This past weekend, I did something that I have been dying to do for years: attend the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. If world domination seems like an odd topic of interest, don’t worry—it has nothing to do with violence or negativity, and everything to do with hugs and high fives. Still confused? Let me attempt to explain.
WTF is WDS?
World Domination Summit (WDS) is an annual event held in Portland, Oregon. Beyond those basic facts, the rest of WDS is really REALLY hard to describe. Other bloggers and even TV reporters have tried and still stumbled for a conclusive definition, mostly because there really isn’t one. WDS is what you make it be. Now in its fifth iteration, WDS this year hosted 2,000 attendees from 34 countries around the world, and if you ask any of us how to define our WDS experience, I’ll bet the answers will run the gamut. In very simple words, WDS is a worldwide gathering of people who want to learn how to live a remarkable life in an unconventional world.
WDS is the creation of one of my personal heroes, Chris Guillebeau. A best-selling author and entrepreneur, Chris probably best known for three things: his achievement of visiting every country in the world, and his blog, and best-selling books including The $100 Startup and The Art of Non-Conformity. See why he’s my hero?
What do I have to do with World Domination?
I first discovered Chris Guillebeau in 2009 when I was on the verge of suicide. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I was jumping out of moving airplanes every day after work. That’s not something people do unless they’ve come to terms with the chance that that action could be their last. At age 22, I was a model Twenty-Something with a bachelor’s degree and corporate financial analyst job that had paid off all of my student loan debts months after graduation. I was “set for life” of sorts, and yet something was missing. Had I really worked my butt off for nearly 2 decades to be chained to a desk for 40+ hours a week? I filled my void of disillusion by taking up the riskiest hobby I could think of: skydiving. My dad, a former Navy fighter jet pilot, was not amused by newfound hobby and would always ask in his no-nonsense voice, “why jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” The answer was that I needed to feel something. I didn’t even know what, but at the time I was living each day solely for the 60 seconds of exhilaration and excitement I would feel during my daily skydiving lesson. About 3/4 of the way through my skydiving certification course, I had a near brush with death during a session that spooked me to the point of abandoning my quest for skydiving glory.
It was around this time that I discovered Chris Guillebeau’s life-changing blog and book, The Art of Non-Conformity (AONC). After devouring AONC and poking around Chris’ affiliate blog list, I then discovered Sean Ogle and enrolled in his Location Rebel program. Several months later in December 2009, I quit my corporate job. I won’t lie, “world domination” and location rebellion didn’t come easy. In fact, it took two false starts (one in the form of making money by writing online dating ads) and several more full-time corporate jobs until I found the right mix of skills and experience before I finally became a full-fledged solopreneur in September 2012.
Solopreneur – An entrepreneur who works alone, “solo,” running their business single-handedly. They might have contractors for hire, yet have full responsibility for the running of their business.
Today, I make the bulk of my money as a freelance photographer and I even get paid to shoot concerts. I’ve done photo jobs for Google, Starbucks, and Nordstrom, and my photos have been published in major publications including Rolling Stone, Bon Appétit, People Magazine, and ESPN, to name a few. I operate a tourism business in Belize and am now evolving into a web designer and creative director, all while managing to travel 2-3 months out of the year. Most importantly, I’m not living paycheck to paycheck; my non-conformist approach to making money still allows me to have ample savings and retirement accounts. I’ve been living my dream jobs long before the age of 30, and none of this would have been fathomable had I not stumbled upon Chris Guillebeau’s blog 6 years ago.
Fast forward to 2015. I’d been following Chris and WDS online for several years, constantly toying with the impulse to attend WDS. After all, it happened every year in Portland, just a 3 hour drive away from Seattle. But my crazy summer schedule never quite made it work. Finally in March 2015, the stars aligned. While poking around on online communities, I happened to create a profile on Find A Nomad, indicating that I would be living and working remotely in Hawaii for most of the month. To my amazement, a fellow digital nomad messaged me almost immediately, inquiring if I wanted to meet up. That nomad happened to be two nomads—Jedd and Michelle Chang of Intentional Travelers. We met up in Hawaii, and throughout our long discussion about travel and remote work, they happened to mention their involvement in a little gathering known as the World Domination Summit. Before I knew it, I became a WDS Ambassador, or as Chris calls us, Am’bad ass’adors, and my attendance to WDS was confirmed! I was stoked not only to finally have a chance to experience WDS, but also at the prospect of being a volunteer as a way of giving back to Chris and the WDS community as they had both been huge sources of inspiration as I slowly built my solopreneur business over the years.
