Untangling the Lessons Learned at WDS 2012

Ah, the World Domination Summit.

Such an awkward name for what remains an incredibly un-awkward event. In kicking off this year’s conference, Chris Guillebeau joked about the fallout from choosing to name his summit in this way. Not only was there another WDS event using the same hashtag on the same weekend (the World Discipleship Summit in San Antonio) but people wrote on the Facebook group for the event that they were pulled aside for extra searches at the airport upon noting that they were headed to Portland for a domination meetup.

“So…you’re wearing leather onstage?” my brother quipped when I breathlessly announced that I was keynoting at WDS 2011.

“No” I said, shaking my head in what would be the first of many explanations to non-attendees “it’s not that kind of domination summit.”

 * * *

Really, WDS is unlike any other gathering I’ve attended.

WDS 2012 Newmark Theatre
Bird’s eye view of WDS 2012, (c) Armosa Studios

For example, you know it’s not your usual gathering when 20 minutes before the afternoon session is set to begin, people are already lined up outside the workshop rooms, waiting to be let in. I can’t think of any other conference I’ve been to where people would enthusiastically give up their lunch break to stand and lean against a wall in anticipation of an afternoon workshop.

The weekend kicked off with a sprawling opening party, replete with sumo wrestler suits, ping-pong tables outside the venue, “dunk-a-blogger” booth and food carts parked on both sides of the street. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the conference based on the over-the-top alternativeness of its opening night, or its outward-facing photos or vernacular.

Many of its attendees do act on their goals and are working on really fascinating projects aimed at helping others. The event cannot be classified into strict categories because so much of its value lies in the diversity of the speakers and workshops, spanning everything from charitable giving to fitness to psychology to storytelling to book writing. It also lies in the value of its attendees who ranged in age between 20 and 60, from 20 countries around the world. Participants represented a dizzying cross-section of people, all lucky enough to have lives that allowed them to travel to PDX and participate in WDS. (I don’t for a moment discount the privilege inherent in talking about an event of this sort – there’s no question that everyone who got here was fortunate enough to be born into and/or build themselves a life that allowed for it.)

The strength of WDS lies in the aggregate of its very tangible parts, and in the fierce desire to learn from others and by hearing their stories. Of course, it also requires that none of us take ourselves too seriously. Understandably, I can’t see a conference of lawyers doing this:

Sumo wrestling at opening party for WDS. (c) Armosa Studios 2012

So What is WDS?

At 1000 people, WDS 2012 is too large to be an “unconference” but really that’s the best characterization I can use as an umbrella term. A giant unconference built upon the pillars of community, service and adventure, one that encourages its attendees to ask the question posted by founder Guillebeau:

How do you live a remarkable life in an unconventional world?

The answers varied depending on the attendees, and the suggestions and notations varied depending on the keynote. There’s nothing congruous about each of the main stage speakers other than the general themes they’ve espoused; overall each speaker tackled those themes in different ways, seen through the lens of their own life stories and choices.

Across the board, however, similar themes did percolate to the surface, even if they were told in different ways. Namely that it takes hard work, there are no easy answers or shortcuts, and you must be comfortable with fear and the unknown to live life on your own terms. Nothing about this is new, but it was a relief to hear it again because many people thought the conference would be a fuzzy “you can do it” style of entitled self-help. As this screenshot from JD Roth notes, that fear was very real:

One person’s expectations of WDS. Photo courtesy of JD Roth.

It wasn’t full of BS last year, and at double the size, it wasn’t this year either. Instead, WDS used the tools of each speaker’s expertise, supplemented by the many (this year there were 80) workshops to get its messages across.  No one is saying their way is the right way, but merely that they hoped their lessons learned and their calls to action would resonate, inspire and make the audience want to go out and make the world suck less.

I’ve highlighted some of the lessons and talks that lingered most with me, but they are by no means an exhaustive refection of the weekend.

A full theatre for WDS 2012. (c) Armosa Studios 2012

On Vulnerability and Gratitude

Brene Brown opened the conference with an anchor keynote about vulnerability, joy and gratitude. The opening salvo of words was a startling one: your capacity for love cannot exceed your willingness to be brokenhearted and vulnerable. Instead of making her keynote about love and loss, however, she used this statement as a springboard for a series of other lessons learned, divulging more about her own struggles than she needed to in an effort to bring us all in. Among her lessons:

1. Gratitude and Joy > Scarcity: We live in a culture of “never enough” and there is only one way out of that scarcity. Contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t abundance. Abundance doesn’t fix the problem of scarcity, and it doesn’t satisfy. Instead, the way out is “enoughness” – at some point, we all have to just say enough. What I’m doing is enough, what I’ve done is enough. So how does one get to “enough”? Per Brown, through gratitude. She characterized joy as one of the hardest emotions to embrace, because oftentimes we start wondering what will go wrong, when the other shoe will drop. In her words:

When we lose the capacity for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. You say to yourself “you can’t blindside me, vulnerability”. But it doesn’t work that way. It just squanders joy. There is no emotion harder to feel than joy because we’re afraid it’s going to be taken away. And the only way out of these anxious moments is to say to ourselves – time to practice gratitude.

