My TEDx Speech at Carnegie Mellon

Back in February, I was invited to speak at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for their TEDx event. I accepted for a few reasons: (1) I’d been interested in seeing how well my written content would translate to video; (2) it would be delivered in a room of 400 attendees, which would be the most people I’d ever spoken in front of; (3) it would be a fun challenge — I hadn’t done any real public speaking, which I genuinely enjoy, for more than three years; (4) it’s TED. Tough to say no to those guys.

After checking out the lineup of speakers (which included the inventor of CAPTCHA, a human rights activist in Zimbabwe, and a doctor who discovers and cures extremely rare diseases), I quickly gained some perspective on how incredible my contribution to humanity has been. And by “incredible,” I mean “trivial.” Don’t get me wrong — I’m proud of the things I’ve worked on; I just felt like a tee-baller who’d been asked to suit up for varsity. I mean, I wrote an e-book… That about sums it up.

So I decided that, instead of trying to sound smart, I should focus on being relatable. Just like a politician. [Sidenote: I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I have NEVER referred to myself as a “marketing genius.” Ever. I did not suggest that title.]

This strategy resulted in a speech that has lowered the bar for every future TEDx speaker. For instance…

Here are six phrases that (until now) you’ve never heard in a TED/TEDx speech, and will probably never hear again:

  1. “Scary as shit”
  2. “Douchebags wearing Ed Hardy shirts snatch up all the hotties”
  3. “Blog, blog, blog, dorky stuff, whatever”
  4. “Charlie Hoehn equals drunk abortion”
  5. “Bite me in the ass”
  6. “Protestors are funny”

In spite of all this, the speech has been well-received (thanks to this writeup on Lifehacker). And while my presentation was far from perfect — I get it, I pace around too much — it was still significantly better than when I first started rehearsing. I know this because I filmed and reviewed all of my practice runs.

For your amusement, I have compiled a two minute clip with some of the outtakes:

As you can see, I was still doing re-writes in my hotel room in Pittsburgh. I submitted my final presentation at about 2am, the day of the event.

A few other speeches at TEDxCMU were particularly memorable for me. To start: two friends of mine, Jenny Blake and Amber Rae, both spoke at this event. Their speeches were equally impressive for different reasons:

  1. Jenny’s keynote kept flicking off the screen the entire time she was presenting. It was ridiculously distracting for everyone in the audience, and even worse for her. Luckily, she had practiced a bunch without the use of her keynote, so she was able to successfully get through her whole speech without much help from a visual aid. She was also able to slide in some impromptu jokes about the whole situation that set everyone at ease. She wrote about her experience here (you can watch her speech here).
  2. Amber never practiced her goddamn speech. Not once. Not only that, it was her first time giving a speech to a big audience! This blew my mind, as she delivered it almost flawlessly (watch it here). I am incapable of this, and so are most other people. Do not try to pull off what she did. PRACTICE.

My favorite speech from the event came from Luis Von Ahn, the inventor of CAPTCHA. He discussed how he was able to turn this necessary-evil into something positive: a way to crowd-source the digitization of books. He also talked about his next project, DuoLingo, which will make language learning free and easily accessible for everyone. Really cool stuff, and definitely worth checking out. His speech can be watched here.

Overall, it was a really fun event and I’m very glad I went. The team of people who put everything together — James Pan, Todd Medema, Mia Wang, Matt Katase, Brian Rangell, Bin Yang, Heidi Yang, Jeesoo Sohn — all did a fantastic job. Thanks again, guys.


And I continue to enjoy my sweet parting gift:

Official TEDxCMU Flask

More photos from the event here.

What I left out of my speech

Near the end of my presentation, I said:

“And now there’s some bad news. America is in a tough time, and it’s going to get tougher. Honestly, we have to pay for our sins at some point. We can’t keep this up. And the economy is going to get worse. Jobs are going to be cut, jobs are going to be eliminated, jobs are going to be outsourced. It is a tough market for us.”

