Five Things I Learned at the 2015 Web Summit

In November of last year, I attended the 2015 Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland. You may be wondering why I waited this long to write about the experience; why I waited until a time when the gravity of the event had waned and the grandeur had been watered down. I wondered the same thing. But conceptualizing an experience of this magnitude and repainting it with my own words had been a tricky feat for me, partly because I knew I wanted to (eventually) do the event justice, and partly because I honestly hadn't been able to fully comprehend the breadth of what I gained from the experience... that is, not until now.

Before I divulge, allow me to give you some context: the Web Summit is, by far and large, the biggest global tech conference in the world. Since its inception in 2010, the conference had been held annually in Dublin, effectively the designated tech hub of Europe following the event's meteoric growth. 2015 marked the final year of its Ireland homestay, as the conference moves to Portugal in November of this year. (Give me a shout if you’re attending – I’ll see you there!) The conference is organized in such a way where multiple platforms host a space for investors, entrepreneurs, business owners and their teams – from Fortune 500 companies to new and growing startups – to have an opportunity to network within a community of shared interest and passion – on a global scale.

During my stay, I mostly frequented the Sports and Marketing Summits (as the platforms are titled), but there were plenty more, including: Machine, Fintech, Health, Data, Music, Code Summits and more. There was also the Centre Stage, which welcomed the CEO's, CTO's and other big names of Tinder, Pixar, Facebook, Instagram, among other major companies. Nearly 2,000 exhibition booths had been set up across three days where 42,000 attendees gathered to present and share their ideas in an enclosed, global space. That may be an oxymoron, but it's the best way to describe the event. And if it sounds overwhelming, that's because it was. It certainly was. Which is why this piece took so long to gestate; why it took nearly four months to fully understand my place during the experience, and the mental space I've learned to occupy after it. And now I'm here to share the cardinal, if not crucial, lessons I learned from the event:

1. Passion is free, and without it, you’re broke. 

If you walk away from this post having absorbed one piece and one piece only, I hope this is the one you take away. Passion has always been something I preached. Tirelessly. Relentlessly. It married my bylines and bios alike – “with passion or not at all” – for as long as I can remember. A handful of people associate me with that line to this day: I lived by it. Or so I thought, because one day I found myself sitting in an office, building a series of budgets to help a client out of their debt – to free them of their burdens by temporarily taking it upon myself. With passion, or not at all? Not at all. I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing. Not at all.

Now, look – so many things in life cannot be done passionately: Taxes. Insurance claims. Quite literally any form that ever needs to be filled out. Having the ink bleed into a designated space where you input your household income or SSN isn’t something poets relish. There are no love songs about mortgage payments by Pablo Neruda. I know this. Much of which is trivial and trite does not reside in our souls or in our heart of hearts. But as I sat there, obsessively spewing financial solutions like I was offering sacraments and doing ritual dances around an Asherah pole decorated in Benjamins and credit scores, I realized this wasn't just another piddling piece of the puzzle. This was my life.

"Money talks, but it don’t sing and dance, and it don’t walk." A tip of the hat to Neil Diamond, for a more substantive sentiment had not been said or sung. And so, sitting in my office, staring down at my pantsuit rather than my Blue Jeans, I knew something had been lost along the way. I had divorced that byline. I was living in the "not at all" – I wasn’t serving my purpose. Not to myself, not to the world. “But I need this salary,” I’d remind myself. And then I found myself in the RDS venue at the Web Summit. That reminder fell silent.

Have you ever met someone who absolutely loved what they did for a living? It doesn’t matter what that was – that’s something most of us forget. But can you recall the fire in their breath, the twinkle in their eyes, the energy they emitted? Perfect. Now imagine that same energy multiplied by 42,000. That’s what I got to experience. It’s a high I’m pretty sure I've yet to come down from. 

Each and every person I interacted with had something to say. And I had many conversations I can't remember. But I specifically remember the way everyone would speak. The tone they'd use, the vibrance: with passion. I remembered what it meant to love what you do, to live for your purpose in life. It was more than a breath of fresh air; it was a hard kick in the heart. It was a reminder that you don’t need a title or promotion or a label to live a satisfying life; you need to satisfy the life you were meant to live. Every single one of us has something that consumes us, be it an idea, a hobby or a dream. These things that revive us, these things that feed us – all these things are free. Do they always come with the security of a well paying salary? No. But a slow death accompanied by a pretty penny is still a slow death, no matter how bright that penny shines. If there is a fire that burns within you, if there is something screaming inside of you that you know you need to put out there into the world, set it free and watch it grow. You may lose money, power, stability – but you will find yourself, and no price tag, label or comfort can ever match that.