I’ve certainly found myself worrying both generally and specifically. I wrote about this in the Things that Travel Doesn’t Fix, about how my brain was trained to sweat the small stuff, and unlearning this has been a struggle. I found Brown’s point really hit home as a result.

2. Creativity > Comparison: Creativity is there whether we use it or not, and the most important takeaway for me was the reminder that unused creativity isn’t benign, but rather converted into negativity. Instead of eking away, it often turns into anger or grief or resentment and jealousy. We are often taught around Grade 4 or 5 that creativity is not the answer (“why did you draw a 5-headed horse?” was her example of a teacher to a child in art class). Or, put differently:

When we start comparing how we create to others – even the process of creating –  we lose.

3. Getting to Vulnerable is the Hardest Part: Taking the risk to be vulnerable isn’t easy when the currency of measurement in our world is often how effectively you fit in to others’ expectations of you. Brown talked about the differences between fitting in and belonging (“belonging is different because when you don’t belong, shame does not result. But when you do, you are part of a group that really believes in something”), and about how the best way to be more comfortable with criticism is to put your head down and keep creating, keep contributing. Her overall message rang throughout, that to admit vulnerability is courage, that who you are will always trump who you think people want you to be.

This message threaded consistently within most of the keynotes: being comfortable in your own skin is a more powerful weapon against those who doubt you than you will ever realize.

Brene Brown anchor keynote at WDS 2012
Brene Brown anchor keynote at WDS 2012. (c) Armosa Studios 2012

On Fear and Confidence

Chris Brogan spoke after Brene, and spoke about fear, confidence and finding your “inner” superhero. I have to admit that reading Brogan’s work over the years, I didn’t connect with it very well. However his speech not only had everyone giving him a standing ovation, but proved to be an honest evaluation of his own life choices, and his mistakes. I really enjoyed it.

He opened up the keynote thusly:

The opposite of fear is not courage. Fear is part of courage. They are the mac and cheese of the world. Instead, fear is being willing to do stupid shit onstage.

From there, he launched into a series of lessons learned from superheros – what they do, how they are manifested in our world and what they mean.

Ceiling of the Newmark Theatre in Portland
Ceiling of the Newmark Theatre in Portland for WDS 2012

A sampler:

1. We need to learn to untangle from other people’s scripts: someone’s disappointment in you is often not about you, but you not acting in accordance with their expectations of you. We also need to untangle praise, not just disappointment – both are a manifestation of the other person’s reflections and often not of true value. His advice was to say thank you to both praise and disappointment, but to focus on making yourself better as a person outside of them.

2. Don’t settle. No one will be able to tell you what that means – everyone’s answers are different – but settling for less than you want is not the answer. To define what you want in life, Brogan suggested figuring out what you want to do to make the world better and what you want to mean to people. He illustrated this with superhero examples, but the general sentiment was to define the function of your life – i.e. not who you ‘say’ you are but what you are actually doing. What you say you are doing is not a lasting legacy. (This was reiterated in JD Roth’s great closing keynote, talking about how you first have to work on your own qualities and improve them before you can work to change the world.)

3. Embrace your weirdness: The weirder you are, the more successful you can be, per Brogan. Articulating a sense of responsibility, vulnerability and tenacity through strangeness goes a very long way. Understanding that we do not like people who are full of themselves is part of it, but the other part is the notion that you have to earn your following (not just expect it to appear or be rewarded to you) and embracing the quirky qualities that make you “you” is a good way to do so.

There Are No Shortcuts to Leveraging your Value

Both Chris Brogan and Cal Newport talked about the need for hard work, and in a world where some people expect the answers to appear without hard research and introspection, this was a refreshing message. (I  often get emails asking how to build a community of readers, to which I usually reply “write from the heart, care about everything you put online because it speaks to how people will see you and remember to give back, both to the world generally and to those who pay attention to your site”. The response to that is often “So…should I buy followers, or should I game site x’s algorithm?” No, you should not. Say no to shortcuts, say yes to efficiency.)

