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5 traits we look for in TED Fellows

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The TED Fellows program celebrates its 10-year anniversary at TED2019: Bigger Than Us on April 15, 2019. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Every year, TED opens applications for its new group of TED Fellows. We get thousands of applications from all corners of the world, representing every field under the sun — musical theater, electric aviation, landscape architecture, quantum computing. How do we select just 20 people to become part of the new class TED Fellows?

It’s not an easy process. (Our acceptance rate is less than one percent.) But we love reading applications and hearing about the latest medical breakthroughs, ambitious art projects and incredible explorations into outer space and under the sea. Reading these applications reminds us just how many extraordinary people are doing extraordinary work, every day.

What exactly makes for a good application? Here are five traits that we look for in a TED Fellow. 

A track record of achievement. In order to be selected, you have to be doing something that has created a positive impact in the world. What does that “something” look like? It depends. Maybe you’ve started a company or invented a new product. Maybe you’ve made a groundbreaking film or discovered a new galaxy. Whatever you’re doing, you should be deep in your craft, building something big. Successful applicants show us clearly what they’ve done so far, and what they want to accomplish.

Individuals on the cusp of a big break. Beyond a track record, we look for people who are ready to make a giant leap forward and could benefit from the kind of support TED can provide. Fellows are often in the early stages of their careers, but we also know that big breaks can happen at any age (though you must be at least 18 years old to apply). What that scale looks like depends on the project, but we select Fellows whose ambitions are big.

Originality and authenticity. An original “idea worth spreading” is the key to a successful Fellows applicant. Maybe you’re working to make a current system more efficient or equitable. Or maybe you’re working across fields, challenging the underlying assumptions of our current systems and creating brand-new ones. Sometimes we select Fellows whose work is just getting off the ground — but whose vision of the future is so imaginative and convincing that we know TED’s support can help them realize that future.

Kind, collaborative character. The TED Fellows program now encompasses more than 500 Fellows in more than 100 countries. We’re looking for people who want to engage deeply in this amazing network — build companies together, start nonprofits, share research and support one another. Often, TED Fellows are engaging deeply with the communities around them, perhaps in the places where they were born or raised. In our experience, some of the best and most overlooked ideas for our contemporary global challenges come from those whose lives depend on the solutions.

The truth is, we don’t always know what we’re looking for. Often, applicants totally surprise and challenge us with brand-new ways of thinking about the world: from the music of sign language to mental health first aid to discovering new types of galaxies. There really is no secret formula to becoming a TED Fellow — some come from rigorous academic backgrounds, and some have no formal educational training but alternative life experiences that have greatly deepened their craft. If you’re unsure about applying, do it anyway. Many TED Fellows have applied multiple times before being selected.

Apply online until June 30, 2021 at 11:59pm UTC, and spread the word to all the outstanding innovators you know.