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Even Cancer Couldn’t Keep Me from WDS: 12 Lessons from the 2014 World Domination Summit

chrisstageLast year, at the end of the 2013 World Domination Summit in July, I bought my ticket for this year’s festivities (to lock things in since tickets sell out every year, and to take advantage of the attendee discount). Little did I know that 6 months later I would be diagnosed with stage IV cancer, basically putting on hold every plan I had made for myself for the foreseeable future.

Given the extremely intense chemo schedule my doctor put me on, I assumed my ticket would go unused and that I wouldn’t be able to make the conference. The next 6 months were pretty awful, but to my surprise and relief my physical health turned around about a month ago and I made travel plans for Portland. WDS, here I come!

The conference did not disappoint. To people unfamiliar with it, the name can sound a little strange, but the core message of the event is inspiring: How do we leverage the values of community, adventure, and service to live a remarkable life in a conventional world? That it was extra-hard for me to get there made it all the more meaningful.


For those of you wondering, physically I did pretty well with the traveling, but it definitely took a toll on my body. I was feeling good the day I left and thought I could navigate the airport without the wheelchair service I typically request, but just the excitement of packing made me feel a sick, so I ended up ordering the wheelchair.When I landed in Portland they wheeled me right from the plane onto the train that goes to downtown Portland (and dropped me off only a block from my hotel), which was awesome.

Over the weekend I made an effort to avoid overexerting myself, so a lot of time was spent in my hotel room watching Bravo and eating meals I picked up at the food carts down the street from the hotel. I was at the Westin, so no complaining here (by the way, my plane ticket and hotel were free, paid for with points I got by travel hacking — a skill I learned at last year’s WDS).

The next day, Friday, I spent the morning in the hotel room feeling not-so-great because I got sick in the middle of the night and had trouble sleeping  (for some reason didn’t take sleeping meds like I typically do). I recovered just in time to make it to Scott Dinsmore’s meet up (Scott writes at a great blog, Live Your Legend), and then hung out with new and old friends at registration and the opening party. (By the way, it was so great meeting so many readers — thanks to those who came up and said hi! I know there were some I missed — sorry we didn’t get a chance to connect this time, and I know there will be more opportunities in the future).


Saturday I made it to all the main stage sessions, although in the dark theater I found myself doing the head nod thing and having trouble staying awake. When I look back at the notes I took I don’t even remember writing some of them (what was I thinking when I wrote “thyroid cancer tattoo girl?). Not a big deal — videos of the speakers will be put online at some point, so I’ll get a chance to see them again.

Sunday, unfortunately, is when I started to feel more sick. I, again, got nauseous in the middle of the night, and by this point had started to develop mucositis from the past weeks of chemo (a fancy word for extremely painful ulcerations along the mucous membranes of the GI tract, most debilitating in the mouth).

I was unprepared and did not have my kit of mouth-numbing medications and mouthwashes, and so eating started to become a problem. Between that and general fatigue and pain, I skipped out on the closing party Sunday night and spent the evening in my hotel room.

The next day, the mucositis was getting to be a problem and even when I wasn’t trying to eat, drink, or speak I had a sharp, extremely uncomfortable ache from my mouth. By the time my plane took off around midday Monday, I was ready to go home.

Tuesday was the first day of my next round of chemo (sorry I’m getting this post out a day late by the way — what should have been a two hour chemo session turned into a 7-hour mess… these things happen), which is the most intense block — 9 days of chemo in the next two weeks. Ugh. I did see my Stanford oncologist yesterday, though, and am stocked up on numbing mouthwash and other mucositis accoutrements.


Without further ado, here are 12 lessons I learned from the 2014 World Domination Summit:

1. We are all more interconnected than we think. AJ Jacobs, human guinea pig and author of the NY Times bestsellers The Year of Living Biblically (about his experiment trying to follow every rule in the Bible) and Drop Dead Healthy (about his experiment trying to become the healthiest person in the world), talked about his latest project: to hold the largest family reunion in history.

Through his research, he discovered that everyone on the planet is 55th cousins or less, and the largest family tree (on Geni) has 77 million people. That person standing in front of you in Starbucks? Maybe you’re more connected than you think. It’s hard to hold hate in your heart for people you share more in common with than not.

2. Chose love over metrics. Jadah Sellner, healthy living advocate and co-founder of Simple Green Smoothies, reminded the audience that it’s easy as a blogger and small business owner to focus on numbers like subscribers and sales, but ultimately the important part of our work is the people we serve and community we create.


3. When you get creative, you can find a way to make a living doing the work you love. Gavin Aung Than felt stuck working a boring corporate job. He considered talents he had that could help others, started illustrating cartoons of famous quotes, and then quit his job to do his passion full time at Zen Pencils. If he can do it… maybe you could too?

4.To change the world, we need to combat apathy. Shannon Galpin, an activist and rape survivor who channeled a terrible experience into a mission to help oppressed women find a voice, talked about her work in Afghanistan seeking out and sharing women’s stories of violence and oppression to combat the lack of knowledge and apathy that prevents change. Sometimes we need to be reminded what’s going on in the world to care enough to try to change it.

Are you on a mission? Is there something about the world you want to change? Find a way to put the issue in front of people any way you can — writing, speaking, art, etc.

5. If we don’t live purposefully, we’ll either drift aimlessly or pursue empty goals without knowing why. Michael Hyatt, author of the bestseller Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World and former chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the largest faith-based publisher in the world, spoke about his own experience seeing his alcoholic father drift through life. Hyatt tried to do right by vowing not to be like his father, but overcorrected by becoming disconnected from his own family.

The optimal way to live is consciously, where we pay attention to the direction we go and the choices we make, and aren’t subconsciously controlled by past experiences.