Newport’s characterization was slightly more technical:

You need to persist in the effort to get good at something. Sitting down in advance to figure out what you’re passionate about and then being disappointed when you try it and it doesn’t work out is a tragic mistake. Instead of following your passion, pick something that interests you and is going to give you interesting options, build it into a craft with hard work and then once you are skilled in that area, leverage it to prioritize the things that matter to you in life. This is the foundation for what can be a remarkable life.

Put another way, Newport stressed that he wasn’t telling us anyone can do whatever in life and be happy, but rather that the threshold to loving what we do might be more accessible than we think it is.

To unbox his speech further:

1. Get good at something that is rare and valuable, that the outside world values. This takes hard work, for which there are no shortcuts.

2. After you do this, leverage this skill for things that really matter to you (e.g. a lifestyle with more autonomy), allowing yourself to focus on the parts of that skill that truly matter, or convert that value into a part of your life you really care about. You cannot convert anything to values that matter to you unless you have first developed a skill, because you’ve got nothing to leverage.

3. What you do for your work might be a lot less important than you think. The general traits you leverage are more important than the work itself, as counterintuitive as that might appear.

Sunset over Portland on July 5
Sunset over Portland on July 5.

Solo Acts Never Win

Finally, the overarching message from every single speaker and workshop I attended was that solo acts never win. That building a community of people and collaborating with others is crucial to success and to making a difference, because none of us can really do it alone.  Of course we have to be judicious about who we partner with – their values should align with ours, and everyone on board needs to be equally committed to the cause – but the takeaway remained that learning from the people around us and their own life stories provides us with an incomparable advantage.

This message popped up again and again throughout the weekend, for good reason, including from friends Dan and Audrey of Uncornered Market. Their keynote was graceful and full of great photos, teaching lessons learned while travelling as a couple around the world.

The sisterhood of the travelling longyi
The sisterhood of the travelling longyi, the Burmese skirt that travelled with each of us to Myanmar, one by one.
Me and Ambassador Bruny, Mr Bowtie extraordinaire!
Me and Mike Bruny reuniting after a year.

On Friendship and Giving Back

The note about community spirit and collaboration were especially important given that I was staying in a room of 15 other attendees, organized way back in December when the dates for the conference were finalized. I realized that it would be close to impossible to spend time with the people I met last year – it’s too hectic a weekend. So I decided to call a hostel and book out a room for 16, thinking it would be a good fix.

We had an Aussie, a Kiwi, 2 Canadians and 11 Americans and while we barely saw each other during the weekend, a weeklong stay in Portland meant that we were able to spend time together after the conference was over. Yes, we were in dorms and yes it was not so big on the quiet sleeping, though my above-my-bed bunkmate Nate Damm was a ninja at crawling into bed at night and never woke me once. One of the group (Nathan) made green smoothies for all of us in the morning, tiptoeing out at 6am to have the smoothies ready and name-tagged before our days began. We went out for group meals, picnics in the park and generally enjoyed hearing what plans were afoot for the coming year and how we were going to implement the lessons learned from WDS. A good part of what made my time in Portland so wonderful was hearing what my roommates had to say about their own lives and how they planned to change them.

Green smoothies for all
Green smoothies for all!

The week ended with a day of giving back  in the spirit of – say it with me now – community, service and adventure. We all piled into two cars (slight miscount resulted in 7 people in one of our cars, which was awkward at best) and headed up to 151st street for a Habitat for Humanity build day to cap off the week. We were divided into groups and put to task, spending the full day hammering, sawing wood and climbing up and down ladders to get the job done. Habitat PDX was curious about our WDS t-shirts, as well as our bizarre insistence on speaking in a Boston accent (I blame Boston natives Dave Ursillo & Steve Kamb for this one). We were sunburned, happy and slightly bruised after the long day.

WDS 2012 Habitat for Humanity Build in PDX
All of our dorm room volunteering at Habitat for Humanity

Exhausted, we piled back into the cars for one last meal at the hostel together, an assembly line of tacos, carnitas and many vegetables, laid out buffet style on the hostel’s kitchen counter. I hugged everyone goodbye, showered and jumped to the airport for a red-eye to New York City. It was the perfect end to a hectic week that left my mind racing.

Other Takeaways from WDS 2012

My view above is only one view. For other takes on the weekend, see the posts below with small excerpts.

Also, I didn’t mention the $100 give-away because I did not receive the $100 – it went to attendees who paid for tickets only, and as a returning keynote from last year, I was gifted my ticket. But the concept was incredible: Chris took $100,000 – money from his profits combined with funds from an anonymous donor – and gave each attendee who paid for a ticket $100 to put toward an investment. (Link in prior sentence is to Chris’ blog post with video.) The parameters were simple: the $100 should be used in a way that reflects the three pillars of community, service and adventure. It was a larger-than-life gesture on his part, and watching him announce it to the room artfully and in his own words was wonderful. I look forward to seeing what everyone does with their $100.

