Earlier this summer I attended the World Domination Summit (WDS), an annual event in Portland, Oregon with a few thousand attendees. It is a week-long collection of meetings, events, speakers and parties with the core principals of community, adventure and service. Now if that sounds kind of vague and nonspecific I’m with you; actually I had no idea what to expect from it. I originally heard about WDS a few years ago when I met J.D. Roth, super hero and financial blogger (and also a really nice guy) who also happened to be the co-founder. On a whim I decided to give it a try.
I found myself in Portland on a sunny and beautiful Saturday morning, awaiting whatever it had to offer. To be honest my heart was not into it. I had already missed several days of smaller meetups earlier in the week due to work of all things. It was just one of those weeks that everyone needed off and I could not switch out of it. I was going into the weekend exhausted, had a chronic headache I couldn’t shake and was still trying to figure why I was here in the first place. I had no real purpose or sense of what I was trying to accomplish.
There were hundreds of caffeinated and over-enthusiastic people in line to get into the theater for the main event talks, which had the feel of a cross between a cult and a rock concert. Maybe I just needed more coffee.
The main stage event was a series of TED-like talks given by a diverse group of inspirational people, including my favorite leader of a fake ironic cult, Mr. Money Mustache (aka Pete), who I ran into while waiting in line for the afternoon sessions. His talk was at the end of the day and by that time my headache was down to “irritating but probably not an intracranial hemorrhage level”. Pete gave a great talk by the way; you can check it out here.
I came back Sunday morning for a second round of talks, a bit recharged but still not completely engaged and into the spirit of the weekend. I listened to a talk that made it all worth it though. A talk that shifted my perspective and gave me insight into a truth we all know, but is hidden from us most of the time.
They introduced him as a comedian with a book and a TV show, blah, blah, blah whatever. I wasn’t really paying close attention. They showed us a clip of his work from his YouTube channel as an introduction and it did grab my attention. You see Zach has cerebral palsy which causes some severe physical limitations; definitely not what I was expecting.
However, in spite of his physical disability he managed to get his own television show, write a book, become a successful comedian and travel the world. As he told his story I became more and more engaged in what he was saying. There was a certain feel to the room, a little hard to describe and maybe it was just me feeling it, but it felt different than some of the other talks. There was a different kind of authenticity and maybe it was because of what was visible; the wheelchair, the spasms, the occasional tremors. Maybe it was the stark contrast between the visible physical limitations and the humor and relentless optimism which poured from this young man. A particular part of his talk grabbed me though.
One of the greatest things that having cerebral palsy has given me is the knowledge that I can’t do it alone. And that’s true for everyone here; it’s just that my limitations are more obvious to me and others than yours might be. And it makes me realize that every success that I’ve had has at least been in part facilitated by other people. So I’m able to embrace every struggle that I’ve had with a spirit of gratitude.
Words are so powerful at times, and these words caught me off guard. These are important observations. We can’t and don’t do it alone. All of us rely on others for support, whether it is physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. We are separate, but cannot survive without others. Reliance on others is both our greatest strength and weakness as humans.
There is a narrative in our culture that everything we do and accomplish is because of hard work, determination and perseverance. But the flip side of that narrative is that when we fail it is because of our laziness, lack of focus or some other fault with who we are. I think sometimes when we can’t do it alone we feel shame because we look around and see other people that are succeeding. They are complete, and we are not. They are perfect and we are flawed. We ask for help because we view it as a form of weakness. We become the failure.
We discount luck and chance, but Zach ending up in the wheelchair was not due to his skill or lack of hard work. It was the hand he was dealt. My being born into a supportive family in the middle class of the richest, most powerful and highly stable country was not skill, it was luck. I have advantages and disadvantages that are unseen, both to others and myself.
I see this narrative all the time in the field of medicine, and I have felt it. There is a standard that is set and if you can’t live up to it you are a failure. Notice I didn’t say that you fail, but that you become a failure. This attitude is endemic, and when people run into their limitations and don’t get help there is danger or spiraling into despair. As we become less healthy we are unable to function as efficiently, we fail more often, and try and catch up, our resilience buckles, and we fall further behind. It can be a cycle with no end. Often it does not end well.
We are all dealt unique hands, and sometimes we are just not equipped to know how to play the cards right. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but they are often not well defined. They are invisible to us and to our fellow humans. We can all look at Zach and know in an instant what his limitations are, or at least get a general idea. But the spectrum of neuroses, self-doubt, depression, anxiety and even shades of personality disorders that we may not even call pathology limit all of us to some degree.
They (friends) give me the confidence to recognize that failures, faults and major assists don’t need to be excluded from a narrative of success.
We all have limits and if we push hard enough we will bump up against them. So really we have two choices; we can play it safe and stay away from the limits of our potential, or we can push up against that wall. When we reach and stretch ourselves we often require help that is more visible and apparent, even though at some level it has always been there in the background. We will fail more often, but Zach is right, we don’t need to exclude our failures from our story. We can accept it all as part of us and make peace with our limitations.
You can watch the video of Zach’s talk here.
After the morning session was over I went to go find Zach. I don’t know why but I just wanted to thank him for speaking. I had a lot of really smart sounding questions in my head that I would ask him. I wandered down to the street where people were waiting to talk with him and get pictures, etc. After a while I approached.
HP: “Hi. I really didn’t know who you were until today but your talk was great!”
Zach: “Thanks, I really appreciate that”
Me: “Yeah. Awesome.”
Zach: “Thank you.”
Me: “Alright. See you later”
See you later? I’m never going to see this guy again. What a dumb thing to say. It’s like when a barista tells you to enjoy your coffee and you say ‘you too’. And where did all those smart sounding questions go? Some philosopher you are. And why the %&$# am I talking to myself? Aaaaarg!
So I’m not sure if that’s exactly how the conversation went, but I definitely was not awesome. I guess even this philosopher has his limitations.
Later that day I met up with J.D. and Pete for a bit. It was good to see those guys. I loved hearing about their new projects and ideas. I started easing back into my more typical happy self. The headache and useless self-talk was slowly being replaced by gratitude, and I realized a lot of the grief I was causing myself was self-induced (as usual).
By the end of the day I was pretty exhausted. The weekend had taken its toll. I even skipped the closing party on Sunday night as I just wanted a quiet dinner and a good night sleep. I was glad I went though. I’m happy I allowed myself to learn something new. Sometimes life lessons sneak up on you and find you when you are not expecting them.