Zooming In: Reflecting on the power of focus at TEDxSydney

Alyssa O’Brien

TEDxSydney Spring 2018 Pitch Night · 25 September 2018

In her powerful talk at TEDxSydney Pitch Night, Liana Downey opened with a stunning line: ‘People who focus change lives’.

As I listened in the audience, my mind drifted back to those times when I took on too many work challenges, community commitments or even social obligations. As a proud multi-tasker, I loved juggling simultaneous activities. But what was the price for this lack of focus? My first experience with TEDxSydney opened my eyes not only to the consequences of our socially accepted busy lives, but also to the humanitarian benefit of focus.

Downey shared the story of a person who dared to tackle smallpox by convincing the World Health Organisation to focus on one goal only: ‘to eradicate smallpox in just ten years’.


What does smallpox have to do with our wellbeing in Australia today, especially in the often frantic urban pace of Sydney or Melbourne? Downey made the bridge by presenting fascinating research from Harvard: the more goals people take on, the less like they are to achieve any of them. Similar research emerged from Stanford a few years ago from the lab of Professor Clifford Nass. For both optimum productivity and optimum health, focus is the new best practice.

What I love about TED is the applicability of ideas across professions, industries and even life experiences. Downing asked the audience, ‘What is your spine-tingling idea’?  She encouraged the audience to embrace the challenge of focus.


TED itself demonstrates the power of focusing on a single great idea. While TED is known for ‘ideas worth spreading’, I was struck by the sharp concentration on one idea in each of the TEDxSydney pitches that night in the Opera House. Each presenter shared his or her idea with passion and conviction. Perhaps that’s why they were so memorable—and so promising to change lives.


The winner of the People’s Choice award on Pitch Night was Laura Doonin, who made a point to emphasise that she was zooming in on a possible solution to gender inequality in the workplace: ‘How to solve the leadership gap?’ she asked. ‘I have one idea: get more men into group fitness classes.’


I believe Doonin rightly won the People’s Choice award because of her lively presentation style, humour and playful performance. She even made sure that the audience knew her accent was ‘Scottish, not Irish’ – and I jokingly introduced myself to her later as ‘Irish, not Scottish’. Yet the power of her pitch was actually in its focus on a single idea that the audience could grasp, acknowledge and remember for the future. The crispness of her talk and the clearly itemised points in support of her one idea made her proposal seem sound, feasible and like a lot of fun. ‘People who focus change lives’. I think Doonin’s focus will go a long way to inspiring others to come up with imaginative solutions to gender inequalities in work and in life.


The single idea of educator Max Agapitos was that primary schools in Australia should be taught by specialists, teachers who focus on their areas of expertise, rather than by generalists. His proposed change to the educational model would allow primary school students to benefit from the focus of teachers in two ways: first, by developing an in-depth understanding for what the specialists know, and second, by helping students discover a passion for the focused process of learning. As an educator myself by profession, I found his idea compelling. Why not offer primary students a series of classes led by experts who might serve as role models for young learners? How might focus improve the mindset of youth to shape the ideas of the future, whether in the arts, technology, design, governance or the world of work?


As CEO of BenchOn, Tim Walmsley focused on the world of work. He shared his mindset-changing idea for how companies might see their staff not as financial liabilities, but instead as ‘investable assets’. He made an economic argument for ways in which companies could profit from temporarily reallocating executives to other organisations rather than layoff staff. But behind his financial calculations was the undeniable human factor: how to reduce the devastating toll of cuts, layoffs and retrenchments. The humane vision of his single idea reminded me of the work that university unions do in the fight against retrenchment of casuals during budget cuts. For at the heart of his idea was a focus on people: on their lives and well-being.

Liana Downey was right that ‘people who focus change lives’. That’s one idea I’ll never forget from TEDxSydney Pitch Night 2018.


SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 2018: Pitch Night during TEDxSydney at The Sydney Opera House on September 25, 2018. (Photo by Jennifer Polixenni Brankin) @polixenni

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