Does Our Short Attention Span Prevent Us From Deep Thinking?

In his recent essay in Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque critiques “TED thinking,” which he writes, serves “as a shorthand for the way we’ve come to think about ideas and how we share them, whether it’s through an 18-minute talk, an 800-word blog post, or the latest business ‘best-seller’…. ‘TED thinking’ is just a symptom: and the underlying syndrome is our broken relationship with Great Ideas.”

While Haque brings up some important and good points in his essay, the construct he presents creates a false dichotomy between “TED thinking” and deep thinking; between solutions-oriented thinking and theorizing; between application and analysis; between idea generation and Great Ideas. These either/ors are both unnecessary and unhelpful.

No one suggests that “TED thinking” should replace other forms of thinking. What TED does, and does well, is offer a venue for sharing ideas. It has never presented itself as an endpoint, but rather as a launch pad. It’s up to audience members to take the next steps. What’s great is that those next steps are often taken; students get engaged and involved; people find their passions; some join a movement, all through the ability to sift through a lot of ideas fairly quickly until they encounter someone who sparks their imagination and passion.

With independently-organized TEDx events, there is ever more democratization in this sharing of ideas. Having attended five TEDx events, and having spoken at four of them, I can attest to the power of “TED thinking” to provide the fuel for deep learning, deep thinking and meaningful implementation of ideas. I’ve read at least 50 books because my curiosity and interest in a subject were sparked by TED talks. And my own goal as a TEDx speaker is to spark this for others. For example, my first TEDx talk, The World Becomes What You Teach, presented the idea that we must graduate a generation of solutionaries, people with the critical and creative thinking capacities and collaborative skills to transform unjust, unsustainable, and inhumane systems into ones that are healthy and peaceful. My 18 minute talk could not do much more than present the concept, along with a few examples, but what our organization, the Institute for Humane Education, does is enable people to put these ideas into practice by providing the training, preparation, resources, and tools for people to become humane educators. Humane educators are, above all else, deep thinkers who inspire deep thinking. If my TEDx talk serves its ultimate purpose, it will do exactly what Haque suggests “TED thinking” prevents: inspire people to pursue Great Ideas.

Haque writes, “One can imagine Einstein being invited to give a TED talk on E=MC2 — and the audience wondering ‘Well, what’s the point of this? What can we use it to do? How can we make megabucks from this, next year?’” Personally, I cannot imagine the audience members at the TEDx events I’ve attended thinking these things. Were Einstein to have given a TED talk explaining the mind-boggling reality of his equation, I can imagine instead that he would have sparked an intense interest in physics among audience members and viewers (among them many high school students) that would have led some to become physicists and discover who knows what else and who knows how quickly.

Haque goes on to say “‘Ideas conferences’ like TED present us with something like an ethical vacuum. There are no sources of evil in TED world — apart from a ‘lack.’ Insufficient Technology, Edutainment, and Design (or ‘innovation’, ‘growth’, ‘insights’): these are the only shortcomings the human world faces. There is no venality; no selfishness; no cruelty; no human weakness that is not readily amenable to the cure-all of Perfect Technology, Edutainment, and Design.”

I simply don’t know what Haque is talking about. I myself have talked about cruelty, violence, apathy and human weakness in my TEDx talks, as have many others. There are about 25,000 TED and TEDx talks online, and discussions about human greed and our myriad shortcomings are in no short supply even as these talks attempt to inspire our best qualities, rather than our worst.

So let’s not create an unproductive and divisive dichotomy between idea-generation and Great Ideas. Instead, let’s challenge ourselves and others to follow the path that a new idea sets us on until we reach the place where we discover Great Ideas. And when, as periodically happens in a TED or TEDx talk, a great idea is presented to us in just 18 minutes (as it was by Habib Dagher at TEDxDirigo in 2010 about deep sea floating wind farms), let’s put that idea into practice (as is happening now with his great idea in the Gulf of Maine), and keep on learning, thinking, and exploring how else we might address the grave issues of our time.


Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.


Image courtesy of spekulator.


Connie O.
Connie O4 years ago

You cannot currently send a star to Darren because you have done so within the last day.

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

If we learn to control it

Christine W.
Christine W4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Julie F.
Julie F4 years ago

I'm a teacher and we still teach deep thinking. It is a little harder but not impossible to get high school kids to think deeply. They said the same of my generation when TV was invented and my daughter's when Sesame Street came out. We still think deeply.

Anna Undebeck
Anna U4 years ago

I think way too much,and "get in to things" really really deep, nothing has "helped" me to stop that- no medication or no shrink!!! Have to learn to live with it- my brain is overloading with info and extremly deep thoughts nonstop, and that lead to anxity attacks, and other problems- but there is not much to do about it. Thanks for the article!

Fred Hoekstra
Fred H4 years ago

Thank you Zoe, for Sharing this!

Sandi C.
Sandi C4 years ago


Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Latoya Brookins
Latoya B4 years ago

Most say that I think too much and too deeply.

A lot of people I know just want to watch a movie or read a book and not think anything of it other than it was good entertainment. I've never been like that. I analyze. I interpret. I have views and questions on everything.

Latoya Brookins
Latoya B4 years ago

Sometimes it is true for me. I have so many interests!

Most of the time though, if I am incapable of deep thoughts it is because I slept too much or ate junk food.