I originally planned on discussing this point at length, but ultimately decided to stick with a brief uplifting conclusion. In any case, here’s what I have to say about that…

In August of 2005, I was sitting on the carpet floor of my new apartment in Fort Collins, assembling my desk. I was entering my sophomore year of college, and was euphoric with the idea of creating three more years worth of fun memories with my friends. While I was putting in one of the screws, a quick thought randomly flashed into my mind: “You are going to die.” It seems funny typing it out now, but at the time, it truly shook me. Something I had known intuitively for 19 years had finally stuck, and it wouldn’t stop echoing through my head. Ironically, this moment of realizing my mortality while doing something so trivial is still far more vivid in my mind than so many of the great memories I made over those next three years. For the first time in my life, I understood that my years were limited, and everything would eventually come to an end.

A few months ago, I went through the same experience. Only this time, the thought was “America is going to collapse.” It was a notion I’d been reading about for years and one that I thought I’d come to grips with. Not the case. When that idea was fully realized, I had a tough time sleeping for weeks.

We are in a huge mess. To say “America is in a tough time, and it’s going to get tougher” is a severe understatement. The truth of the matter is this: our country is in for a very major kick in the teeth that’s going to last for decades. I am not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but anyone with a pulse can take a passing glance at the numbers and see that this fairy tale ride we’ve been on for the last 40 years is coming to an end. The recession of 2008 was merely a sign of bigger things to come.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. No one does. Globalization, the Federal Reserve, our banking system, etc. have all made things so ridiculously complex and intertwined that it’s impossible to say how the next few years will pan out. But I do believe we are witnessing the fall of this country, and a lot of what Americans know and hold dear is going to fundamentally change or evaporate. Our expectations for what our futures hold will eventually derail, and it will suck.

This is scary, depressing stuff. I know. It’s especially scary because the economy is not something you have any control over; you can only mitigate against potential risks. I wish I had answers for every graduate about to enter the work force. I don’t. There is no easy answer for all of this. The only advice I can sincerely offer is: read more books, and get off the path if you hate it, especially if you know it’s leading you nowhere.

But… there is good news, for all of you. I did mean what I said in my speech: As long as there are problems that need to be solved, there will always be work. And while the number of cushy no-value jobs will start to rapidly diminish (adios, social media experts!), the concept of doing real work will not.

You don’t have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life, but you do need to start working towards something. Free work is an easy way to start building a skill set that not only matters to you, but one that can actually deliver value to others. It is not about doling yourself out as a slave; it’s about offering help in exchange for priceless hands-on experience. Free work is a credo for advanced learning, and it’s one that I intend to practice for the rest of my life…

The way I put an end to my sleepless nights was quite simple, and it’s something I’ve continually returned to over the years. It alleviated my “You’re going to die” fixation, and it pulled me out of my “America is going to collapse” funk:

It’s just a ride.


Two final things… First, I did an hour long interview with Lewis Howes awhile back (full write-up at the link). It turned out well, so many thanks to Lewis for putting this together. And if you’ve ever dreamt of listening to me indulge myself for 57 minutes straight, you are in for a treat:

Second: My good friend, Jeff Waldman (who makes fun of me for only getting invited to speak at TEDx once — he’s been invited twice), recently spent a weekend hanging up 50 swings around the city of Los Angeles. He did this simply to inject a little spontaneous joy into people’s lives. The video he made about his experience is great (with over 190,000 views in less than two days) and it’s worth watching:

Jeff is currently raising money on Kickstarter for his next project: Swings in Bolivia. If you want to see more of this type of thing in the world, throw some money their way (even $5 helps). I’ve been friends with Jeff for about two years, and if there’s one thing I know about him, it’s this: the dude delivers. He will make this Bolivian swing project into something very cool. So check it out and help his cause.


To all my readers: Thank you again for the continued support. I don’t know what originally brought you here, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

By Charlie Hoehn

37 comments on “My TEDx Speech at Carnegie Mellon

  1. Meh, one time I uttered the phrase, “Post-birth abortions on stupid people” in a speech. This is why I now write almost every speech in its entirety, memorize it, THEN give that beast.

    Also, gotta love any smart people group that gives out alcoholic paraphernalia. Congrats!

  2. Its great to see a post from you again. I really enjoyed the speech and your interview with Lewis Howes.

    I completely agree with you about making sure to do real work. Only by adding real value will one feel a sense of accomplishment.

