I Don’t Want to be the Smartest One in the Room

My mom used to tell me, “You don’t want to buy the nicest house on the block.” She didn’t just say it when I was buying real estate, but used it as an analogy when she was dispensing other words of wisdom.  Maybe that’s why I grew up not wanting to be the “smartest person in room.”

When I was very young, I used to create characters that I wanted to hang out with. Hot air balloon floating overe Hunterdon County, NJ One was my imaginary friend Peteso who was a “newspaper boy” in China, doing dare devil stunts on his bicycle as he delivered his papers.  There were plenty of others, each one bringing something exciting to my more mundane life of a typical 5 year old child.

By the time I got out of college, I had traveled the world, building all sorts of relationships with people from many different cultures who had broadened my mind as to how I saw the world and myself.  I gravitated toward people who were NOT like me.

When I first began my career as a photographer, I had the great fortune of having  an incredible art director, Adrian Taylor as my mentor.  Adrian had a colorful career as an art director for magazines like Holiday (the original) and Travel & Leisure, which is how I connected with him.  Adrian took my partner Tom and I under his wing when we were first starting out.  He encouraged us by believing in us and he made me always want to put everything I had into an assignment and improve with each one.

We learned a lot from Adrian, but perhaps one of his greatest gifts was to include us in lunches, dinners and parties with some of the best photographers of that time – Arnold Newman, Slim Aarons, Pete Turner, Al Satterwhite, John Lewis Stage, Fred Maroon and countless others.  Being in the room or literally “at the table” with these legends and listening to their stories and advice was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. What I learned from these photographers is the kind of stuff you don’t learn at a photography school.  And it wasn’t necessarily things like business tips or photographic technique.  They talked about their passion and their ideas and it awakened me to the possibilities within myself.

I’ve been preparing a presentation that I’ll be doing for ASMP at the NAB Show (National Association of Broadcasters) next week. As much as I’m grateful to be able to share my knowledge at this prestigious conference, I have to remind myself that it’s only possible because I’ve lived my life, putting myself in situations and environments where there are people who are much smarter than me.  In fact, for me the best part of NAB is to sit in on some of the panel discussions with the movers and shakers of the industry and listen to what they’re talking about.

These days, when I fantasize, I no longer create make believe characters to hang out with.  Instead I imagine myself at a table, having a discussion with people who intrigue me on some level and expand my mind to a place it hasn’t gone before. And then I set out to make my fantasy come true.


Forcing Accountability

Yesterday was one of those days that I had a hundred things to do and only a few hours to do them.  I had to give final approval of an ePub I was wrapping up, package and send out exhibition Blurays and posters to film festivals that I have been invited to and finish a video job I was editing, all before heading into NYC to moderate a panel discussion on video for the NYC chapter of ASMP.  My mom used to say, “If you want something done – ask a busy person”.  I never did understand that when I was younger but I know now, that the busier I am – the better I am with utilizing my time.

I was also fine-tuning the presentation that I was going to be giving to the students at Brooks Institute next week. As an alumna of Brooks,

Gail Mooney as a student at Brooks Institute
© Chad Weckler

I was honored when I was asked to speak. I was also taking this responsibility seriously and I was getting a bit stressed over it, which is uncharacteristic for me.  I’m usually very comfortable with public speaking.  I knew I wanted to talk about the value of “community” and how being part of the ASMP has played into that, but I didn’t want to sound “canned”.  I knew that I needed to personalize that message and really boil it down to what that has meant to me.  But I also knew I needed to come off as someone who is still relevant and not be perceived by the students as just someone whose their mother’s age. I needed to show my spirit inside that hasn’t aged at all since graduating from Brooks all those years ago.  I knew I needed to put myself in their shoes and see through their eyes in order to really connect with them. I started thinking in terms of what I know now and what I wished I had known back when I was a student at Brooks.

So, as I headed into NYC, I had a lot going through my mind.  The ASMP event was great.  It was a packed room with an engaged audience and terrific panelists.  But the best part of the evening was the networking after the event.  That’s where the real sharing of information happens and a sense of community is felt.  It’s easy to get disconnected these days from the human connection because we all spend so much (too much) time online.  That human connection will never be replaced by technology. That was one thing I wanted to point out to the students when I talked to them next week – to physically get “out there”.

I got home late and woke up early and needed a good jolt of coffee while I checked my emails.  One email jumped out at me. It was a newsletter from Jonathan Fields who I started subscribing to after hearing Jonathan speak at the World Domination Summit this summer.   The newsletter had a link to a video of Jonathan interviewing, Chris Guillebeau the founder of the World Domination Summit.  Chris writes a blog that I follow, called the Art of Non-Conformity.  As I listened to the interview, it became clearer as far as what I wanted to say to the students in my presentation next week. Chris said one thing that was right on target.  He was talking about pursuing an idea and he said that by putting your idea out to the world – by telling someone about it – you were in fact “forcing accountability”.

