On an unusually hot Oregon weekend this July, Chris Guillebeau commanded the attention of a packed house at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer auditorium.
“Each of us has the responsibility to get each other closer to our dreams,” he tells the crowd while standing in front of a neon-lit backdrop depicting a globe and the letters WDS. Guillebeau is speaking to the attendees of his fourth annual World Domination Summit, or “WDS” as it is known among its followers. The auspiciously named conference is the gathering of his “army of non-conformists,” which has grown to nearly 3,000 from 500 four years ago. Guillebeau, 36, is the author of the best-selling The $100 Startup (2012) and The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) and is something of a philosophical father for the work-for-yourself-do-what-you-love lifestyle-entrepreneurship movement.
Guillebeau and his fans are all about eschewing traditional career paths in favor of solo ventures, side-hustles, and seeing the world. (He recently finished his own mission to visit every country by age 35.) The World Domination Summit brings together Guillebeau acolytes in a festival that's sort of like Burning Man meets South by Southwest, but for independently-minded professionals.There are TED-like talks on a main stage; small group sessions (called “meet-ups” or “academies”) on topics from travel hacking to book publishing to lean start-ups; world record-breaking attempts (this year: the world’s largest yoga chain); and networking via Bollywood dancing, brewery tours, river cruises, and photo scavenger hunts.
The movement (although Guillebeau prefers to call it a “community”) asks its followers, “How do we live a remarkable life in a conventional world?”
Each of the few thousand attendees has a slightly different answer: They are motorcyle-riding life coaches, motivational podcasters, school teachers who visit psychics, stay-at-home moms who craft children’s books. They are everyday bloggers and wannabe e-book writers and corporate refugees. They are travel fanatics, Boeing engineers who listen to the podcasts and read the blog posts from Guillebeau and other WDS speakers. (He started his blog, “The Art of Non-Conformity” in 2008, and managed to amass a huge loyal following, as well as a community of likeminded bloggers. Guillbeau’s Twitter feed also has 125,000 followers.) The event, which began in 2011, evolved from local meet-ups based on his website and book tours.
Guillebeau tells his online audience that when it comes to living “a remarkable life,” “realistic” is the adjective of cynics. It’s message can seem tone deaf to the very real challenges in today’s workforce—relatively sluggish post-recession job growth, crippling student debt, to name a few. In January, an essay published in the lefty-socialist magazine Jacobin critiqued the cult of “Do What You Love” and subsequently made its way around the progressive Internet. Writer Miya Tokumitsu calls DWYL the “unofficial work mantra of our time,” “self-focused to the point of narcissism,” and a “secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.” The movement, she points out, may be best explained by a 2005 Stanford commencement speech by Steve Jobs in which he implored: “You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
If DWYL began with Jobs, Guillebeau—an unassuming Pacific-Northwesterner with sandy-colored hair parted to one side and with an aw-shucks cuteness—is dutifully carrying that torch. His WDS is arguably the heart of the DWYL movement. If it sounds like an overwrought, unironic celebration of everything the mainstream media has come to believe about the millennial generation—the entitlement, the desire for meaning over profit in work, even its libertarian leanings—it is, in a way. While Guillebeau says he doesn’t keep demographic statistics on attendees, looking around, it’s clear that the audience is overwhelmingly white. And in my conversations with attendees, it becomes clear that most have advantages or significant successes that enable them to see the world through DWYL-colored lenses (and to pay for the $500 entry fee to WDS)—all of which would seem to confirm the elitist critique put forth by Tokumitsu and her peers. Yet, to see Guillebeau, with his unflappable, gentle command of the audience, is to wonder if the DWYL movement is perhaps a bit misunderstood.
There is, in fact, no typical WDS attendee. They hail from 30 countries and all 50 states, and are mixed in gender and age. They don’t seem to feel entitled to a certain lifestyle so much as they desire a tribe who shares their sensibilities, whether they are GenX and Baby Boomers searching for second acts, or millennials ill-fitted for the socially prescribed middle-class lifestyle. But it’s more than occupational: WDS defines its official themes as “adventure, community and service” and Guillebeau’s tagline is a self-help rally cry: “You don’t have to live the life people expect of you.” He explains: “I really want to encourage people to question things and to decide, ‘How do we want to live?’ We have the opportunity to ask these questions. We’re not trying to fight somebody.”
Guillebeau says he hasn’t read the seminal DWYL essay or the Internet echo that followed it. He does recognize, though, that the values of WDS are part of an inherently privileged worldview; he just doesn’t think that discredits its goals. “I spent time in West Africa. They don’t have the same privilege. For the most part, I’m not asking people from Sierra Leone to come. I am mostly attracting other Westerners. Just because we have privilege doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our lives. That’s like asking, why would we go to a nice restaurant if other people can’t? That’s problematic thinking,” he explained to me. “I want to be working to the betterment of humanity and recognize the privilege that we have to be asking these kinds of questions about work and what kind we’d like to do and what we can give back.”