  3. Charlie your content is almost always worth reading, short and to the point, and not blasted out all the time. And thanks for introducing the other speakers, I’ll have to check them out.

    I hate to admit, but I agree with your negative outlook on the U.S. economy. IMO there’s serious downsizing or de-valuing of some kind coming, even if economist haven’t named it yet. (kinda like ‘stag-flation’ in the 70’s, the phenomenon and vocabulary didn’t even exist until it was well underway).

    So…my follow up question is:
    What kind of personal & career plans and actions are you taking as a result? (assuming the U.S. is facing some down right shitty decades) Any Neil Strauss-esq contingency plans? No clue yet?

    Keep up the good work, my RSS feed needs shit worth reading.

    • I’m still figuring out what the best moves will be over the next 10 years or so. I don’t know nearly enough to make any risky bets on the market yet, but I’ve been studying the global economy as much as possible. It’s crazy, scary stuff.

      And yes, I do have “Emergency” with me out here in SF. It’s strange in that it’s both useful (lots of great info) and deflating (makes you feel kind of helpless).

  4. So I was beyond stoked when i saw your new blog post FINALLY show up in my email stream. Half way though was like I’m an asshole if I write one more blog post anything less than the quality of yours. Then by the end I wanted to kill myself. haha! Please America don’t fall. That shit keeps me up at night too.

    I co produced TEDxHollywood a few years ago, Was an incredible experience. Really cool of you to include your out takes. Don’t think I would have had the guts. Amber’s talk was WOW. And was super cool to see Jenny on here. I had the chance to interview her for my SXSW Success series this year. Really great talk. Thanks for taking the time to write again to share your stories.

  5. Charlie, truly excellent speech at TEDxCMU! I loved your book about becoming recession proof when I first came across it via Ramit, and it translates well here. Great video, and great follow-up content as you go into further detail here as well. Love that insight from Bill Hicks! It was a pleasure to finally meet you in person in SF and hope to run into you again one of these days somewhere on our little planet. :)

  6. Charlie, when I heard your speech for the first time, I really thought you were a seasoned pro. I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have guessed it would have turned out so smoothly if I saw your rehearsal footage first. Loved the speech.

  7. Nicely done, Charlie. Great topic and great presentation. I actually like the excessive pacing and such, because it made you more humble and “real” than someone else who might be more polished. Keep up your good work!

  8. Yo yo! Charlie Hoehn, you never cease to entertain, inform and deliver deadpan side-splitting humor!! It was an honor to share the stage with you in Pittsburgh — I was laughing out loud many times while reading this post, but probably most at the six “quote” teasers about why they should watch your TEDx talk.


    When I’m back in the Bay I’d love to catch up…moving to NYC in September!

    • When are you coming back to SF? Nice work on Seth promoting your spreadsheet. Now you get to be a self-publishing consultant for the next five years! YAY!

  9. Awesome presentation Charlie. Maybe we should add “Genius Presenter” to the list.

    I stand by the genius marketer title. You are judged by your accomplishments, not your education or job. You have done amazing work and you are only getting started.

  10. Well done again my friend! Wow really impressed. I actually had a couple of similar thoughts in recent weeks.

  11. Great job Charlie. I remember you talking about this late last year. Congrats on following through and excellent work. Hope to see you on the stage again soon.

  12. It was so cool to see 1) how terrible the practicing was! and 2) how great the speech was.
    But my theory is, I think the key was in the practice compilation – the kind of self conscious intelligence (no, don’t say that, when you automatically thought about your audience and speech purpose) that led to a great speech.
    You know what’s also cool? Not posting for months but still having so many subscribers and readers keeping up with it anyway!

    • Thanks, Adam. I’ve found that posting infrequently actually HELPS me. People are genuinely happy when a new post pops up, and it’s way more sustainable for me. I don’t know why more blogs aren’t doing the same thing.

