#WDS2014: Loving Nerds, Igniting Practice, and Growing a New Mind

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

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It is called the World Domination Summit—or WDS for short—and billed as a three-day gathering for remarkable people living in a conventional world.   I signed up to lure my brother to Portland for a visit—and because three Millennials called it “epic” and two Boomers said it was “refreshingly positive.” I showed up to see what all the fuss was about—and meet people I could hire to help me share my ideas more broadly. And I left—take a deep breath, because here’s the heretical part—neither wiser nor more inspired but with a deeper commitment to what I’ve been intending to do for years.

WDS openingparty

This post is not a recap of the experience—for initial summaries check out here, here, and here—but my reflections on its meaning for me, a 44-year-old leadership coach who doubles as a father, husband, and Paleo Jewish mystic empiricist.

At Home with Writers and Nerds

It would be a stretch to say that that WDS is “my home.” Although I liked everyone I met and was intrigued by their stories, I would not say that these are “my people.” Consider:

  • The center of gravity of WDS is the Millennial Generation. I haven’t seen demographic stats, but I bet the median age hovers around 32. I’m 44, and I work mostly with Boomers. In fact, one of my closest colleagues has a boyfriend whose 90th birthday is coming up soon.
  • This group seemed hip to the latest trends. In my mind, a new band is anyone whose first album appeared after Hall & Oates peaked.
  • Many people I met were early in their journey of living unconventionally. In the words of one, “My life changed after I read The Art of Non-Conformity [a fine book by WDS founder Chris Guillebeau].” It’s been 22 years since I gave conventional life the boot by dropping out of medical school and 15 years since I started meditating on trains and in cafes.
  • The prototypical WDS narrative goes like this: “I was in a successful corporate career, then got bored/sick/restless/devoid of meaning, so I started my own thing, and I’m much happier.” My business works primarily with managers in large companies and public agencies. I challenge them to change themselves before they change their situation because (1) Otherwise, they’ll simply bring old habits and ways of being to new situations, and (2) Research shows that our situation in life (job, spouse, city) accounts for only 10 percent of our happiness.
  • Lots of folks spoke glowingly about how inspired they were by their first WDS. I can be inspired, but it takes a special experience. Plus, it’s been ten years since I realized that “ahas” amount to little without ongoing deliberate practice.

And yet, in at least two ways, I felt great affinity with other WDS peeps:

  • The Writers. It seemed like everyone had a blog or was planning to start one. Many had published books, some of them quite good. Sheepish admission: although I’m a voracious reader and newly published author, I’ve never really hung out with writers before. Consultants, yes. Executive coaches, for sure. But writers? Not so much. Now I know better. Example: David Delp. We had a great chat at a meetup. Then I looked at his blog and realized: wow, that man has depth and humor and knows how to express it.
  • The Nerds. Ti-shirts and buttons proclaiming the virtues of being a Nerd have been around for years. Yawn. Never paid them much attention. Yet when I saw one at WDS, something clicked for me. I always associated being a Nerd with science and math. And I coach a lot of engineers who’ve been promoted past their natural comfort level with people. Yet, here, Nerds were writers, artists, and solopreneurs. Geeks in creativity. That’s a new one. It’s still sinking in, but it’s giving me new reason to reinterpret all the teasing I got in high school for getting good grades (and having a massive head of hair).

So there you have it. At home with the writers and the nerds.

 

Igniting Deliberate Practice

The test of a good conference, seminar, or workshop isn’t whether you leave inspired. After all, the half-life of inspiration is about ninety minutes. Nor can you tell a good conference by how many people you meet, or even how many deep connections you make. These metrics are important, but they don’t automatically translate into anything. IMHO, the true test of a good conference is how well it ignites you to deliberately practice a pivotal skill.

  • Deliberate practice. In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin popularized this term to describe how elite performers in sports, the performing arts, and other fields rise to the top. Deliberate practice means repeating an action over and over again with the intent to improve, getting feedback from a skilled coach or mentor, and persevering through boredom and hard work. Think about those piano lessons you took in elementary school—or hitting the tennis ball against the wall.
  • Ignition. Starting anything new is challenging. Sustaining it when old habits pop up—even harder. What differentiates people who turn new practices into lived habits? They have a primal desire to do or be something—and this desire is so strong that it that compels them to act. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle calls this impulse “ignition”:

Ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening…[that] works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, evolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind’s vast reserves of energy and attention. [It’s about] the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.

