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This past weekend I was at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. The event was started by Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity and The $100 Startup, as a way to bring his readers together around the ethics of community, adventure, and service. The two day event was packed with speakers, workshops, activities, parties, and an unbelievable amount of community interaction for the 2,800 participants.

This was an odd experience for me on a few fronts. First, I normally don’t “attend” conferences, because I spend so much time speaking at them and already get to hear tons of great speakers and meet great people (while getting paid to do it… it’s one of the perks of the job.)

However, WDS is no ordinary “conference”.

Second, I wasn’t expecting to be as challenged, provoked, and prodded by the experience as I was. I came ready to learn and interact, but I wasn’t expecting to be moved. Deeply moved. WDS was one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time. I witnessed more acts of selflessness, celebration, and generosity in the past few days (in highly concentrated form) than I normally see in a year. It was contagious generosity. Crazy generosity. Self-forgetting generosity.

It was also a big party. With ample amounts of dancing and marching bands on stilts. I kid you not. Wow. (Did I mention “wow”?)

Here are my big three takeaways from WDC, in no particular order:

Powerful things happen when like-minded people get together.

The beauty of WDS isn’t the programming, or the venue (which was amazing), or the “networking” like at most conferences. The beauty is that there are several thousand people all gathered in one place, centered on one ideal. The encouragement could be scooped out of the air with a spoon and swallowed whole. Not “Oh – great! You should go do your thing, and best of luck (because honestly, you’ll need it since you’re about to fall flat on your face!)” encouragement, but the kind that is real, trustworthy, and rooted in deep experience. One of the speakers, Tess Vigeland, shared her story of leaving her “dream job” as host of Marketplace Money to start over, and was honest enough to say that it was difficult, painful, and uncertain. Not the kind of fare you typically get at conferences where the goal is polish rather than gut-level realism.

Communities mobilizing around ideas will change the world.

The small risks matter more than the big ones.

There’s a general belief in the marketplace that to be successful requires the willingness and ability to take big risks. Sometimes this is true, but this weekend taught me that it’s the small, everyday risks that accumulate into a life of greatness and a body of work one can be proud of.

I took a lot of small risks this weekend (and saw others do the same), and it completely changed my experience. For example, while I am perfectly comfortable getting on stage in front of 5,000 people and giving a sixty minute talk, if you put me on a dance floor and tell me to dance  I will freeze. Totally freeze. I don’t know what to do with my hands (should I point? clap? wave them like I just don’t care?), I’m self-conscious, etc. The way most people feel about public speaking? Yeah…that’s me with dancing.

Last night, I danced. I knew I looked stupid, so I danced some more. (Thanks Andy Traub…) It was amazing and fun. You know what? No one cared. No one even noticed. It was just me having fun with a few thousand of my new friends.

It was a small risk, and it radically changed my perspective and my experience. I will remember that small, seemingly insignificant risk forever.

You see, what is commonplace for one person is unfathomably risky for another. That’s why community is so important – it contextualizes the reality of the risk rather than allowing it to fester into something seemingly insurmountable. We need people to walk ahead of us and show us the world doesn’t fall off at the end of the block.

If you want something to be really great, you have to let go of it, at least a little.

Chris and his team set the table, but the guests brought the food. This wasn’t an agenda-driven event, it was an ethic-driven event. Because of that, its success depended on the degree to which each person in attendance was willing to internalize and act on the guiding ethics of the event. Otherwise, it would have been just another conference. Sure, there were plans and speakers and events on the schedule, but the beauty of the event was in how the participants owned it. I’m almost certain that some things looked very different from what was in the mind of the organizers, but it was beautiful.

When you hold onto your thing too tightly, you strangle it. If you open it up, and let go of it (within specific parameters), you allow it to blossom into something great.

I’m certain there will be more learning distilled into posts over the next few weeks. I’m so grateful to all who helped make WDS a life changing experience. Now? Sleep.

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