The 20 Best TED Talks to Inspire You

Looking for some career inspiration? You’ve come to the right place.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a woman on a stage talking to room of people

Most of us enter the workforce hoping to achieve great things, whether it’s a large salary, an important role in our industry or just personal happiness. As the years go by, we hope to continue making forward strides in our career development, but it doesn’t always happen. And, when we do get stuck, it can be difficult to figure out what to do next.

However, it’s in challenging moments like these that we can measure the true span of our strength and inventiveness — and it’s often bigger than we could have imagined.

These 20 popular TED Talks are a testament to this truth and an excellent pick-me-up when you find yourself at a dead end. Check them out!

1. Carla Harris — How to find the person who can help you get ahead at work

“All the important decisions about your career will be made when you are not in the room.”

So said Morgan Stanley exec Carla Harris at the 2016 MAKERS Conference, and she follows that theme here in one of the best TED Talks for upwardly mobile workers in a corporate environment. In just a little over 13 minutes, Harris dispels the myth of the oft-touted “workplace meritocracy” and gives clear steps for the true path to promotion and success.

2. Shane Lopez — The secrets of people who love their jobs

Those workers just starting out or looking for inspiration for a new career are often told to find their passion. But what does that mean, exactly?

Shane Lopez blends family stories and his own psychology research into an engaging discussion on what makes people happy at work and how to find your career bliss in a practical way. This is one of the best TED talks for those who hate their jobs and wonder if a job they’re “passionate” about even exists.

3. Ruth Chang — How to make hard choices

Should you relocate for a promotion, or find a way to advance in your current city? Is it time to quit a job where you feel held back, or wait until the job market improves? These decisions can often feel insurmountable, as pivotal moments that could either wreck your career or send you skyrocketing to success.

As a lawyer-turned-philosopher, Ruth Chang certainly has experience with making big decisions to change your career. Throw away that “pros and cons” list and let Chang take you on a very specific journey that will completely alter your way of evaluating your alternatives and take personal branding to a deeper level.

4. Nigel Marsh — How to make work–life balance work

Gallup poll conducted during the COVID-19 epidemic revealed that 59% of Americans would like to continue working remotely even after their workplaces reopened. Many workers who have had a chance to take a break from long hours away from home and family have realized they could do with more of a healthy work–life balance.

Using examples from his own life and some pointed humor, Nigel Marsh offers his perspective on finding that perfect balance. You’ll learn how to reconsider your idea of success in your career and the necessary steps to get more out life than a paycheck.

5. Leila Hoteit — 3 lessons on success from an Arab businesswoman

Women on an ambitious career track still face many discriminatory issues in the workplace. Whether it’s the gender pay gap, extra pressure from trying to juggle motherhood and career or sexual harassment, it can feel like a continual upward climb.

Leila Hoteit is here to tell Western career women that they have no idea how tough things really can be. With a direct style and a bit of wry humor, she shares valuable and easily adaptable lessons she’s learned as a wife, mother and businesswoman living and working in the more culturally rigid UAE. “Arab women of my generation,” says Hoteit, “have had to become our own role models.”

6. Jason Shen — Looking for a job? Highlight your ability, not your experience

This is one of the best TED talks for employers to listen to as well as jobseekers. Jason Shen, a science major who went into tech instead, explains that many businesses who overvalue experience are missing out on quality applicants.

He shares his own story and advice for convincing the hiring committee of your ability to do the job well, and implores all employers to follow industry leaders in thinking outside the box on recruiting new personnel.

7. Carol Fishman Cohen — How to get back to work after a career break

Popular TV Land comedy Younger began with the premise of a 40-year-old divorced mother pretending to be 26 so she could re-enter the workforce as an intern. While age discrimination continues to be an issue for those who have taken substantial time off work to raise children, deal with health issues or care for a sick relative, Carol Fishman Cohen assures her audience that new career opportunities are still out there.

Her TED Talk offers motivational success stories, advice on being a better job candidate, and some good news about internships for career “relaunchers”.

8. Dr Alan Watkins — Being brilliant every single day

You’ve probably had moments at work, like during an important speech or a meeting with your boss, when all your knowledge and training suddenly flew out the window and left you scrambling for your words.

Why do stressful situations render us incapable of even the simplest of tasks? Dr Alan Watkins has the answer, as well as an incredibly simple solution to regain control.

Part of the reason that TED Talks are so bingeable is the 20-minute limit, but neuroscience is a bit too complex to be so constrained. Thus, Watkins has been granted the exception of a two-parter video and, rest assured, the extra time is worth it.

9. Susan Colantuono — The career advice you probably didn’t get

The best TED Talks are the ones that reveal unexpectedly powerful truths, and this is one of those videos. Susan Colantuono wants us to know that there isn’t a lack of women leaders in business; it’s just that most women can’t move past middle management.

So, why can’t women who do excellent career planning and follow all the conventional career development advice make it to the top tier? The answer may surprise you.

