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EPISODE # 399

Chris Anderson — Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading

Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading (book cover)

As head of TED, Chris Anderson has had a ringside view of the world’s boldest thinkers sharing their most uplifting ideas. Inspired by them, he believes that it’s within our grasp to turn outrage back into optimism. It all comes down to reimagining one of the most fundamental human virtues: generosity. What if generosity could become infectious generosity? Consider:

  • how a London barber began offering haircuts to people experiencing homelessness—and catalyzed a movement
  • how two anonymous donors gave $10,000 each to two hundred strangers and discovered that most recipients wanted to “pay it forward” with their own generous acts
  • how TED itself transformed from a niche annual summit into a global beacon of ideas by giving away talks online, allowing millions access to free learning.

In telling these inspiring stories, Anderson has given us “the first page-turner ever written about human generosity” (Elizabeth Dunn). More important, he offers a playbook for how to embark on our own generous acts—whether gifts of money, time, talent, connection, or kindness—and to prime them, thanks to the Internet, to have self-replicating, even world-changing, impact.

Chris Anderson has been the curator of TED since 2001. His TED mantra—“ideas worth spreading”—continues to blossom on an international scale. He lives in New York City and London but was born in a remote village in Pakistan and spent his early years in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where his parents worked as medical missionaries. After boarding school in Bath, England, he went on to Oxford University, graduating in 1978 with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. Chris then trained as a journalist, working in newspapers and radio, and founded Future Publishing that focused on specialist computer publications but eventually expanded into other areas such as cycling, music, video games, technology and design. He then built Imagine Media, publisher of Business 2.0 magazine and creator of the popular video game users website IGN, publishing some 150 magazines and websites and employed 2,000 people. This success allowed Chris’s nonprofit organization to acquire the TED Conference, then an annual meeting of luminaries in the fields of Technology, Entertainment and Design held in Monterey, California. He expanded the conference’s remit to cover all topics, and now has TED Fellows, the TED Prize, TEDx events, and the TED-Ed program offering free educational videos and tools to students and teachers. Astonishingly, TED talks have been translated into 100 languages and garner over 1 billion views a year. His new book is Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading.

Shermer and Anderson discuss:

  • how his life turned out (genes, environment, luck)
  • what makes TED successful while other platforms failed or stalled
  • TED talks go public for free vs. paying customers
  • power laws and giving: do 10% donate 90%?
  • Amanda Parker gave away her music and asked people to pay: survival bias—how many people have tried this and failed?
  • blogs, podcast, Substack … saturation markets
  • changing business landscape of charging vs. giving away
  • What makes things infectious?
  • What is generosity? Idea vs. character trait—virtue ethics
  • altruism and reciprocal altruism, reputation and self-reputation
  • religion and morality: do we need an “eye in the sky” to be good?
  • Can people be good without God?
  • philanthropy: 2700 billionaires have more wealth than 120 poorest countries combined
  • giving & philanthropy seems like a rich-person’s game. How can average people participate?
  • incentivizing giving as a selfish act: why “pay it forward”?
  • public vs. private solutions to social problems
  • How can one person make a difference?
  • The Mystery Experiment
  • Ndugu Effect
  • donor fatigue
  • Giving What We Can.

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This episode was released on January 23, 2024.

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