Joy Sun

Guest Post: Observations and Reflections from a TED 2009 Fellow

“Being overwhelmed is the first step to understanding something complex at a scale that matters.” If Liz Coleman is right, then I spent most of my five days at the TED conference earlier this month taking more first steps, in more directions, than I can count. Liz, President of Bennington College, spoke on the final day, when I was determinedly searching for a way to conquer the feeling of being utterly overwhelmed that had grabbed me from the moment the first session began and didn’t let go all week. As she spoke, I realized how misguided I had been.

I attended the TED conference this year as a Fellow, a new program the organization has launched to “help world-changing innovators from around the globe become part of the TED community and, with its help, amplify the impact of their remarkable projects and activities.” At first, I wasn’t sure how I would fit into the group of 40 fellows or 1,300 attendees, not having any particular expertise around technology, entertainment or design (at least not as traditionally conceived).

I quickly realized that TED encompasses much more than what the acronym conveys. It is a community that values and spreads the full spectrum of innovative ideas, believing in the power of those ideas to change attitudes, lives, the world. This belief is at the heart of what drives me and, I suspect, many others who aim to make a tangible impact on the lives of the poor. And for those of us who are doing this by bridging the traditional divide between development and enterprise, it is precisely at the intersection of seemingly disparate ideas, disciplines, perspectives and sectors where we will find the greatest opportunities to innovate and shift paradigms.

As a Fellow, the experience of attending the conference was not only about getting an inside peek at the latest and greatest from the tech world (check out this demo), or meeting and sharing ideas with innovative, passionate, driven people–though it was certainly both of those things. It was also about becoming a more effective leader, through observation, reflection and, most importantly, practice. Observation of both what people said and how they said it. Reflection upon what motivated each speaker to train her mind on a particular subject until she could see it in a truly novel way and do something about it. Practice on how to articulate my own ideas and goals with honesty, creativity and passion–and how to make people really connect and listen, be it a packed room or an audience of one.

We practiced this from day one, when we presented our ideas to our fellow Fellows in three-minute, filmed talks and received a crash course on high-impact presentations from Duarte Design (the gurus behind Al Gore’s stunning slideshows). Some of these may end up on and when they do, look for Jen Brea’s surprisingly personal take on global trade through the story of Miriam, who imports schoolchildren’s backpacks into Uganda from China; what former Marine officer Rye Barcott learned while giving away stuffed animals to children in Iraq; and how mangaka Sara Mayhew conjures and tells stories through a Japanese art form, from her home in Canada.

The best practice, though, happened throughout the week as we met and engaged with other attendees who were interested in learning more about the forty of us who had been chosen to inaugurate the Fellows program. This happened while refueling with coffee between talks, queuing to reenter the main theater for the eagerly-anticipated “Discover” session, listening to the sublime Eric Lewis play the piano in the hotel lobby wayyy too late into the night, and for some, presenting at TED University. These moments were just beginnings, and I can’t wait to see how they unfold for each Fellow over the coming months and years.

Watching the main speakers reinforced the importance of getting our ideas out in the world, using the full power of our intellect, voices and passion. But it was by enabling us to interact with each other and the rest of the TED community that TED deepened our commitment and elevated our ability to actually do it. Even as we pursue incredibly diverse passions, we all share the desire to change the way people think and act about something. There were a surprising number of talks focused on international development, including Louis Fresco’s talk on global agriculture and access to food, and Hans Rosling’s update on the AIDS epidemic. But it was the talks that didn’t explicitly take on development which challenged and deepened my thinking about this issue the most.

Renowned photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand spoke against a backdrop of his vibrant images from his 6 Billion Others project, reminding us: “We don’t want to believe what we know.” Seth Godin urged us how to apply business marketing to social change: rather than try to persuade people to want something, tap into an existing yearning and bring those people together. Jacek Utko told us that what drove him to produce his best design thinking, even for the smallest newspaper in eastern Europe, was a commitment to always “put your work on the world’s highest level.” As we absorbed and discussed these messages with each other each day, we not only developed a more nuanced and intense perspective on the change we seek to bring about in the world–we forged the connections of people, ideas and energy that will help us do it.

Moving forward, the program is targeting applicants between the ages of 21-40, from five target regions: Africa, Asia/Pacific, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East. The most important qualification? To be an “unconventional innovator.” I suspect many readers of fit this bill, and I encourage you to consider this remarkable, transformative opportunity to spread your ideas, speak your voice, and intensify the momentum and energy behind what it is you are doing to tackle the challenges of poverty, wherever in the world you may be.

More information on how to apply or nominate someone can be found here.