I thought back to when I first had the crazy notion of traveling around the world with the purpose of creating a feature documentary about individuals on six continents who were making a positive difference in our world.  The idea had been tossing around in my head for months before I told anyone.  Then one evening as I was walking back from dinner with fellow ASMP board member, Blake Discher, I decided to put the idea “out there”.  It was something I did on impulse, but as I look back on it now, Blake was probably the right one to “test run” this crazy idea on.  He responded with an affirming, “thumbs up”, but not overly exuberant, which was exactly what I needed. Blake is a very grounded person, so for someone like him to not look at me and tell me that I was out of my mind, was the nudge I needed.  So, it was that short, impulsive, casual conversation that forced me to be accountable with my idea.

I went on to make the movie that I set out to make and even better, I got to share the experience with my daughter Erin.  It has changed both of our lives for the better.  That’s not to say that everything has worked out in ways that I may have wanted or thought I wanted.  But it has been a journey that I was meant to take. I have met people that I never would have met in the process and that in turn has led to so many more incredible experiences and adventures that I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

I started thinking about my life’s journey and all the things I have learned since my days as a student at Brooks.  And then I thought,  “what if I knew then what I know now? “  The thing is, if I had already known all those things back when I was a student, I never would have had the journey that I’ve had.  Everything happens in its own time and when it is meant to happen.  And that’s what life’s all about – the journey along the way and that only happens when we leave room for the unexpected.

Living a Remarkable Life in a Conventional World

Have you ever had an experience that you just don’t want to end?  I have.  I have just returned from

Photo WDS by Chris Guillebeau

The World Domination Summit in Portland, OR and I want the experience to linger on – I don’t want the thoughts and feelings inside to end.

It has been hard and amusing when I try to explain to someone what this conference was all about with a name like The World Domination Summit.  It sparked impromptu conversations with people I met in elevators, in restaurants, or on the street, when they spotted my tag.  I told them that it is a gathering of people – 1000 people – who wanted to live a remarkable life in the conventional world we live in. Unlike other conferences, where attendees come from similar professions – this conference was attended by people of all ages, from college kids to 70 year olds and from all walks off life.  But, everyone had one thing in common – they wanted to live a rewarding life – a life of hope, happiness and possibility.

When I signed up last January, I knew it was bound to be an interesting weekend. I had no idea who the speakers were going to be, but the first WDS that Chris Guillebeau and his team organized last year, was quickly sold out and I didn’t want miss out on this year’s event.  When the tickets were put on sale for this year’s conference – they sold out in 10 minutes.  1000 tickets were sold – 5000 people were waitlisted.  I was one of the fortunate ones.

I should point out another unique thing about this conference – it is entirely done with volunteers.  Even the amazing speakers volunteer  – speakers like Brene Brown, Scott Harrison, Scott Belsky, and Chris Brogan.  There were informative and quirky workshops like “ The Right-Brain Business Plan: Turn Passion into Profit” to “Mondo Beyondo Meetup: What are your Superpowers” and there were plenty of other meetups around town, one could find out about on the WDS.fm twitter page.

I met the most interesting people, from all over the world and it was easy to pick up on other people’s enthusiasm and energy. 1000 people who thought a little bit different from the status quo. – people who looked at the whole notion of “business” differently.  They understood the importance of both serendipity and strategy, the power of mentoring and leading by service and soul.

After the final keynote speaker, Chris Guillebeau announced that he had a surprise.  He stood on the stage with an empty chair beside him and talked about the conference itself.  How it had doubled in size from the first year to the next and how he capped it at 1000 people, even though he had another 5000 people on the waiting list.  He talked about the fact that the conference had no sponsors and that nothing was promoted – there was a table where one could buy some of the speakers’ books but they were never promoted. Chris said he decided not to have sponsors because he didn’t want to devote time to sponsor announcements. And then he said that an anonymous donor came forward and made a sizable donation.  Chris and his team talked a lot about what they would do with this money and they decided to give it back to all of the attendees.  And then he told us that when we left the theater we would be handed an envelope with a note and a $100 bill!  Chris and his team of volunteers would be handing out $100,000.

As I left the theater I received an envelope with a crisp new $100 in it wrapped around a note that said:

The $100 Investment

Thanks for making the #WDS2012 a fantastic experience.  We’d love to see how you can put these funds to good use.  Start a project, surprise someone, or do something entirely different – it’s up to you.

