can only imagine. Yet at 14, he used scrap metal to build a windmill that powered his family's home, a success that led him to want to do more for his village. His 2007 talk is a story of trial and error, perseverance, and the refusal to give up. Great lessons for all:
  3. Dave Eggers: Dave Eggers' first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, put him on the literary map, but it's his work with a charity and tutoring center called 826 Valencia that's changing the world. His 2008 talk follows the creation of the center and is a great example of someone doing something outside the box to help their local community:
  4. Dean Kamen: Although best known for creating the Segway, inventor Dean Kamen's 2009 TED talk is about his work creating new prosthetic arms for wounded soldiers. It's a moving story about how creativity can give people a new lease on life, and a wonderful reminder that no obstacle is worth climbing that isn't a challenge:
  5. Katherine Fulton: This 2007 talk from Katherine Fulton, president of Monitor Institute, talks about the "new philanthropy" and how we can all do big things to change the world around us if we start to adjust our worldviews:
  6. Jane Goodall: Jane Goodall is world renowned for her study of chimpanzees and her insight to animal behavior and human development. Her 2007 TED address talks about how people can live peacefully and harmoniously with endangered animals that are more like us than we know. It's a great talk for recent grads for its wide-reaching and earnest discussion of the responsibility we all have to care for the world around us:
  7. Gordon Brown: The former U.K. prime minister gave this 2009 talk about "wiring a web for global good," a fantastic speech about how modern communication methods can help us work together as a world community to help the least fortunate among us:
  8. Tony Robbins: Tony Robbins is known for his work as a life coach. In 2006, he gave a TED talk about how he's not a motivational speaker but someone curious about asking why people are motivated to do certain things. It's an eye-opening look at what it takes to be aware of our own motives:
  9. Jonathan Klein: Getty Images co-founder and CEO Jonathan Klein spoke at TED in spring 2010 about the power of images to change the world. The speech is a great reminder of how the work of one person can mobilize the masses:
  10. Bill Clinton: Since leaving the office of the president, Bill Clinton has devoted time and energy to humanitarian causes. Accepting the TED prize in 2007, he issued a call for people to help rebuild Rwanda in an address intended to inspire listeners to leave behind a better world for their children.
  11. Mike Rowe: The host of Discovery's "Dirty Jobs," Mike Rowe gave a wonderful, hilarious TED speech in 2008 about the virtues of hard work and the necessity of doing jobs that no one else wants to do.
  12. Tim Berners-Lee: You are reading this right now because of Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and is currently the director of the World Wide Web Consortium. His 2010 TED speech is a progress report on his 2009 call for the sharing of raw data, and it's fascinating to watch how people were able to use seemingly random pieces of information to create helpful projects to change the world:
  13. Karen Armstrong: A religious historian, Karen Armstrong believes that "people have emphasized the importance of compassion not just because it sounds good but because it works." Her 2009 TED address is about the golden rule, and how people of all creeds and faiths can make the world better simply by acting kindly toward others:
  14. Derek Sivers: Derek Sivers founded CD Baby, one of the biggest online successes of the 1990s, and now works to help musicians find better ways to work and to distribute their art. His quick, witty TED address from 2010 is all about what it takes to be the first follower of a powerful leader. The lesson? It's just as important to spot good ideas as it is to have them:
  15. Jonathan Harris: An artist and computer scientist, Jonathan Harris is in the business of collecting stories. He created the "We Feel Fine" project, which scans blogs worldwide to get a regular snapshot of how we as a people feel at any moment. His TED address in 2007 is an inspiring glimpse at the way we're all a lot more similar than we know:
  16. Jill Bolte Taylor: Jill Bolte Taylor was already a rising scientist with a passion for analyzing brain disorders when she suffered a stroke of her own. She lost her brain functions and took years to recover, but was able to study the human brain with a personal view unavailable to most. Her research has done amazing things for advocates of recovery from stroke, and her 2008 tale is an inspiration for recent college grads worried that setbacks are the same as failure:
  17. Michael Pollan: Author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's 2007 TED talk is a fascinating look at the world from the perspective of plants. It's a helpful way for recent grads to get a broader, better angle on the world around them:
  18. Seth Godin: Marketing guru Seth Godin's 2003 TED speech is a sharp, insightful look at the way ideas spread and what it takes to make them stand out and be remembered. It's a must-watch for recent college grads looking for guidance on how to chase their dreams and get their names out there:
  19. Jimmy Wales: There's almost no better representation of online collaboration than Wikipedia, which anyone can edit. Creator Jimmy Wales spoke to TED in 2005 about how modern communities are able to freely share and shape the information that defines them:
  20. David Cameron: David Cameron addressed TED in 2010, shortly after he became prime minister of the U.K. at the head of a coalition government. His speech is an uplifting exploration of how the technological revolution can be wedded to smart political philosophy to make society better without spending tons of money: