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December 2012

Totally Radical

By Sarah Beauchamp and Katie Kervin, Assistant Editors
World Domination Summit

The World Domination Summit and Awesomeness Fest have two things in common: oddly compelling names and a commitment to helping attendees live a purposeful life.

World Domination Summit
Portland, Ore. July 5-7

Photo by Armosa Studios​
By Katie Kervin, Assistant Editor

An event called the World Domination Summit might call to mind a gathering of des-pots creating sinister plots, or perhaps an image of Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” trilogy. In reality, the World Domination Summit (WDS), held for the second year this past July 5–7 in Portland, Ore., is a gathering of artists and entrepreneurs, students and retirees, stay-at-home moms and travelers, bloggers and lawyers.

“Most of our attendees seem to be self-driven and looking for a way to live on their own terms,” said J.D. Roth, a WDS organizer and founder of the personal finance blog getrichslowly.org. “I think the common thread is that each of these folks is seeking to find meaning or purpose outside of the ‘American Dream.’ They want to pursue their own dreams on their own terms.”

So what exactly does a summit that encourages attendees to pursue their own dreams look like? “At many conferences, the content and structure is dictated to the attendees,” Roth said. “They’re not active participants. … With WDS, our goal is to have the attendees actively participate in the creation of the conference, which gives them a sense of ownership.”

The Heart of Every Story

To that end, WDS organizers ask participants what sort of content they’d like to see and hear — with the results this year ranging from workshops on topics such as how to get a book deal and becoming a better photographer in 60 minutes, to keynote-style speakers like Quiet: The Power of Introverts author Susan Cain (watch a snippet of Convene’s interview with Cain at convn.org/susan-cain) and new-media expert Chris Brogan. And attendees don’t just sit through sessions, which this year took place at the 2,276-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (aka “the Schnitz”) in downtown Portland and various venues nearby. WDS 2012 participants also built a house, jumped off a bridge, swam across the Willamette River, and headed out on a number of self-guided walking tours of the city with other attendees. 

When first conceiving WDS two years ago, founder Chris Guillebeau set out to create an event that would be focused around a central question: How do we live a remarkable life in a conventional world? It may seem odd that his method for answering that question — convening a meeting — is in fact rather conventional. But Guillebeau, whose “Art of Nonconformity” (AONC) project at chrisguillebeau.com chronicles his writing on “how to change the world by achieving significant, personal goals while helping others at the same time,” hoped to draw remarkable people who would focus on the values of community, adventure, and service.

And while WDS is partially traditional, with general sessions and breakout-style workshops, its content is anything but typical. As part of this year’s program, for example, Escape From Cubicle Nation blogger Pamela Slim demonstrated martial arts and “cubicle escape,” LaunchBooks Literary Agency founder David Fugate sought to demystify the publishing industry for potential authors, and The Fire Starter Sessions author Danielle LaPorte offered what her website calls “a modern-day pep talk and soul-centered Q&A for people ready to shine brighter than they ever have.” About six weeks before the event, attendees were able to sign up for scheduled workshops on a first-come, first-served basis. Other official activities, including yoga in the park and various afterparties, were open to everyone.

Although participants listened to and learned from scheduled speakers, they were strongly encouraged to tell their own stories and be inspired by one another. “Inspiration was at the heart of every story,” life coach and WDS 2012 attendee Farnoosh Brock wrote in a post recap-ping the event on her blog, at prolificliving.com. “Stories like overcoming breast cancer and living to play it in a humorous song on the guitar, or building a water charity that helps deliver clean water to the poorest villages of Africa. … Stories of waking up to a miserable career after 20 years of service to a company and turning things around because it’s never too late. Stories of not taking no for an answer and not playing by the conventional rules and systems; stories of finding solutions rather than playing a victim all your life.” 

Growing Pains

The summit’s location is a key aspect of that experience. Aside from the fact that both Roth and Guillebeau live in Portland, Roth explained that the city has the perfect character for the ideas that they want WDS to embody — it is filled with people living unconventionally and trying to break out of traditional molds. WDS’s website even jokingly boasts that “The city of Portland itself will be on full display, from food carts to craft stores. See hipsters and other people with no obvious means of employment in their native habitat.”

In just its second iteration, WDS doubled in size — from 500 attendees in 2011 to 1,000 this year — with tickets selling out five months in advance and a waiting list of more than 800 people. Two hundred people without tickets showed up just for the unofficial events associated with the conference. WDS has plans to expand again, care-fully, next year. Organizers are mindful of growing pains. “How do we keep a sense of community as the conference grows?” Roth said. “How do we make sure each attendee feels included and is able to share their unique skills and experiences?”

Of course, there are also logistical issues — including concerns this year about WDS being able to serve double the number of people as well as it had the previous year. Organizers found that the opening and closing parties — complete with blogger dunkings, a senior-citizen marching band, sumo suits, and, of course, Portland’s famous Voo-doo Donuts — were easier than they expected, but that coordinating workshops was more difficult. “When you double your attendance, you’re not just doubling the work on workshops,” Roth said. “You’re quadrupling it.”

It’s not as though WDS’s organizers are meeting professionals by trade. Ten planning-team members, who spend the entire year working together on a volunteer basis, come from various walks of life. The Portland-based members do have specific roles — Roth is the speaker liaison, for instance — but everyone helps out where needed. Another team of volunteers also comes together as staff during the weekend of the event itself.

 While few details have been released about WDS 2013, the conference’s website offers some clues. Attendees can expect that main-stage events will still be held at the Schnitz, but breakouts and smaller sessions will occur in nearby hotels. Perhaps thanks to Susan Cain’s influence, there will again be a Highly Sensitive Person Lounge, with soothing hammocks and green tea for introverts and other participants who need time to them-selves. And private, attendee-organized events will include yoga in the park, a 5k run, and “our attempt to set some kind of Guinness world record.”

Although registration for WDS 2013 won’t open until January, potential attendees are encouraged to put their names on a waiting list on the event’s website to get the first news about the on-sale date. It would be prudent to do so — WDS 2012 sold out in just 13 minutes, and organizers expect similar demand next year.

Sidebar: The $100 Investment

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