Think Small: Alastair Humphreys


Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, blogger, author and motivational speaker. Alastair was named as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for his pioneering work on the concept of microadventures.


Alastair is still a little shocked that he decided to bike across the world at age 24. He wasn’t much of an athlete and didn’t have much money, but he just wanted to get going. He didn’t actually think he was going to be able to make, he says. But having to stop along the way was a lot better to him than not trying at all. He started in England and biked down to South Africa, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, then rode up to Alaska, flew across the Pacific Ocean, rode across Sibera and Asia and ended back in England 720,000km later. He was on the road for 4 years and 3 months and spent about 7000 pounds, usually sleeping in a tent and eating banana sandwiches.

When he returned home, Alastair was unsure of what he would do for the next 60 years. His strategy in life had been find what you love and do lots of it, so he decided he would continue these trips. He has since rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, walked across India, and is planning some other very ambitious adventures.

But Alastair says that adventure has little to do with the activity itself. Adventure is only a state of mind. It’s important to do something you’ve never done and to do it with enthusiasm and passion. To show that adventure can be found everywhere, he has spent the last year doing Microadventures. Spend a night sleeping on top of a hill, swim down a river, whatever you can fit into your schedule. You might work from 9-5, but there’s still another 16 hours in a day. You don’t have to think big. It’s ok to start small – but do start.

Angela Lee Duckworth: The key to success? Grit


Angela Lee Duckworth, an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies intangible concepts such as self-control and grit to determine how they might predict both academic and professional success


At age 27, Angela quit her management consulting job to become a math teacher in the NYC public school system. After a while she noticed that her best performing students were not always the smartest ones. She asked herself “what if doing well in school in life depends on much more than [students’] ability to learn quickly and easily?”

Angela went to graduate school and tried to find out who succeeds and who does not. She conducted research at West Point Military Academy, schools, private companies, and from these very different contexts concluded that one characteristic was more indicative of success than the rest. And that was grit: having passion and perseverance for long term goals.

The shocking thing, she says, is how little about grit we know. What we do know is that grit is unrelated, and sometimes inversely related, to talent. We also know the effect of the Growth Mindset, understanding that the ability to learn is not fixed and can change with your effort. When kids read about the brain and understand that failure is not a permanent condition, they are more likely to persevere where they usually fail. Promising ideas like this are what we should be testing and measuring. “We need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.”

Jennifer Golbeck: The curly fry conundrum: Why social media “likes” say more than you might think


Jennifer Golbeck is the director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. Her work focuses on how to enhance and improve the way that people interact with their own information online.


About two year ago, a story about Target spread through the news. The retail giant’s mailing system had sent pregnancy related discounts to a 15 year old girl and received some backlash from her father. It turned out that girl was in fact pregnant, but hadn’t even told her parents yet. By looking at little patterns of behavior, like buying extra vitamins or bigger handbags, Target was is able to make very accurate predictions about its customers.

Jennifer’s lab does similar work and can predict things like political preference, intelligence, age, just by using Facebook. One study was done just using people’s Facebook likes (looking at which pages they liked). A list of the top 5 likes indicative of high intelligence showed that one of those likes was actually for the “curly fries” page.  Why? Because the action of liking reflects back to the attributes of the other people who liked it. If someone intelligent created the page, than their friends who like the page are probably smart as well.

The  problem is that people don’t really have any power over how this data is used. Jennifer says that if she wanted to, she could quit her job and start a new company, selling reports to H.R. companies that predict how well you work in teams or if you use drugs or not. This is certainly something you would want control over. A solution she proposes is to develop mechanisms that tell users how risky certain online actions are. “By sharing this piece of personal information, you’ve improved my ability to predict if you use drugs”.

Although the work she does depends on using that very information, she would rather see a user base that is educated and informed. Her goal is not to infer information about users, it’s to improve the way people interact online.

Anant Agarwal: Why massive open online courses (still) matter


Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX, an online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT. As a  professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Anant taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries.


MOOCs  (massive open online courses) have become increasingly popular, but Anant Agarwal wants to create a blended model of learning. But education hasn’t changed much in the last 500 years. He equates the change needed  to transitioning from ox carts to airplanes; education must be reimagined.

With the younger millennial generation so dependent on technology, it doesn’t make sense to try to keep technology out of schools. He gives the example of two high school teachers in Mongolia who had flipped the classroom. They would assign watching lectures as homework and work more interactively during the school day. A similar pilot program was run at San Jose State University and the failure rate of the class fell from 41% to 9%.

So what are the key ideas that make blended learning effective?

  • Active Learning: Students learn much better when they are interacting with the material
  • Self Pacing: Hitting pause, or rewinding can be very useful to catering
  • Instant feedback: By grading with a computer, students can learn what they did wrong and find the correct solution on the spot.
  • Gamification: Gamifying work can be much more effective in engaging students
  • Pure Learning: Discussions are used a tool to help students learn from each other

The blended model has another benefit and that solves the practical problem of MOOCS: profitability. By licensing MOOCs to other universities, a new revenue model is created. MOOCs can become the next generation textbook.  “We have to move from bricks-and-mortar school buildings to digital dormitories.”

