Here’s what I learned from Denver.
Break Free of Your Assumptions
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov
Our brains love to take complex ideas and simplify them so they are easier to understand. From what I’ve read, it is a primary driver in our species’ ability to survive. This is where our assumptions come from.
Problem is, assumptions can be hard to break, and can often lead us to problematic decision-making.
Back in the mid 90’s, Newsweek published an article called “The Internet? Bah!” Just reading a small excerpt of it, you can see the author’s assumptions shine through:
“We’re promised instant catalog shopping—just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn’t—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.” –Source TheNextWeb.com
No need to explain how wrong these assumptions were. When we make assumptions, we can easily blind ourselves to new ideas and experiences that would otherwise help us grow.
If we don’t break from these assumptions from time to time, we can’t grow. Chris Lema epitomized this sentiment with the story of an elephant and a peg.
The Elephant and the Peg
Chris Lema’s talk in Denver this year was entitled “We Don’t Build Chairs,” and covered the differences between Newtonian physics and Quantum mechanics—just some light-hearted talk.
The main takeaway had to do with how our thinking needs to evolve. Chris started his talk off with a story about elephants. Elephants are large, insanely strong animals.
Yet, there are elephants that are kept in place with a chain tied to a tiny peg in the ground. It wouldn’t take much for the elephant to pull that peg out of the ground, yet it remains chained to it.
Well, when the elephant was young, and much smaller, that peg was an insurmountable obstacle. No matter how much the elephant pulled at it, it wouldn’t budge.
The elephant resigned to thinking it’d be impossible to break free from the peg. As the elephant got older and stronger, it never lost that assumption about that peg. That assumption became a fact in its mind.
Now, much older and stronger, the elephant still thought it’d be unable to break free from the peg.
Chris drew comparisons between the elephant’s way of thinking and our own. We make assumptions about people, businesses, ideas, and let those assumptions guide our decision making. Even when those assumptions are wrong.
A perfect example of how assumptions can steer us wrong came in Keya Lea Horiuchi’s talk.
How Easy It Is To Steal Your Password
Keya’s talk on WordPress security wasn’t your normal talk. Instead of just giving us steps to keep our sites secure, Keya decided to give the audience a giant wake-up call.
Because she studies cybersecurity, Keya knows what the “bad guys” are up to. So she gave a live demonstration of how easy it would be to steal passwords.
Using a program to “listen” to all data being transmitted on the conference wifi network, she was able to find the password she had used earlier to log in to her WordPress website. It was incredibly simple and fast for her to do so.
And as she did it, you could see the entire audience become uncomfortable. Many in the audience (present company included) were not aware just how easy it would be to steal passwords.
It was our assumption that creating strong passwords, keeping the site updated, having a strong plugin, etc, would be enough to keep our sites secure. Our assumptions blinded us from how easy it really is to steal passwords. Something that many still do not know about.
Later in the afternoon, I got a moment to talk with Keya. She told me she was a bit worried how people were going to react to her showing them how easy it is to steal passwords (remember, ignorance can be bliss); but it’s something we need to be exposed to if we want to up our game. We shouldn’t live by the assumption that we are secure if it’s just not true.
We needed Keya to take us out of our comfort zone to see how wrong our assumption was.
There was another talk at WordCamp Denver that left many outside their comfort zone, and it had to do with an incredibly taboo subject.
Our Own Mental Health
Cory Miller’s talk this year was something, by his own admittance, that is something rarely talked about at technology conferences. Not only that, but it’s a subject no one wants to talk about openly, even with their closest friends or family members.
Cory opened up to the audience about his personal life and his deteriorating mental health as his company grew, and how he was able to recover. He was completely candid and did not hold anything back.
At the end of his talk, Cory made a call to the audience, saying that it is ok to be open about your mental health and seek help when times get hard.
Cory definitely had an impact on the audience: during the Q & A session of his talk, audience members came up to the mic and opened up about their own experiences with mental health. Many got choked up while they were speaking and you could see how near this topic was to many.
Even after the talk, people kept coming up to Cory thanking him for his openness and wanting to share their own story. We assumed that a talk like Cory’s didn’t belong at a WordCamp, however our assumptions about this were proven wrong: it was something that many of us in this community need to talk about more openly.
What assumptions in your life are keeping you chained to a peg? After leaving WordCamp Denver, that was the one question I kept asking myself.
I don’t want to look back in ten or twenty years and be like the author of the Newsweek article. I don’t want my assumptions to blind me from new ideas and new experiences.
The only way to break from those assumptions is to step outside of our comfort zone and embrace chaos.
“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” – Brian Tracy
What can you do today that takes you outside your comfort zone?