7 min read

My TEDx Speech at Carnegie Mellon

Back in February, I was invited to speak at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for their TEDx event. After checking out the lineup of speakers, I quickly gained some perspective on how incredible my contribution to humanity has been.
My TEDx Speech at Carnegie Mellon
Photo by Miguel Henriques / Unsplash

Back in February, I was invited to speak at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for their TEDx event. I accepted for a few reasons: (1) I’d been interested in seeing how well my written content would translate to video; (2) it would be delivered in a room of 400 attendees, which would be the most people I’d ever spoken in front of; (3) it would be a fun challenge — I hadn’t done any real public speaking, which I genuinely enjoy, for more than three years; (4) it’s TED. Tough to say no to those guys.

After checking out the lineup of speakers (which included the inventor of CAPTCHA, a human rights activist in Zimbabwe, and a doctor who discovers and cures extremely rare diseases), I quickly gained some perspective on how incredible my contribution to humanity has been. And by “incredible,” I mean “trivial.” Don’t get me wrong — I’m proud of the things I’ve worked on; I just felt like a tee-baller who’d been asked to suit up for varsity. I mean, I wrote an e-book… That about sums it up.

So I decided that, instead of trying to sound smart, I should focus on being relatable. Just like a politician. [Sidenote: I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I have NEVER referred to myself as a “marketing genius.” Ever. I did not suggest that title.]

This strategy resulted in a speech that has lowered the bar for every future TEDx speaker. For instance…

Here are six phrases that (until now) you’ve never heard in a TED/TEDx speech, and will probably never hear again:

  1. “Scary as shit”
  2. “Douchebags wearing Ed Hardy shirts snatch up all the hotties”
  3. “Blog, blog, blog, dorky stuff, whatever”
  4. “Charlie Hoehn equals drunk abortion”
  5. “Bite me in the ass”
  6. “Protestors are funny”

In spite of all this, the speech has been well-received (thanks to this writeup on Lifehacker). And while my presentation was far from perfect — I get it, I pace around too much — it was still significantly better than when I first started rehearsing. I know this because I filmed and reviewed all of my practice runs.

For your amusement, I have compiled a two minute clip with some of the outtakes:

As you can see, I was still doing re-writes in my hotel room in Pittsburgh. I submitted my final presentation at about 2am, the day of the event.

A few other speeches at TEDxCMU were particularly memorable for me. To start: two friends of mine, Jenny Blake and Amber Rae, both spoke at this event. Their speeches were equally impressive for different reasons:

  1. Jenny’s keynote kept flicking off the screen the entire time she was presenting. It was ridiculously distracting for everyone in the audience, and even worse for her. Luckily, she had practiced a bunch without the use of her keynote, so she was able to successfully get through her whole speech without much help from a visual aid. She was also able to slide in some impromptu jokes about the whole situation that set everyone at ease. She wrote about her experience here (you can watch her speech here).
  2. Amber never practiced her goddamn speech. Not once. Not only that, it was her first time giving a speech to a big audience! This blew my mind, as she delivered it almost flawlessly (watch it here). I am incapable of this, and so are most other people. Do not try to pull off what she did. PRACTICE.

My favorite speech from the event came from Luis Von Ahn, the inventor of CAPTCHA. He discussed how he was able to turn this necessary-evil into something positive: a way to crowd-source the digitization of books. He also talked about his next project, DuoLingo, which will make language learning free and easily accessible for everyone. Really cool stuff, and definitely worth checking out. His speech can be watched here.

Overall, it was a really fun event and I’m very glad I went. The team of people who put everything together — James Pan, Todd Medema, Mia Wang, Matt Katase, Brian Rangell, Bin Yang, Heidi Yang, Jeesoo Sohn — all did a fantastic job. Thanks again, guys.


And I continue to enjoy my sweet parting gift:

Official TEDxCMU Flask

More photos from the event here.