  13. Charlie, I am so very impressed with your speech not because of the fact that it was for TEDx or directed at all of these incredibly intelligent students at Carnegie Mellon. But because you, yourself, are a student of life and more importantly you may not recognize this but your a naturally born teacher. A new age teacher who understands that we evolve as individuals and as a greater society. It’s great to see a person who is relatable and young breathe new life into our ‘traditional’ ways of thinking.

    I find that very admirable because a lot of us are afraid to break-away from the norm and attempt a new way of thinking and living. And it’s usually people like yourself who push everyone else to understand how each one of us has great potential and abilities. Keep up the great work and speeches. I’m excited to see what you will come up of next. : )

  14. Great speech Charlie! I’m a textbook case of how effective your strategies are – since graduating in 2010 and having zero luck in the job market, then reading your book, I’ve worked directly with the founder of a startup social enterprise and a team of UPenn grad students, got to lead a three-month pilot project for the company on the ground in Kenya on my own, and got an offer to be the first full-time hire at another startup in pittsburgh. i feel like i’ve skipped ahead by ten years compared to what it would’ve taken me to get to my dream career on the traditional path – and it all started with free work that I did as my “plan B.” For real, more kids out of college need to hear what you’ve got to say.

    Cheers, and many thanks for your work,

  15. Thank you for posting this speech. It is brilliant. Even more impressive is that you figured this out in your early twenties what I didn’t figure out until my thirties.

    The final box I decided to check was an MBA at a latter than average age. At graduation, after checking my final box, I realized it wasn’t those boxes would or had contributed to my success or happiness. There will be no more box checking for me.

    Toward the end of your talk, you mention that the boxes are not yours, but somoene elses. That is so true, and rarely do the people that create those boxes have your best interest at heart. Their intentions are often malous to control you, or as you eluded to, simply out of ignorance or saving face for their own past decisions.

    One question about your talk. I saw the prep video. Did you script it word for word on paper first, and then talk it out loud to prepare, or did you just talk and then create an outline as it appeared in the video?

    I pace too much when I present, especially if I’m a bit nervous. But I didn’t notice you doing it until you mentioned it.

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  17. Charlie,

    Just watched it this evening after I saw it tweeted on facebook. Awesome job. All the small self critiques you gave of yourself are easily fixable and you are young anyway. The concepts you brought up are right on point and really permeate all the way down to the elementary and high school level. Great points. As always you are the man!

  18. Hey Charlie

    Thanks for making this, I’ve just used it on my blog as an example of how to get what you want in life – love that it’s practical and actionable.

    I keep reminding myself that it’s possible to work with great people (like Tim & Ramit) and all I need to do is step up and do what needs to be done.

    You inspire me.


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  20. Charlie my man!
    Good to see you updating as often as ever haha. Nah, hope you are well mate.
    The swings were totally cool. Bet you were fully stoked to get the hip flask for your efforts. Hope you got a chance to have a few pulls on it over the cold colorado winter.

  21. Charlie, good post and exciting about TED.
    I’ve thought about this notion of America as we know it collapsing, and have come to the conclusion that it may not be a bad thing in the end. The move towards a less-entitled group of Americans who are actually doing real work will be a painful process, no doubt, but one that to me seems worth the pain.

    Looking forward to more good stuff in the future.

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  23. Nice kick-in-the-pants presentation at TED, my sis forwarded it to me and she’s a tough curator of content, so take that as a compliment :)

    Re: Lewis Howes interview
    Your post on Tim’s blog about how you guys marketed the 4-hour body gave me a ton of great ideas for my own projects, so being convinced to watch your hour-long interview was an easy sell.

    A thought about the action pts in Tim’s books: I agree that this sets them apart from the crowd, but I don’t think of it as removing the guesswork entirely. Where I’ve found them incredibly valuable is giving you place to start and propelling you to take that first step, which is the hardest part. Some of the tools I now use every day (eg. Evernote), some I’ve abandoned, but the important thing is that it wasn’t for lack of trying.

    Also – would love to know those 2 pieces of advice Tim gave your before your TED speech – I don’t think you actually mentioned them. But if they’re secret Tim Ferriss jedi mind tricks, I understand haha

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  26. Loved your talk! It really inspired me to continue searching and gave me hope that I will find what I love, being a recent graduate. Thanks for that.

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