TED on the Run

How a conference copes with success—and brickbats.

  1. A 13-year-old Maasai who wired up a novel electrical system to discourage lions from attacking his Kenyan village’s cattle. Two teenage girls from Vancouver who sought out river bacteria that can biodegrade plastic trashbags. A 10-year-old banjo virtuoso who makes Earl Scruggs sound sluggish. A 15-year-old who used carbon nanotubes to produce a dead-accurate, non-invasive test for pancreatic cancer that is 28 times faster, and 28 times less expensive than current tests. A scientist who designed a safe, low-cost nuclear power plant, and plans to produce these around the world — after he finishes high school.

    The TED Conference — the high-mental-octane annual conclave whose goal is to foment “ideas worth spreading” — has a soft spot for inspiration, and this year its theme of “The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered.” provided an excuse to unleash a phalanx of uplifting prodigies among a roster of over 80 presenters. But what of those who somehow reach their twenties with no venture capital funding, MacArthur grants, or record deals? Clinical psychologist Meg Jay had some alarming news for those youngsters. One’s twenties are utterly defining, she told the TED audience — and if you don’t get yourself together by the end of that decade, you’re pretty much doomed.

    Ironically, it is TED itself that’s about to wrap up its twenties. The operation turns 30 next year. But Meg Jay would probably approve of TED’s life choices so far. It began the decade as a relatively cloistered gather...

Originally published in Wired, March 2013