 Processed with VSCOcam with p5 preset

2. Your business card is only an accessory.

During my three day participation at the Web Summit, I befriended a really cool chick who was studying and visiting from Spain, and I enjoyed a portion of the experience with her. She, too, exuded a passion for the music industry, and I absorbed every last drop of it prior to my return home. There was one moment where we sat down to take a breather away from the chaos, and I watched as she made little notes on the business cards she had collected. As I watched, I started mentally sifting through my stash of cards, and realized the only business I had remembered from that day (and still remember to this day) wasn’t attached to any of them. 

You can make a business card as creative and aesthetically appealing as possible. The marrow isn’t in the print, it’s in the exchange. That’s where that passion comes back into play (as it will with all my remaining points.) If you don’t verbally sell me on your product as you hand me your business card, I won’t remember you or your card. And I’ll probably discard it the very next time I reach into my wallet and find that it needs decluttering. 

And we’re not all natural salespeople. Despite my time as a consultant, I’m pretty awful at selling anything – unless I’m passionate about it. Unless my heart is in it. I can’t put my soul into communicating to you your refinancing options. But I can in my telling you about my plans to conquer gender equality and mental health. I can in my telling you how I want to solve problems using creativity and design. 

Am I making business cards for these endeavors and projects? Absolutely. But people will not remember me for those cards. They’re merely accessories. They’re there for someone to sit down and write notes on as she recollects what she gained from you. Give people something they can gain – something they can absorb and not simply collect. Maya Angelou once said: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” If that fire burns within you, everyone will feel it. No matter what you say, no matter what card you place in their hand. Find a way to make that connection – that exchange of positive energy – and you have secured yourself a memory and long lasting impression. Card or no card.

3. An idea is a great vehicle, but it needs a driver.

So, you’ve figured out what you love to do, or what you want to build. Cool. Awesome. You’re not done. (You haven’t even started.) 

It’s simple, but so many people (including myself at a time) honestly believe it stops there. That identifying your purpose in life had been the end goal. “No, dummy!” I eventually shouted in an internal conversation with myself. Go do it. Get it done. Get to work.

Again: simple concept, not so simple execution. Why? Fear, doubt, insecurity – all of these things limit us in our pursuits. And when we’re met with those barriers, the tricky and terrifying roadblocks that they are, the idea of a stable and safe desk job seems like a nice detour. Only many such detours often turn into a final destination. 

A large part of identifying a dream is seeing that dream become a reality. I know throughout this post I’ve sprinkled a ton of sunshine onto the concept and made it seem like the end-all, glorified pursuit of happiness (which I do believe it ultimately is.) But, in all honesty, following your passion will be a bitch as much as it will be bliss. It’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to be rough, but here’s the cool thing: many of the long nights, the failures, the gruesome workloads and never-ending dilemmas, will be cloaked and concealed by something greater than any of that pain. What would that be? You guessed it: passion. That’s not to say you won’t feel that pain. But a hell of a lot of pressure will be removed by the constant reminder that what you’re doing actually means something to you. That what you’re doing is necessary for your ultimate survival. That you’re serving your purpose. 

There were 2,000+ exhibition booths at the conference, complete with descriptions and prototypes and general information of various ventures. Those weren’t collections of ideas – they were those ideas put into action, into motion, into substance. They were 2,000 different purposes fulfilled. What is your purpose, and how are you going to fulfill it?

4. Don’t build a life just to sit and look at it.

There is, of course, a sense of accomplishment that comes from a) identifying your passion and b) seeing it through. But is it possible to go through that process, take a step back, and not be fulfilled? Yes, it is. And I’ll tell you why: sometimes, we’re not honest with ourselves. 

Truthfully, this should probably be the first lesson as it is a prerequisite for pinpointing your passion. You need to be honest with yourself. When I write that something must feel like "a fire in the pit of your stomach," I’m not writing that for poetic tonality, I honestly mean just that: your blood boils when you think about it, you sweat when you talk about it, you pace back and forth in a room by yourself and talk loudly and proudly about it as if you were giving a TED talk (okay, maybe only I do that.)

A lot of the time, we like to sit and picture in our minds the type of people we want to be. Many of us want to be good, and to do good. Many of us find what appeals to us in others’ pursuits and we want to be just like that – we want to emulate those whom we idolize, because we take a liking to the idea of appearing in a similar, attractive, manner. 

But then what? 

Say you build a life around yourself, one that looks really cool on Instagram or one you take pride in discussing on first dates or one you think your parents would be proud of. Then what? Are you happy that your life looks a certain way, or are you happy because you answered an inherent call that satisfied your soul? Do you take pride in what you actually created, or rather, how your creation looks to the outside world? 