Journey to WDS
Since I’ve been a teenager, I’ve strove to do something every year or so that pulls me out of my comfort zone. I ran a full marathon at 17, backpacked Costa Rica and the Netherlands at 22, did two ayahuasca ceremonies at 26. This year, the last of my 20s, my out of zone experience was venturing to WDS. In many ways, WDS seemed like a perfect fit as a it is largely a gathering of fellow independent travelers and solopreneurs, but at this particular moment of my life, the prospect of attending felt uncomfortable. While I’m financially ok, the idea of driving myself down or paying for a hotel sounded extravagant, and the idea of having to put my inner extrovert on display 24/7 sounded exhausting. To solve these two “problems,” I decided to turn my journey to Portland into an adventure and personal quest by doing the following:
1) Rather than drive down by myself, I would carpool with fellow Seattleites to split costs and be social
2) Rather than splurge for a hotel or Airbnb, I would stay at a hostel to save money and (you guessed it) be social
3) Rather than bring down an oversized pack filled with camera or computer gear (which thank heavens I didn’t need to bring), I left almost all of the tech at home
Did it work? Absolutely. Better than expected, in fact. I had some fantastic conversations on the way down to Portland and back, and even found out that I had inadvertently already met two of my carpool mates previously at meet ups in Seattle. While staying at the hostel, I met half a dozen WDS attendees from overseas and had great talks with them over breakfast and on the bus rides down to the conference every morning. And even better, I found the WDS Ambassador community to be great for fostering interpersonal relationships as we worked together to do crazy tasks like assemble hundreds of beds in the middle of downtown Portland for a world record attempt. By viewing my WDS experience as an adventure rather than a work trip, I in turn saved money while making new friends, creating a memorable WDS experience since WDS is indeed what you make it out to be.
The WDS Experience
The bulk of the research I tried to do to prepare myself for WDS was fruitless as most articles fail to really define what WDS even is. As I’ve come to conclude, WDS really is impossible to put into words, but I did however find one article by Derek Murphy that I think does an excellent job at offering useful tips for getting the most out of WDS. One of his opening statements in particular resonated with me:
“Although once very confident, years of self-employment, have made social interaction extremely anxiety-inducing and awkward for me.”
Post-WDS, I can say with confidence that this is something that many solopreneurs struggle with, including myself, and this is one of many reasons why many of us attend WDS to begin with. We realize our lifestyle is isolating, and we’re trying to fix that.
With that being said, it’s safe to assume that this is a reason why at least part of the attendees are at WDS to begin with, and this coupled with the knowledge that we are all interested in living unconventional lives made socializing at WDS a breeze. I can’t remember the last time I met so many interesting people in such a short period of time. While not every exchange was profound and long-lasting, it was quickly apparent that every person at WDS had at least one jaw-dropping fact about them. I met an attendee who spends 8 months out of the year living in Antarctica, a fresh high school graduate who had just published his first illustrated children’s book, an 11 year old who kissed Beyoncé, a university professor about to quit her job to start an unconventional college, and many more people with incredible stories, accomplishments, and most importantly, projects in work. Chris definitely wasn’t kidding about WDS being a gathering of remarkable people.
As luck would have it, WDS for me wasn’t just about getting to know complete strangers, but also about reconnecting with people I already knew or influencers I knew of. Throughout the WDS weekend, I randomly ran into two college classmates, my photography blog managing editor, and many influencers including Chase Jarvis, Benny Lewis, Jon Acuff, Lewis Howes, Jonathan Fields, and so many more. So many worlds colliding. It was awesome.
While networking and socializing is a huge part of the WDS experience, there is also a large itinerary of organized events packed into two full days, with two extra bonus days. Full WDS days include several speaking sessions that combine keynote addresses from standout members in the WDS community while constantly honoring the fact that every attendee at WDS has his or her own standout story to tell as well. WDS also does a beautiful job of curating speakers who are not afraid to be open and vulnerable in front of a 2,000 member audience. I agree with attendees that WDS should be handing out tissues in all swag bags. Speaking of, the WDS swag bags are the most impressive I’ve ever seen from any event.
In addition to motivational, interactive talks, official WDS events also include opening and closing parties, and at least one world record attempt. This year, WDS organizers led by Tyler Tervooren managed to pull of FIVE world record attempts including most people eating breakfast in bed, most people applying lipstick at the same time, and longest high-five chain, to name a few. And just when you think you know what Chris and the WDS team have planned, they still manage to surprise even the volunteer coordinators with unexpected surprises such as handing out crisp $100 bills to every attendee (a previous year’s feat), or this year’s gift of learning in the form of a $150 Creative Live gift card to every attendee. It’s these little things that make attending WDS not unlike being at an Oprah Winfrey show—you never know what life-enhancing gift might be lurking under your seat.
As a festival and events photographer, I’ve grown accustomed to experiencing post-event blues, particularly in the days following a blow out event. It’s emotionally taxing to have put your maximally extroverted self on display for several days, and suddenly have to turn it down. My post-WDS depression blues have definitely begun to sink in, and part of processing my full take on the experience has involved intensive journaling and blogging of my immediate reactions. A pared down version of those thoughts have been presented in this blog post as a whole, and I’m sure many more entries will come in the following weeks. For now, suffice to say that attending WDS 2015 was the best decision I’ve had in a long time thanks to the inspiring people I had the privilege of meeting and learning from. And once again, none of this would have been possible had I not clicked on Chris Guillebeau’s website 6 years ago. Thank you Chris, for the gift of WDS.