Recently, I attended the World Domination Summit (WDS); an event dreamed up by blogger and author Chris Guillebeau. Being that this was the first time I’ve ever attended this event, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew is that I loved the name and the premise of the event which is: living an extraordinary life in a conventional world. The other deciding factor, a couple of friends whom I respect told me I should go. Really, what more did I need? And as it turns which, it was very sound advice.
To be honest, I was not all that familiar with Chris and his work; I had heard of his books The $100 Startup and The Art of Non-Conformity as well as his travel hacking work through friends. At one point, I even briefly scanned his websites, signed up for the WDS wait list and eventually bought a ticket for Kate and I as soon as they came available. Let’s face it, I was pretty much convinced that I too busy trying to dream up my life of non-conformity to really dig deep into Chris’, but what I did know is this; that on the surface I very much appreciated what he stood for in life.
The first thing I realized about WDS is that you need to stay on top of things. Sure, you can simply show up and get more than your money’s worth but to really get the most our of your experience you need to be a participant not a spectator. There are parties, meet-ups, special events like “The Great Namaste,” treasure hunts and academies; most of which are scheduled around the week of WDS, but some continue long after the stage crews are gone and the lights dimmed. Somewhere during the weekend, I also discovered that there is usually some kind of special surprise that Chris and his crew of amazing volunteers present to WDS participants. This is where my WDS story begins and it all started with a text from an unknown number, “Good morning! This is Michelle, the WDS Team Magician. We have a few fun things in the works for our final session this afternoon and need your help. Meet me at the backstage entrance … at 3:55pm and I will fill you in.”
“Yeah right,” I thought, “this must be some kind of joke. And if it isn’t they are going to have me do something ridiculous on stage.” Kate agreed and bet me $10 that they would be making me dance on stage. But as it turned out, it was anything but a joke. As requested, I showed up at the backstage door precisely at 3:55pm and was met by 3 other participants, Ruthy, Muffadal, and Bethany, and a very tight-lipped WDS ambassador; who by the way, filled us in on nothing. We were left completely clueless as to what was going to happen to us.
Interestingly enough, I had met Bethany on the first day of the event in a line for some kind of “time capsule” booth. The premise was that once you crossed the threshold of the time capsule, you were now in the year 2020. Participants were being videoed as they described what life was like for them in 2020. Six years later, these videos would be released; giving us an opportunity to see if the 2020 we dreamed up anything like the 2020 we were actually living?
I spoke of my photography career, the the portrait that I had taken of the President and some ridiculous comment about a photo shoot that I did with some nameless pop-star. I also mentioned that we were celebrating the sixth year of The Aperture Project and that we had benefited the lives of thousands of children all over the world by getting them to connect in meaningful ways through photography. There was more but you get the gist of the story. As I was to find out later that afternoon, this was the reason that I was standing at the backstage door.
A little later, Michelle the WDS team magician showed up, introduced herself and thanked us for showing up. She still didn’t “fill us in” as promised and eventually split us up and handed us off to various ambassadors who sat us in very specific seats throughout the theater and was told not to say a word. Obviously, I thought this is all still very strange and still had no no idea what was going on, so I sent Kate a text and asked her sit next to me. Once the seats started filling, I did as I always do and began introducing myself to people around me. They all seemed pretty normal I guess except for this one guy. He was real fidgety. He kept looking around and couldn’t stay still in the seat. “Whatever,” I thought, “he’s probably looking for a friend.”
As was to be expected the afternoon session began on-time and the next speaker was introduced, and the next, and a special presentation of participants who were to rap a cappella style to the Prince of Bel Air then suddenly it was over. I sat there nervously the whole time. I began thinking, “What? Why am I here? What’s going on?” Nothing happened.
Chris came on stage in his modest, unassuming way, made some announcements, looked at his watch, told the crowd that they wrapped up 15 minutes early and if everyone wanted to go they can, or if they’d like, he could tell a story. Of course everyone applauded loudly, wanting to hear his story.
He told us that as a kid many of the adults in his life would ask him and his friends that cliche adult question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Most of his friends would say stuff like “I want to be a doctor or an astronaut or the President” and the adults would say things like, “Oh, that’s great!” or “You can definitely do that!” But Chris, being that his favorite restaurant was Burger King would always tell the adults, “I want to work at Burger King.” Hearing this, they would hesitate and say, “Well, Chris, you can always change your mind later.” He loved Burger King and couldn’t understand their reactions, but learned to say other things that were more pleasing to the adults. And luckily he also realized that Burger King was not only a bad career choice but an equally bad diet choice.
Then he began to describe how they had asked WDS participants what they wanted to do when they grew up. He began describing the 2020 time capsule, and instantly, I knew exactly why I got that text message from Michelle, but I still had no idea exactly what was in store for me. He began to show short snippets of the videos and then told the audience that the WDS ambassadors knew exactly where everybody was sitting. They were that good and he was looking for some people. The first person he was looking for was sitting up in the balcony, and he pointed in my direction. He began naming the people sitting around me, telling people what they ate for breakfast and other random details about their lives. But they weren’t the person he was looking for and then he said, “Is Tom Rooney up there?” I stood up, and nervously said something. He asked me to come down and join him on the stage. When I arrived backstage, I was greeted by none other than that strange, fidgety gentleman who unbeknownst to me quietly left his seat sometime after the afternoon session began.
He said, “Hi Tom. Remember me?” I most certainly did, he was obviously a spy figuring out who was sitting around me, creating the perfect illusion of omniscient ambassadors. Chris performed his magic trick three more times with Ruthie, Bethany and Muffadal. Here we were all on stage and, one by one, they showed our 2020 videos then presented us with amazing gifts. In my case, Chris and the WDS team presented The Aperture Project with six digital cameras and the rental of a gallery when it comes time to exhibit the photos of Aperture Project participants. It was an amazing surprise!
I can’t tell you how grateful we are here at The Aperture Project for the kindness and generosity of Chris, Michelle and the WDS team. Thank you all for helping out what will undoubtedly become a world changing organization!
PS: Kate still owes me that $10.
Photos by: Armosa Studios / Creative Commons License. (Thank you, Tera!)
It’s true. The Aperture Project went on a bit of a hiatus for a while, but we are back, moving forward and making huge leaps of progress in turning our project into a reality.
So where did we go? To be honest, during the last couple elections, I went through a period of deep introspection. I saw our country divide deeply over issues of race, fairness and equality, the environment and women’s issues. I witnessed political pundits, and still do, take absolute fictions and deepen that divide by getting both sides to argue along the periphery versus finding issues in which all Americans could unite. They blended politics and religion when it served their purpose and then argued for the separation of those when it did not.
I was utterly dumbfounded by how we all, including myself, were sucked into arguing about our differences that I ultimately convinced myself that based solely on what I was witnessing that this project was doomed for failure. I felt that we were slipping backwards as a society and I became very disheartened. How could I transform the world by connecting children and young people based on their similarities and inclusion when we as adults were hell bent on dividing the world based on our differences?v
I thought to myself, “The world doesn’t want this. People don’t care, so why should I.” Unfortunately, for a brief period of time I slipped into a world of cynicism and resignation. I lost sight that change is possible and even a single individual can change the world for the better.
Regardless of these setbacks, the dream of The Aperture Project never left my heart, and over time I realized it was exactly these things that convinced me that the United States and the world needs this project now more than ever. We live in an amazing period of transformation and change in which we need to realize that despite our differences we as human beings are far more alike than different. If we can find ways to relate to one another based on those commonalities, then we can do great things in the world!
Please join me in moving The Aperture Project forward and making this world a better place. Thanks!