What I left out of my speech

Near the end of my presentation, I said:

“And now there’s some bad news. America is in a tough time, and it’s going to get tougher. Honestly, we have to pay for our sins at some point. We can’t keep this up. And the economy is going to get worse. Jobs are going to be cut, jobs are going to be eliminated, jobs are going to be outsourced. It is a tough market for us.”

I originally planned on discussing this point at length, but ultimately decided to stick with a brief uplifting conclusion. In any case, here’s what I have to say about that…

In August of 2005, I was sitting on the carpet floor of my new apartment in Fort Collins, assembling my desk. I was entering my sophomore year of college, and was euphoric with the idea of creating three more years worth of fun memories with my friends. While I was putting in one of the screws, a quick thought randomly flashed into my mind: “You are going to die.” It seems funny typing it out now, but at the time, it truly shook me. Something I had known intuitively for 19 years had finally stuck, and it wouldn’t stop echoing through my head. Ironically, this moment of realizing my mortality while doing something so trivial is still far more vivid in my mind than so many of the great memories I made over those next three years. For the first time in my life, I understood that my years were limited, and everything would eventually come to an end.

A few months ago, I went through the same experience. Only this time, the thought was “America is going to collapse.” It was a notion I’d been reading about for years and one that I thought I’d come to grips with. Not the case. When that idea was fully realized, I had a tough time sleeping for weeks.

We are in a huge mess. To say “America is in a tough time, and it’s going to get tougher” is a severe understatement. The truth of the matter is this: our country is in for a very major kick in the teeth that’s going to last for decades. I am not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but anyone with a pulse can take a passing glance at the numbers and see that this fairy tale ride we’ve been on for the last 40 years is coming to an end. The recession of 2008 was merely a sign of bigger things to come.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. No one does. Globalization, the Federal Reserve, our banking system, etc. have all made things so ridiculously complex and intertwined that it’s impossible to say how the next few years will pan out. But I do believe we are witnessing the fall of this country, and a lot of what Americans know and hold dear is going to fundamentally change or evaporate. Our expectations for what our futures hold will eventually derail, and it will suck.

This is scary, depressing stuff. I know. It’s especially scary because the economy is not something you have any control over; you can only mitigate against potential risks. I wish I had answers for every graduate about to enter the work force. I don’t. There is no easy answer for all of this. The only advice I can sincerely offer is: read more books, and get off the path if you hate it, especially if you know it’s leading you nowhere.

But… there is good news, for all of you. I did mean what I said in my speech: As long as there are problems that need to be solved, there will always be work. And while the number of cushy no-value jobs will start to rapidly diminish (adios, social media experts!), the concept of doing real work will not.

You don’t have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life, but you do need to start working towards something. Free work is an easy way to start building a skill set that not only matters to you, but one that can actually deliver value to others. It is not about doling yourself out as a slave; it’s about offering help in exchange for priceless hands-on experience. Free work is a credo for advanced learning, and it’s one that I intend to practice for the rest of my life…

The way I put an end to my sleepless nights was quite simple, and it’s something I’ve continually returned to over the years. It alleviated my “You’re going to die” fixation, and it pulled me out of my “America is going to collapse” funk:

It’s just a ride.


Two final things… First, I did an hour long interview with Lewis Howes awhile back (full write-up at the link). It turned out well, so many thanks to Lewis for putting this together. And if you’ve ever dreamt of listening to me indulge myself for 57 minutes straight, you are in for a treat:

Second: My good friend, Jeff Waldman (who makes fun of me for only getting invited to speak at TEDx once — he’s been invited twice), recently spent a weekend hanging up 50 swings around the city of Los Angeles. He did this simply to inject a little spontaneous joy into people’s lives. The video he made about his experience is great (with over 190,000 views in less than two days) and it’s worth watching:

Jeff is currently raising money on Kickstarter for his next project: Swings in Bolivia. If you want to see more of this type of thing in the world, throw some money their way (even $5 helps). I’ve been friends with Jeff for about two years, and if there’s one thing I know about him, it’s this: the dude delivers. He will make this Bolivian swing project into something very cool. So check it out and help his cause.


To all my readers: Thank you again for the continued support. I don’t know what originally brought you here, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it.