6. Jump and the net will appear. Saki Mafundikwa left a successful design career in New York to return to his native Zimbabwe and open Ziva, the country’s first school of graphic design and new media. His mission has faced many challenges, including lack of funding, but Mafundikwa’s philosophy is “jump and the net will appear.” Have a calling? Start walking the path (or taking the leap) — the details will figure themselves out.

7. Good things happen when you are brave. Gary Hirsch makes beautiful hand-painted robots, and most recently launched his “brave bot” to help encourage everyone in the world to do one brave thing (each audience member was gifted their own brave bot — although sadly, of all speakers I missed, this was the one! The bots are super cute and I plan to order one from his website).

He asked the audience, “What’s one brave thing you’ve done?” and “What’s one brave thing you want to do but haven’t?” There’s no time like the present to try.

8. Good things happen in small spaces. Dee Williams, author of The Big Tiny and co-owner of Portland Alternative Dwellings (which leads workshops focused on tiny houses, green building, and community design) is one of the biggest leaders of the Tiny House movement. After a heart attack at 40, she decided she needed to change her life and simplify by building her own tiny house, measuring 84 sq ft.

I personally have had a chance to see and walk through some tiny houses and am completely in love with the idea. While I probably will want a little more space in my own home, I believe that the bigger the house, the more stuff we collect, and the more mental energy we expend trying to keep track of it.


9. Good things happen when you listen instead of speak. John Francis, author of Planetwalker: 17 Years of Silence, 22 Years of Walking, and the Raggard Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World, started his environmental work in 1971 when he witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay and was motivated to give up motorized vehicles. This first step led to a vow of silence lasting 17 years, during which Francis still managed to found a nonprofit and get a B.S., Masters and PhD (he is now speaking and has broken his silence).

Amazingly, but unsurprisingly, it was Francis’ silence that allowed him to discover a new realm of listening and learning. What might you learn by listening instead of speaking?

10. Great people do things before they’re ready. Elise Blaha Cripe, a writer and crafter blogging at elisejoy.com who challenges herself regularly with new craft projects (including one challenge to decorate a playing card every day for a year), started her talk with a quote from Amy Poehler — “Great people do things before they’re ready.” Cripe learned that to foster her creativity and move her business forward she had to learn to become an “expert in the attempt” and be okay with failing.

11. Write down all of your ideas. Scott Berkun, bestselling author of Making Things Happen and The Myths of Innovation, spoke about how we’re at risk of losing our creative souls, and how important it is we listen to and honor our creative voice. A big part of this? Write down all your ideas! You’d be surprised at how fast even a great idea can slip out of your mind. I carry a moleskin with me at all times to capture ideas, and if I forget my moleskin my iPhone Notes app works in a pinch.


12. There is no rush when it comes to big plans; put forth effort but know everything will happen organically when it’s meant to happen. This last one is from me. It’s easy coming out of a conference like this to feel overwhelmed with the possibilities and opportunities, and rushed to start new plans in motion. It’s great to get excited, but there is no rush. Whatever you’re working on is probably a life-long process, right?

I think about the goals I had before getting cancer, and how my diagnosis threw all my life plans out of whack. But you know what? New opportunities have presented themselves — more opportunities, in fact, than I have the physical energy to pursue right now. I still find great joy in taking on the projects I feel able to take on, and I look forward to the great things I hope to do in the future when I’m physically better.

I’ve already bought my ticket for the 2015 World Domination Summit. Who knows what will happen between then and now, but I look forward to finding out!

A Quick Note: My latest column at Reimagine was just published — you can take a look at it here. I talk about the experience of losing my hair and the impact it had on my self-image. If you missed the first two columns — you can read the first here (about my initial diagnosis) and the second here (about the decision whether or not to pursue fertility preservation I had to make days later).


Photos by Armosa Studios


  1. This sounds like a very positive, inspiring conference — thanks for sharing your takeaways & connecting readers to what look like an impressive slate of speakers. (Plus, my very good friend Karen is in the first picture!)

  2. Caitlin Moushall says:

    Thank you so so much for this post. I am always searching for new inspiring people to follow (such as yourself) and I am excited about the new information you’ve given me in this post. I am struggling to battle illness myself and understand how hard it is when you feel impatient to start a life that your physical self is not capable of just yet. Thank you so much for writing and posting this, even though are in the midst of treatment and knocked about from the trip itself – your efforts are appreciated! And good on you for going on the trip!

  3. Marlene E. says:

    Elana, so, SO very happy you got to attend that great event! I know it was a big dream to make it there. Words cannot express how joyous that makes me feel. I want to send you a very special THANKS!!! The 12 lessons learned are worth gold for me. They are gems I am needing at the moment, and the teacher has come. Thanks again; keep getting well, girl!


    Marlene E.

  4. Elana,
    I think it is awesome that you got to do something that you really wanted to do and I applaud you for making the difficult decisions to rest when you did not feel well. As far as world domination for the better good of all goes: It starts with self.
    You are the epitome of everything we all need to learn.

  5. Marlene says:

    Of course, now I re-read my message and it sounds like me, me, me. Sorry, I meant to express that the fact that you realized your dream to be there makes me feel very joyous for YOU! It is about you, and I am thankful for that which you shared. HUGS! Marlene E.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Hi Elana,

    I’m so glad you were able to attend WDS again this year. I’m sorry we weren’t able to connect in person: every time I saw you, you were in an in-depth conversation with someone else and I didn’t want to interrupt.

    Regarding the bravebot, you could contact Gary directly about it. (Are you on the facebook group? He’s offered to replace a few bots that have gone missing. He’d likely send you one as well.

    I hope the next sessions of chemo go as well as can be expected.


  7. I learn something new ever time I read your blog!

    Thank you!!


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