The World Domination Summit

Incidentally, when we first checked in for the summit, we were handed our credentials, a t-shirt, and a backpack.  Inside the backpack was a stainless steel water bottle and Chris’s new book “The $100 Startup“.

I don’t think there will be one person who received that envelope that day who won’t think twice about spending that $100.  And think about the power in that – think about the possible outcomes.  That’s a refreshing way to look at “business”.  If that type of philosophy has a chance of dominating the world – I’m all for it.

“Unused creativity is not benign. It turns into grief judgment and shame.”Brene Brown – speaker at WDS 2012

Being Yourself

Yesterday, I gave a talk and showed a bit of my film, Opening Our Eyes,

Movie poster for Opening Our Eyes

at the PACA conference in New York City.  I had been asked by ASPP to speak about the making of the film and my plans for distribution.  To tell you the truth, even though I’m always thrilled to show and/or talk about the film, I was a bit nervous with this crowd.  PACA stands for the Picture Archive Council of America and its member include some of the biggest stock photo agencies in the world, including Getty, Corbis, Masterfile and Alamy. I was nervous because part of my message was that I no longer needed the validation or others to get my stories to market.

I thought my message would be somewhat threatening, because I was telling the audience that content creators no longer needed the traditional gatekeepers of the past, to get their stories “out there.”  That because of technology, it was possible for the individual to have a global reach and if one is willing to do the work – the prize is all theirs – meaning the monetary rewards.

I had a tough time slot to speak – right after lunch  –  I knew that I would be dimming the lights for the film and that is never a good thing to do in that time slot.  But, Tom Kennedy had given his very inspirational talk about new media and new opportunities in the  marketplace.  I had heard Tom’s talk  as part of ASMP’s SB 3 series this past year – and I knew that my presentation was a great follow up to his – and in fact it was almost like a case study example of what Tom was talking about.

My presentation went amazingly well and as I looked out into the dimly lit audience as the film was playing – I couldn’t see any closed eyes.  I felt that I made a connection, and that perhaps in some small way, I had made a difference.  Maybe, I just got people thinking about what they could do to make a difference in their own lives.  And maybe I had influence beyond that.  But, I know that I stayed true to myself.  My intent was not to come off as threatening  – but I did want to make people feel a tiny bit uncomfortable.  It’s when we get uncomfortable that we push ourselves to a better place.

My message was simple.  Someone doesn’t need to lose – in order for someone else to win.

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The Power of Yes

I’ve just experienced one of the most extraordinary weekends of my life – all because I said yes.  Barely more than a week ago, I sent an email with a link to the trailer of my documentary to Rebecca Self,

Rebecca Self at the European Summit for Global Transformation

who I was introduced to by two of the subjects in my film, Letha Sandison and Maggie Doyne.

Letha Sandison and Maggie Doyne

Rebecca is an amazing woman – she’s a connector of change makers.  The day after Rebecca got my email, she replied “Would you consider coming to Amsterdam this weekend and showing your trailer at The European Summit for Global Transformation.  My first thought was “wow” – and with a title like that, it was bound to be a gathering of very interesting people.  My next thought was, “it’s not possible – there’s not enough time – the airfare will be high” etc. etc.  All very practical thoughts – right?

And then I flipped it and told myself all the reasons I should say yes. I ‘d have the opportunity to show a culturally diverse audience a sample of my film and talk about the idea behind it. I would get to see Letha and Maggie again because they were going to be speaking.  And most importantly, I would be spending the weekend with people that not only believed that anything is possible – but are making the impossible happen, together. So I replied to Rebecca and said YES.

For two days I listened, as all kinds of people told their stories – people who are actively doing things that are making our world a better place. They awed me with their courage, their commitment and their passion.  But the most empowering part of the conference was connecting with these people, who were not only there to talk about what they were doing, but also to network with others to help them make their commitments a reality.

As I write this, on my last night in Amsterdam. I’m ready to head out to have one final dinner with some of the most fascinating  people I have ever met.  It has been a powerful weekend, being part of this group of people, from all over the world that are making extraordinary things happen.  This is what my film is all about – the power of the individual, working together to make things happen – across the globe.

To be able to show my ten-minute trailer to these amazing change makers was an honor and reward in itself.  But to spend the weekend with such a unique group of people who believe that anything is possible, was extraordinary and fortified me as I go forward in editing over 150 hours of footage.

I have a friend who is always telling me that I need to say “no” more often – because I tend to spread myself too thin.  But this time, I was glad I said “yes”.

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