Chris Hadfield: What I learned from going blind in space


Chris Hadfield  is a retired Canadian astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space. An Engineer and former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot, Hadfield has flown two space shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station.


Colonel Chris Hadfield starts his talk with a question for the audience. What is the scariest, most dangerous thing you’ve ever done and why did you do it?

For Chris, it was going into space. The odds of crashing during the first shuttle launches were 1/9. When you wake up on launch day, you know that at the end of the day you’ll either be floating or you’ll be dead. After takeoff there’s 8min and 40sec of intense, intense pressure, equivalent to someone pouring cement on you. And then you’re weightless. For Chris it was worth the risk. At age 9, watching other people walk on the moon, he made the decision to become an astronaut.

While in space, Chris went out on his first spacewalk, watching the earth “roar silently with colors and textures”. Suddenly his left eye slammed shut, but he ignored it and kept working. But because tears don’t fall in space, the ball of residue and tears slowly moved across the bridge of his nose and into his right eye. His right eye slammed shut. He was completely blind, standing outside, floating through space.

Once again, Chris humorously asks, what is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

A lot of people are afraid of spiders, he says. Take the brown recluse, for example. Definitely scary, but is it dangerous? In Canada, only 1 of the 729 species of spiders are venomous. And that species has bright colored markings and builds its webs on the ground for your convenience. So when we flail around after walking into a spider web, what is the justification? The spider is likely no more of a threat to you than a ladybug. The danger is entirely different than the fear. So next time you see a spiderweb, walk through it. Walk through 100 more spiderwebs and Chris guarantees you’ll fundamentally change your behavioral pattern.

Now apply that logic to everything else you’re afraid of. In training for spacewalks, Chris went through every possible scenario that could happen, effectively eliminating the instinctive response to panic. Instead Chris just went through the possibilities and was easily able to communicate to his partner to pull him back.  By understanding the difference between perceived danger and actual danger, you can go to places and see things that otherwise would be denied to you. In preparing to accomplish his goal of space travel, Chris learned how to reprogram his primal fears..

Chris ends his talk by playing and singing a part from the David Bowie song “Space Oddity”.

May El-Khalil: Making peace is a marathon


May El-Khaliil is the founder of the Beirut Marathon, the largest running event in the Middle East. She was inspired to start organizing marathons after her own marathon training was cut short by a near fatal accident.


 For the past 10 year, Lebanon has been raging with war, violence, and political turmoil. But once a year, everyone ignores their differences and runs alongside each other in a marathon. May El-Khalil used to run in marathons herself, but a tragic accident nearly killed her and she spent two years recovering in the hospital. During those two years she began to dream up a marathon that would be held in Lebanon. She used the marathon as a way to focus on something other than the pain and it gave her an objective to strive for. 

She started travelling across the country sharing her story and convincing people to participate in this marathon. Her passion, honesty and transparency, brought people together. Even though Lebanon was a nation at war and some of these people had never heard of marathons before, the country rallied behind her. In 2003, 6000 runners took their place at the start line and ran for a better future.

When the Prime Minister was assassinated in 2005, a 5k run was held and 60,000 people showed up, setting aside politics and ran wearing plain white t-shirts.  Without fail, the marathons have been taking place every year. Last year there were 33,000 participants, both Lebanese and international, that ran through the rain under the umbrella of peace.

Russell Foster: Why do we sleep?

Speaker: Russell Foster

Length: 21:46


Sleep is the single most important behavioral experience we have. But the perception and role of sleep in our society has shifted from importance to a waste of precious time. Shakespeare referred to sleep as “nature’s soft nurse”, but Edison thought it was a “heritage from our cave days.” People often feel similarly to the latter, but it’s usually because they don’t understand the purpose of sleep.

The reality is that our brain doesn’t shut down during sleep. The most popular theory for why we sleep is that sleep controls our brain function. Sleep deprivation is shown to cause poor memory, increased impulsiveness, and poor creativity. But that’s not even the worst part. Sleep is strongly connected to serious health problems like cardiovascular disease and mental illnesses. Sleep deprivation can cause a 50% higher rate of obesity, brought about by excess release of the hormone, ghrelin, which triggers your hunger.  Sustained stress, another result of sleep deprivation, suppresses your immune system.

Foster spends the second half of his talk on the genetic ties between sleep disruption and schizophrenia. A discovery was made that stabilizing sleep also helped reduce symptoms of paranoia. From all the different examples and study’s he cites you can draw 3 conclusions.

  1. Sleep and mental illness are tied together
  2. Sleep disruption can be used as an early warning signal for illnesses
  3. Sleep centers are a new therapeutic target for solving other problems

The question you might be wondering now is, how do I know if I’m getting enough sleep?

If you need an alarm clock to wake up, are grumpy and irritable, or need a cup of coffee to do anything: you are probably sleep deprived. The key is to listen to your body. You might need 6 hours of sleep or you might need 10 hours. There is actually no correlation between waking up early and having better health (or more wealth). To get a good nights sleep, make sure that you’re room is as dark as possible and slightly cool. Reducing light exposure/electronics use during the 30 minutes prior will also help.

tl:dr Take sleep seriously.