Update: People have written to ask when next year’s summit will be. This year’s attendees were able to purchase early bird tickets but the first wave of tickets has not yet gone on sale. The dates announced are July 5 (Friday eve) to July 7 (Sunday), 2013.

CC Chapman: “The People and the Magic of the World Domination Summit 2012Events are started to make money. The World Domination Summit was started to change lives. Taking a donation and the profits from this years event and turning around and giving it to the attendees is one of the most generous and genius decisions I’ve ever witnessed.

JD Roth: “World Domination Summit 2012 – Community, Adventure and Service” But to me, the greatest testament to the World Domination Summit is this: Our venue has room for 924 attendees. After the conference, we allowed about a day for folks to register to return next year. We sold 843 tickets. That’s how much people love the conference. 

Chris Brogan: “1000 True FansGuillebeau and Roth attract all kinds of people who seek to live life on their terms and build business that meets their needs, interests, and criteria. And the attendees were every bit as powerful as the folks on stage. Take, for instance, the fact that this is the first conference that C.C. Chapman has paid to attend in years. I feel the same way. Jacq and I will go next year, no matter what.

Marianne Elliott: “Portland, Power and ConnectionA summit about domination turns out to be about connection. And about the kind of power with that is possible when we connect with people who share our belief that everyone, everywhere can (and should) have the power to change their own future and the future of the world.

Corbett Barr: “How to Change the World Life is full of rules and establishments. Changing the world doesn’t start by following the rules, accepting what is or asking for permission. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what experience or qualifications you have. The only person you need permission from to change the world is yourself.

Barrett Brooks: “How to Live a Remarkable Life in a Conventional WorldTo live a remarkable life, I must continue to push myself to be vulnerable.

Ken Solin: “What 1,000 Boomer’s Kids Did This Past Weekend” – The speakers preached being doers, not talkers. These young men and women already know something I only discovered in my sixties: Life isn’t just about stuff. They could teach their parents something about that.
Scott Dinsmore: “74 Unconventional Stories for Making An Impact.” There is no more powerful component do doing work that matters, to making a difference and to living your legend, than putting yourself around the right people.

Sarah Peck: “Stories of Humanity & the Power of Connection” – It’s like walking into a bar full of 40 people, but instead of wondering if you’ll meet one or two nice folks, it’s realizing that all of them are already your friends, and that each of them are brilliantly weird, nerdy, and crazy-uncool and brimming with energy.

And of course, Mr Guillebeau himself: “What Happened at the World Domination Summit”  I feel exhausted, but mostly in a good way. Our team did a fantastic job, with more than 80 volunteers working together to put on an epic weekend adventure, complete with block parties, dunk tanks, keynote sessions, dozens of workshops and presentations, and… so much more.

Confronting my Own Fears

I didn’t share this much of WDS to convince anyone to attend in 2013, but rather because it has become both an important annual benchmark to ask myself “what have I accomplished in the past year?”, and also because last year’s keynote marked the first time I spoke in public.

Confronting the fear of getting up onstage by actually getting up onstage has been instrumental in moving my life in the direction I want. I’ve always said a huge part of keeping this site was to hopefully inspire others to see travel (and food) as education, and as ways to both appreciate what they do have in life and learn about the world by experiencing it in technicolor. Being able to get up in front of 500 people last year – and lead 2 workshops this year too, yay! – has slowly enabled me to be more comfortable speaking to others about what I do, and move this life of travel and learning forward for me too.

As a result of this new direction, I’ve completely changed the About Me page to this site. I’ve held off from doing so for a while because I worried that my readers would see Legal Nomads as less of a travel blog and not want to read it any longer. But the truth is that while I still do travel in the same style as I always have, I’m no longer a round-the-world traveler. While I’ve started out that way, my travels and my writing have led to many other opportunities, and a new career in freelance work, photography and education about food. And of course, I might lose some readers who are looking for stories of only chicken buses and street eats, but if early reactions to the revamped page are any indication, many of you are following my trajectory because you’ve enjoyed the site and the reflections within it. And probably also because you, like me, have no idea where it’s going next. Ah, adventure.

I hope you like the new page – with new picture too! I’ve tried to be as honest as possible about where my income comes from in this new line of work, and how this site remains ad-free.  If there are any questions, please send them to me via email – jodi-at-legalnomads.com.

Back to Thrillable Hours and Morocco in just a few days. Thank you, as always, for reading.


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