10. Paul Tasner — How I became an entrepreneur at 66

When talking about professional development, motivational speakers continually return to the idea of finding something to be passionate about. Paul Tasner has taken that to heart, taking on two projects that are personally important to him: shunning retirement to become an entrepreneur in the field of eco-friendly products and serving as inspiration to others looking to start a business later in life.

11. Amy Cuddy — Your body language may shape who you are

Can your posture dictate the amount of successes or failures you will come up against in your life? Social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests that it can.

“Power posing”, or carrying yourself more confidently, doesn’t just have the power to change how other people perceive you; it can change how you perceive yourself, too. In this TED Talk, Cuddy provides insights into the relationship between nonverbals, self-esteem and success.

12. Larry Smith — Why you will fail to have a great career

Are you sabotaging your own career success with excuses? Larry Smith thinks you may be. Perhaps you’re not even realizing you’re doing it. Perhaps you think that others, who are successful, got to where they are because of luck, or some extraordinary ability, or lots of free time.

By listing all the things that we often tell ourselves that discourage us from taking action, Smith drives his message home: success has room for neither fear nor inactivity.

13. Bill Eckstrom — Why comfort will ruin your life

In 2008, Bill Eckstrom was laid off from his high-paying executive role. Although you would expect to hear how devastating it was for him (and it was), he instead gives a different spin to his story. Bill calls losing his job the best thing that ever happened to him.

Though stable, secure environments provide us with a feeling of safety, they also provide little challenges for us to grow, he realized. With the help of his team, Bill turned this “aha!” moment into a concept called the “Growth Rings”, which he expands on in this video.

14. Roselinde Torres — What it takes to be a great leader

Being a senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, Roselinde Torres has seen her fair share of approaches to leadership. Recognizing repeating patterns and gaps across countless different companies, she set out to uncover the characteristics of leaders who are thriving, to discover what sets them apart.

In this speech, she condenses everything she’s learned to form three vital questions that all aspiring company leaders must consider if they want to achieve great things.

15. David Epstein — How falling behind can get you ahead

While working as a science writer, David Epstein was fascinated to read about something called the “sampling period” and how it can increase people’s likelihood for standing out in fields such as music and sport.

Could the same thing be true for our education, he wondered? Could it be true for our careers? Well, that’s what the data shows. And Epstein wants to put the word out: “meandering” in life, or delaying specialization until after we’ve tried different things, can better our chances at success.

16. Emily Jaenson — Six behaviors to increase your confidence

How does a person go from being too shy to order pizza over the phone to becoming a keynote speaker and podcast host? In this TED Talk, Emily Jaenson details her personal experiences and the six confidence “hacks” that helped her overcome the fear that was getting in her way.

The six behaviors she shares are simple and can be adopted by anyone, anytime. Yet they’re powerful enough to help build a more powerful sense of self-esteem.

17. Angela Lee Duckworth — Grit: the power of passion and perseverance

At 27, Angela Lee Duckworth left a management consulting job to become a math teacher. It was during this career change that something unexpected sparked her curiosity: some of the brightest kids in her classes weren’t performing as well as she would have expected them to. So, she wondered, if intelligence isn’t an accurate predictor of doing well in a quiz, then what is?

Returning to school as a graduate student herself a few years later, Duckworth studied kids and adults in a wide variety of challenging settings to discover what truly determines success.

18. Kelly McGonigal — How to make stress your friend

In one of the most popular TED Talks of all time, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal makes a confession: one of the core messages she has been spreading may be doing more harm than good. The message is one we’ve all heard before — it goes: “stress is your enemy”.

But what if it’s our believing that stress is harmful that actually ends up making it so? Uh-oh! It looks like it may be time to find new ways to define our relationship with stress.

19. Chris Bailey — How to get your brain to focus

Both frustrated by and alarmed at how many hours of the day he spent looking at screens, Chris Bailey decided to go for a whole month without using his phone as an experiment. About a week in, he noticed some changes. He was focusing better, generating more ideas and coming up with more plans for the future.

After reading hundreds of research papers, conducting more experiments and meeting with experts who study focus, Bailey shares what he has learned about harnessing our attention and becoming more focused and creative.

20. Norman Bacal — Become the person you can't imagine

When Norman Bacal was 19, he received a bit of advice that, to this day, he wholeheartedly believes in. It is to treat your career as a boat ride down the river, making no effort to push against the current, but rather allowing the water to take you where it must.

Recounting his personal story, which is one of big successes and failures, Bacal explains why defeat is not an adversary and how anyone, at any age, can start over.

Final thoughts

If there’s one thing that we can take away from these inspiring TED Talks, it’s that success and growth come in endless shapes and sometimes at the most unexpected of times.

Another thing that becomes obvious when you’re a few videos in is that no human being is ever alone in what they’re experiencing. Failure, happiness, loss and success are all part of the human experience — and the good news is that there are measures we can take both to survive the disappointments and to change the course of our path for the better.

Which of these 20 TED Talks did you find the most inspiring? What new ideas did you gain on how to approach your professional life? Join the discussion below and share your thoughts!

Originally published on June 11, 2020. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.