In his classic Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote one of his most famous lines: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
TED is anchored by the belief that brilliance is a public good — that inspiration, intellectualism, passion and the wonder of discovery are gifts that everyone should share and participate in. Just as important, however, is its affirmation that smart is not the domain of one or two or even three disciplines, but comes in all shapes and sizes and often from unexpected places. The enlightened mind does not, to paraphrase Twain, vegetate in one little field or industry of the earth all its lifetime.
We live in a moment when the awesome power of technology and the pressure of global competitiveness have focused our attention on the importance of hard disciplines. Our politicians push for emphasis on math and science in classrooms. If these improvements are essential, however, the conversation around them risks drowning out the all-important message that the world is beautiful because of the diversity of passion in it — that alongside engineers we need oboe players, and that for all of our artificial intelligence, we need choreographers who remind us how majestic human creation is all by itself.
From its origins as the conference for “technology, entertainment and design,” TED has grown into a bastion for multidisciplinary spectacle. The stage is not just full of mind-blowing science (although that’s there), but musical performances, meditations on society and monumental efforts toward social change. But no matter how good the show is, there is no place that demonstrates the spectrum of brilliance from which TED draws better than its Fellows program.
The TED Fellows program started as an experiment at TEDAfrica in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2007, and was so successful that by 2009 it had become a formal part of the TED Long Beach and TEDGlobal events. In the years since, the Fellows have come from many disciplines and many walks of life. There are musicians, artists, engineers, social entrepreneurs, internetInternet gurus, political activists and more. They’re all accomplished, but still at the beginning of their full potential. Almost all of them try to use what they’re good at to make the world a better place.
In this they’re not only emblematic of the spirit of TED but actively propelling it forward. As the organization focuses more and more on moving the ideas that it has so long celebrated into action, the TED Fellows have become a rallying point for an entire community.
Applications to be a fellow at the 2012 TED main event in Long Beach are open now. Accolades and conferences aside, the most powerful part of the experience for Fellows is that they discover a community of peers that is, by definition, of extraordinary diversity and capacity. If you’re a person who draws inspiration not from vegetating in little corners but by uncovering all the insight you can find, apply now.
Nathaniel Whittemore is an entrepreneur in San Francisco building tools for better connections, as well as a writer who has written for publications including Inc., Fast Company and Change.org. He’s a passionate TEDster who collaborated with the TED staff to put on TEDxVolcano in London in 2010, the world’s first flash conference.