Guillebeau, for his part, is a high school dropout who moved around a lot growing up. After earning a GED, Guillebeau worked nights at FedEx while making his way through community college. It was then that he made some money selling and buying on eBay in its heyday, after which he spent four years in West Africa as an aid worker. He was able to make enough independently to put himself through graduate school and, in 2008, he started writing a blog and accompanying “manifestos” about independent, “non-conventional” living. The message resonated with enough online followers that he was able to turn “The Art of Non-Conformity” into a mini-empire.
Nearly everyone I met during my three days at WDS possessed an almost caricaturistic West coast optimism and admirable sense of possibility. But often that thinking focused on ideas for start-ups or on opaque goals for world travel, work freedom, and “giving back”—in ways which sometimes seemed unclear. Many talked about being “inspired” to follow in Guillebeau's footsteps, and while they all seemed to enthusiastically embrace the message, few seemed to have actionable plans.
“So, just because other people aren’t happy does that mean you’re not allowed to be happy?” Corey Breier asks, at the suggestion that the exhortation to “live a remarkable life” smacked just a little of millennial entitlement. Breier, 22, lives in San Francisco and works at OnMyBlock, a tech start-up that aims to be Airbnb for college kids and which got more than $840,000 in seed money in February. He blogs about “tech, productivity and fun”—a site that reads like an ode to the gods of Silicon Valley, extolling the virtues of minimalism, productivity, and habit forming by way of the app—all expressed as a sort of smug countercultural thinking. (He doesn’t pay attention to the news, he says on his blog, because it is “not actionable or relevant to my day to day life.”)
Ryan Riehl is a 26-year-old from Baltimore who does marketing and communications for a Christian-based nonprofit. After falling out with his small evangelical Christian community in college, he found Guillebeau’s blog and manifestos, as well as like-minded entrepreneurship and personal development gurus like Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, and Jonathan Mead. He read Ferris’s The 4-Hour Workweek and Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity in 2010. “They, like, brainwashed me,” he says. He lost his religion, and found another in Guillebeau's online community.
On a Saturday afternoon at WDS, Smeeta Hirani, a petite woman wearing a bright fuchsia sundress and nose ring, takes copious notes at a meet-up led by Guillebeau’s book agent, David Fugate. Hirani is a fortysomething ex-Microsoft manager from Seattle who quit corporate life to become a yoga teacher and writer. She was exhausted by corporate hours and equipped with the savings to leave it behind. She now wants to write a book about how she quit her job, escaped an arranged marriage, and began to live her life on her own terms, she says. A friend told her about Guillebeau and WDS and its mission clicked with her. “I want to be a spokesperson for people who don’t fit in a box, to help them find their own truths,” she tells me.
So does Michelle Clark, a 41-year-old from Connecticut who came to her first WDS this year to “get inspired,” she says, in her side business as a health coach. She started the business after a 70 pound weight loss after quitting her corporate job. “It’s phenomenal. Inspirational. Every time someone else gets up [on stage] I say, ‘Oh, I wanna do that’,” she says.
Inspiration is a word you hear a lot at WDS. So are pop psychology terms du jour like multi-passionate, multi-potentialite, introvert, Highly Sensitive Person. (There’s a special lounge for the latter, complete with eye masks and hammocks hanging from the ceiling in a hotel conference room.)But you won’t hear much at all about politics, institutions, specific social problems, or service “actions.” While there is a social justice aspect to WDS, with lots of talk about “giving back,” Christy McMurren, a social worker from Anchorage, Alaska, says she feels a bit “like the downer of the group” in a passion-oriented profession that’s institution-based rather than self-driven.
“I am used to, ‘Let’s talk about child abuse,’ and everyone’s talking about travel and crafts,” she says of being at WDS.
Overall, attendees aren’t any more concerned with the elitist implications of DWYL than Guillebeau is nor do they believe WDS truly squares with any sort of “elitist” worldview.
“We’re privileged, but we’re doing something about it,” Breier tells me in a southwest Portland coffee shop. But what is that something? Guillebeau promotes service as one of WDS’s three “core values.” WDS never makes a profit, it is run entirely on its entry fees, and Guillebeau has given back any extra money each year. In 2012, the summit’s second year, he gave a $100 bill to every attendee, telling them to “start something” or do some good. Many donated to well known charities like Charity:Water. The following year, Guillebeau began “Scholarships for Real Life,” where winning applications received $12,000 for their passion projects; winner and 14-year-old WDS veteran Jeff Rasmussen took the money and started an online community for kids with ADHD. This year, Guillebeau and the WDS team “granted wishes” to several attendees in an Oprah-style giveaway presentation to close out the weekend: a trip to Cambodia and a nonprofit coach for a budding social entrepreneur who wants to start a nonprofit devoted to empowering young girls through travel; an Amtrak writing fellowship for a budding writer; cameras and gallery space for a show for The Aperture Project, a community photography nonprofit.
“We want people to dream and make these dreams come true. I bet we all have the ability to define our futures. We all can help others achieve their dreams,” Guillebeau says after the dreams are granted and there are no more speakers or official events. With that, Guillebeau puts his hands together and takes a subtle bow. His Army of Non-Conformists stands up applaud him.
Amanda Palleschi is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washingtonian, USA Today, and National Journal. Follow her on Twitter @APalleschi.