Once, publication was the goal. If you were socially aware, intellectually sprightly, and held ambitions of original thought, all you wanted was to see your name in authoritative print. That would be your life’s justification, right there in black and white. Who could question your position in society once you’d published 10000 words on Multiscaling Return Dynamics in a market with Heterogenous Investment Horizons? (cudos to you Paul Takla for writing the most impressive thesis I could find in 3 minutes of Googling.) But then the Internet came along, and any narcissist with delusions of genius could self-publish in these horrible things called blogs. Egad! Thus publication was sullied. But, as it tends to, the internet gaveth just as it took away. And what was the beneficent replacement of the printed word? Why, TED talks, of course.
No longer did your genius have to fester in crumbling pages. Now, 18 minutes, a funky AV presentation, and a nice line in intellectual self-deprecation later, you could be the thinking man’s star the world over. Scientist, cook, politician or musician, this democratic stage would suck up your ideas in their most accessible format and shoot them all over the internet, encrusted with TED stardust. Young thinkers had a new ambition.
Depending on the speaker and subject, 18 minutes can be pleasingly manageable, impossibly restrictive, or oh-god-so-long. One pleasing example was Sheryl Sandberg’s “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” With a likeable, approachable and anecdotal style, the Facebook COO explores the situation of women in business, and specifically in leadership positions. Her arguments are compelling and her solutions direct and workable. Sandberg urges women to claim their right to participate fully in business, to make their partners “real” partners who will share home responsibilities with them, and to not put the brakes on their ambition well in advance of having a family just because they see it on the horizon.
Sandberg’s much-hyped Lean In is an extension of that talk, with the same stories and structure. But there is a chink in TED’s armour, and that is Sandberg’s favourite thing: data. It simply doesn’t reel off well in the face of the eager intellectual-wannabees on high alert for sage comments they can make in the break afterwards. No, data finds a happier home on that dusty old vehicle, the printed page.
Some of the data is expected but disheartening when it has been statistically proven, for example, women are liked less for being successful while men are liked more. I found this particularly unnerving: “From the moment we are born, boys and girls are treated differently. Parents tend to talk to girl babies more than boy babies. Mothers overestimate the crawling ability of their sons and underestimate the crawling ability of their daughters. Reflecting the belief that girls need to be helped more than boys, mothers often spend more time comforting and hugging infant girls and more time watching infant boys play by themselves.” One of the points I found most striking is that it has been proved that women have to behave differently to men in negotiations to ensure a positive outcome, including smiling more and advocating on others’ behalf rather than for themselves. I rather expected “We can do what men do just as well” and this acknowledgement of difference was somewhat depressing, but I respected Sandberg far more for taking this reality on rather than pretending that being a woman at the top is just a matter of pushing like a man.
All this data means the book is much shorter than you think it is – 40% is footnotes. Sandberg’s argument has more time to sink in in book form, and there are more subtle but delicious glimpses of the woman-of-steel beneath the humble-working-mum persona, but if you’re short of time and love a TED talk (who, quite frankly, doesn’t), go for that instead.