What are you more committed to deliberately practicing today than you were last week? Yesterday, while hiking on Mt. Hood, my brother and I asked each other this question. My answers:

  • Meditation. For a year, I’ve been experimenting with a new approach. Instead of sitting for 20-30 minutes once a day, I sit for 3-5 minutes 5-7 times a day. It’s hard to do, but the results are good: more consistent ease and clarity throughout the day. And the “0 to 60 time” (how long it takes to get into a peaceful meditative buzz) goes from minutes to seconds. It’s time to do this practice even more consistently.
  • Blogging. My brother challenged me to blog twice a week every week. So here we go…
  • Twitter. I’m going to make this my primary social media platform. (Hint, hint…please tweet this post)
  • Strength training. Lifting weights 3-5 times a week makes a huge difference for my mood. It’s also good for T—like many men my age, I have low testosterone. Yet I’ve been incredibly inconsistent. So I’m recommitting to 4 times a week.
  • Ice Ago Paleo. At the WDS Blogging Academy, Chris Garrett encouraged us to embrace our geekiness. Well, I follow a Paleo Diet, except I sometimes eat ice cream. So I’m Ice Age Paleo. My new commitment is to continue with the Paleo while reducing the frequency of the glacial drift.

Growing a New Mind

People at WDS like the word “epic.” Here’s what I have to say about that. The truly epic thing about being a human being—instead of a gorilla, snake, or ant—is that growing up doesn’t end at adulthood. Even when our bodies reach their maximum height, our minds have the capacity to grow—not just once, but multiple times. Depending on which research you read, there are from three to ten stages through which our minds can grow after we’re physically mature. Each stage allows us to make sense of the world in new ways and handle more complexity than the previous stage. Some people call this “vertical development” because it’s not just changing what you see; it’s changing the person who is doing the seeing. If you’re interested, it’s worth studying—and a good place to start is Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger. But for most of us, three stages matter most, and the first starts before adulthood.

  • Self-sovereign mind. The only perspective you can take is your own. Everyone else’s view is a mystery. When other people see things differently, it’s not much of an internal conflict. Forget “We Are the World.” Life starts and ends with “I Am the World.” Or as Rodney Dangerfield said in the movie Back to School, the route to success in life is “looking out for number one without stepping in number two.”
  • Socialized mind. You now can see the world through other people’s perspectives. Life is not just about what you want. This is progress! However, there’s a catch: you can become embedded in others’ perspectives. Your parents hate the idea of you becoming a writer, so you study architecture. All the adults you grew up around are homophobic, so it takes forever for you to come out of the closet. (Or, in the case of one friend of mine, your mother encourages you to be gay, so you have to apologize to her that you’re straight.) Or you get married and discover your partner has very different ideas about how to raise kids than the ones you were taught. You cannot simultaneously hold both perspectives, so you feel a deep inner conflict.
  • Self-authorized mind. Finally, you can see multiple perspectives while maintaining your own. When you had a socialized mind, other people’s perspectives held you. Now, you hold these perspectives. It’s just like that metaphor from the negotiations book Getting to Yes. Rather than just being an actor on the stage, you “go to the balcony” and can see the action on the stage. Your ability to grok others’ views without sacrificing your own is, yes, you guessed it, epic. It’s also an achievement that takes years to develop.

The true zeitgeist of WDS? An invitation to leave the socialized mind behind and step forward boldly into the self-authorized mind. It’s a powerful invitation, one well-timed with where many participants are in their lives. This, in my view, is the main reason why people fall in love with the gathering. It’s not the speakers, meetups, high-fives, or hot air balloons.  What they—we—are really falling in love with is the version of ourselves that is eager to burst forth.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that growing beyond the socialized mind isn’t easy. It takes years. And a lot of—yes, I’m going to say it—pain. When we grow beyond the socialized mind, that version of ourselves dies. And death ain’t no party. In fact, although people claim that they fear public speaking more than death, that’s a bunch of crap. We fear death a hundred times more. We just deny the reality of death so skillfully that we forget how frightening it really is. (See The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker).

Here’s where I think WDS could do better. Acknowledge that living an unconventional (or, I would say, post conventional) life involves more than leaving your company, creating a great platform, building your mailing list, or recruiting an awesome tribe. It requires a profound inner reorientation of who you are and how well you can master life’s complexities. Even while relishing the freedom and joy of creativity, we also learn to honor and grieve what we are leaving behind. Finally, growing our minds involves—yes, you guessed it—loads of deliberate practice. Think Great Namaste every day for two years.

Mary Oliver, again:

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

And, I would add, who will you become?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Post-conventional. I like that.

    • Amiel Handelsman

      Thanks, Caelan. The term comes from developmental psychology, specifically stages of moral reasoning. Preconventional is where you look out for yourself and haven’t yet taking in society’s norms. Conventional is when you learn to conform. Postconventional is when you include what matters to others but aren’t beholden to it.

  • Dude, I’m 60. And those WDSers are definitely my tribe. Because we share the same psychographics, passions and desires, and … well, who knows what else? Thanks for your article — lots of good info here.

    • Amiel Handelsman

      Dr. Harth (Melanie), I do love how we can feel connected to each other despite many differences. The phrase “unity in diversity” comes to mind.