These are questions that require a lot of introspection. And a lot of humility, too. For the longest time, I’d beamingly announce that I wanted to work my way up and, someday, become general manager of a hockey team in the NHL. Why? Because I’ve always known I was a hard worker, and that it was a bad ass goal, and that it would be cool to hold such a position.

But then I thought about it a step further and asked myself that same question: "Then what?" Say I become GM and collect my “Congratulations!” and similar sentiments and applause. And then the day passes and hands itself over to the next – to a day when the congratulations have faded into the past and I have to actually go to work. I got here. Now what? Why did I want this?

It was this very lesson that was the hardest to swallow, but also one that was most liberating once I got it down. I’m a natural born problem solver and I have my own ways of going about it. I’m a hard worker and have the conviction necessary to obtain such a position should I choose to. But I choose not to. I swallowed my pride and admitted that to myself. Because, ultimately, I want to work toward a goal that feeds my passion, not one that grants me a label. I want to solve problems and puzzles and find ways to offer nifty solutions. Does that eliminate the NHL or any hockey club? No. But ownership and stature no longer appeal to me. I do not care what my career looks like. I care about what it does to service myself and my respective communities. 

Let's take it a step beyond your career: “I want to be married by 28,” “I want to travel the world,” “I want to climb Everest.” Okay – but then what? Are these respectable, attainable goals? Absolutely. But always remember: when you feed anything – be it a legitimate, burning fire or a fabricated one – eventually the fire is fed, the journey completed, the goal obtained. 

Ever finish a not-so-delicious meal that left you full, but at the same time, still extremely hungry? That’s what happens when you falsely identify what you want out of life. You'll never truly be fulfilled; you'll never truly be full. Think deeply about what you really want to do, not for its allure or physical appeal, but for how it serves you. Find your own delicious meal, and feed your own fire. 

5. Go big, or go grow.

I was walking around the main entrance of the Sports Summit, trying to bide my time before one of the talks I had my eye on that day. Actively disentangling my own thoughts from the strings of varying dialogues within auditory range, I navigated through the crowd until one nearby conversation brought me to a sudden halt. I heard two people discussing concussions in sports; “concussion” being the first word I latched onto. Being someone that is repeatedly preoccupied with both hockey and mental health, this was obviously something that piqued my interest.

I (very) awkwardly lingered around and waited for the conversation to end, so that I could jump in and collect whatever thoughts, ideas and opinions were exchanged. The conversation ended and the woman started walking away. In retrospect, I most likely chased her in the few steps that trimmed our distance. “Miss?”

It was two-time Olympic Gold medalist Cindy Parlow Cone of the U.S. Women’s National Team (1995-2006). 

“Miss?” I’m not a huge soccer fan by any means, and she was both brief and humble in her identifying her role in the USWNT. But we didn’t speak about her, and we didn’t speak about me – we spoke about concussions in sports and what is to be done about it. That conversation lasted a lot longer than most I’ve had at the conference, as many followed a very “speed-dating” approach to networking. But she and I simply exchanged ideas and thoughts; spirited sentences and non-verbal head nods that acknowledged a shared passion for the long-term health and betterment of sport. 

Whether I knew who I’d be talking to or not, the conversation came to be without my prior knowledge or planning, and it concluded without the unveiling of monuments or parades. Many of the pivotal moments in life – many of those “game-changers” – will not reveal themselves in grand gestures or giant leaps. Not every step needs to be an Armstrong step. That conversation, for me, helped me further understand my role and my purpose. And it just sorted of… happened. The way many great things of many different weights do.

A life isn’t built in a day. A goal isn’t achieved with one major move. A passion isn’t fed by one grand revelation. You don’t have to “go big” to dream big. It's not all about the one big plunge or that one hot ticket. The little steps and the little moments and the little in-betweens are what build the foundation, and ultimately what help you grow.

Of course, if you see a great opportunity that tests your courage, take it. By all means, seize it. But don’t think that you’re not getting to where you need to be if you haven’t found those opportunities yet. Do the work, and they will come. But don’t discredit the depth in your journey because you’ve been taking small steps. Steps of any size and any magnitude imply progression. The only way you don’t grow is if you stand still. 

Apart from these five lessons, the conference itself obviously offered many cool and innovative ideas and products in the course of three days – which, in hindsight, words like "cool" and "innovative" are incredibly lazy descriptors in consideration of just how amazing many of those products were. In any case, I conclude with this short video I took of Stan Karpenko during his talk on augmented reality and Give Vision, a next-generation developer of software for the visually impaired. This is just one example of how far serving your purpose and working tirelessly toward a passion can take you. Enjoy:

Kathy PolotravelComment