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What makes a TED Fellow? Tom Rielly tells all

TEDFellows Retreat 2013. August 17 - 21, 2013, Whistler, BC. Photo: Ryan Lash

Twice a year, we select 20 unconventional change-makers to join the TED Fellows program, a global network of innovators from a wide spectrum of disciplines. Last year’s TED Fellows class included an eye surgeon using low-cost mobile phone technology to make eye care more accessible across Kenya; photojournalists documenting conflicts in Palestine and Bosnia; a biological anthropologist researching cancer in ancient skeletal remains; a biomechatronics engineer making prosthetics more comfortable; a journalist investigating fragile post-9/11 civil liberties; an astrophysicist investigating the origins of our universe — and many more.

Are you thinking about applying to be a TEDGlobal 2014 Fellow? You’ve got an extra week to get your application in — the deadline is extended through Friday, April 25. In this final stretch, we asked program director Tom Rielly: “What do you look for in a TED Fellow?” Here, he lists the qualities that make TED Fellows stand out, his evolving vision for the Fellowship program, and why you (yes, you) should apply immediately.

The TED Fellows come from a zillion different backgrounds and are experts in a vast array of fields. Yet they all seem to have a personality streak that lets them interact with an almost kinetic energy, on an emotional as well as intellectual level. It’s hard to put into words—how would you describe this quality?

I’ll take a stab at it: intellectual, energetic, social and emotional fluency. Pick at least two or three. Add a porous-membrane attitude to collaboration, genuine optimism and a love for playing idea-jazz alone and in bands.

Twice a year, you go through applications from hundreds of extraordinary people. Give us the scoop: what are the initial factors that tell you someone will make it through the process? What are some of the deciding factors as you home in on the final set?

Succinctly put, we’re looking for achievement and character — that is, amazing people who’ve made major breakthroughs or have achieved outstanding output. But that’s not enough. We’re looking for certain kinds of people with strong character. Kind, genuine, generous, plus a certain je ne sais quoi. Quirky is just fine. We’re interested in people in the first half of their careers, usually between the ages of 21 and 45.

Towards the end of the process, we are curating a class of 20 Fellows. Can we create a group that is geographically diverse, from diverse disciplines, with complementary personalities? Think of it as putting together a college class. You want athletes, actors, engineers and so on. The mix is very important.

Has it become any easier to identify what kind of person you want as a Fellow over the past several years and 300+ Fellows?

Without question, it’s easier. We’ve evaluated thousands of submissions, and by trial and error, we’ve learned what makes a stellar Fellow and correlated these qualities to their applications. We look at every application submitted, but it’s nearly at the point to where I can glance at an application and know when I’m excited to read further.

How has your vision for the Fellowship changed from 2009 to now? What is your ambition for the Fellows?

When we started the program, our vision was to bring extraordinary young people to the TED community, people who could not otherwise afford to participate. Today, it’s clear that the program’s largest value is the other Fellows. So we now think about the Fellows as a powerful network, where each node can profoundly influence each other node, and the group as a whole functions kind of like a supercomputer. We haven’t lost our focus on the amazing individuality of each Fellow, but now we look at each person in the context of a robust group that collaborates, communicates and achieves things together across disciplines, in a way they never could have alone. Don’t worry, it’s not the Borg. It’s just that each individual in a strong community benefits from that community.

The good kind of ambition is about striving toward a difficult goal. Our goal is that each of our Fellows and the group can use the Fellows program as a platform to reach seemingly impossible goals. Our focus is on the Fellows and their growth, not on the program per se.

A lot of Fellows speak of having felt lonely and isolated in their work before joining the Felllowship. While passionate about what they do, they weren’t convinced that anyone out there cared. Given this, many incredibly talented folks out there might be talking themselves out of applying for TED Fellows. What would you say to them?

It’s true — many Fellows are such mavericks they have not yet been recognized by their peers or received much validation for their work. That is one of the most amazing things about the Fellows program: it’s an instant peer group of people who understand and value you, who understand what it’s like to be on the bleeding edge, who appreciate unusual things. The Fellowship experience is transformative for so many Fellows.

If I can convey only one message in this whole conversation it’s this: If in doubt about whether you should apply, apply anyway. We hear frequently of people who haven’t clicked on the link because they don’t think they’re good enough, strong enough, haven’t done enough. But some we’ve heard about and encouraged to apply have been accepted. If you’re not sure, apply! It’s free to apply, and only good could come of it. This is not the time to let doubt, loneliness, self-esteem issues or anything else keep you from a great opportunity. Applying is free! As they would say in a late-night American infomercial: Don’t wait – act now!

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