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THE SECRET OF ORD CAMP
"I spent the weekend with 300 some of the most compelling, inspiring people you can imagine: it was magical."
Only in certain circles do people widely know and understand what ORD Camp is all about. And even if you’ve attended, can you pinpoint why that magic happens?
From the outside it might look like an exclusive club due to its invitation-only nature. Once you’re inside, you’ll find that while a handful of ORD Campers are familiar names with great, well-known accomplishments, the vast majority are regular folks. But they’re regular folks that are smart, offbeat, and who have a passion that they excel at sharing.
This fact—that all of us are really just regular folks—is not lost on the attendees themselves, and is so widespread many ORD Campers suffer from impostor syndrome (excepting Harper Reed of course). As was revealed this year, most of us quietly wonder what the hell we’re doing there, in part because as a group we’re humble, but mostly because we know damn well we’re not nearly as awesome or inspiring as the rest of the crowd in attendance. It’s like this example: 93% of the driving population think they are a better driver than most. Somewhere in there, the math just doesn’t add up.
To add further confusion: many of the now prestigious attendees credit large parts of their own recent success to the inspiration and bonds they found at ORD Camp. In other words, a bunch of “ordinary” folks are inspiring and motivating each other in ways beyond what they feel themselves capable of. How does that work?
Similarly: perhaps purely due to impostor syndrome, we’ve both wondered why (so far) we continue to get invited to this party, and why, even after years of exposure, do the participants continue to value us in ways that are vastly in excess of the way we value ourselves?
Upon self-evaluation, we both found that we excel in our respective niches. Our niches are our strengths. For Joe, that’s bringing mass produced electronic inventions to market and the process of invention. For Anne, that’s strategically building sustainable communities, online or in-person or in combination. On the other hand, both of us are terrible at lots of things: pole vaulting, aircraft repair, tailoring a suit, driving a train, pricing derivatives, playing the ukulele and a thousand other tasks.
Which leads to the realization: how competent anyone might seem at any given moment is mostly a product of how far the topic is from a damn narrow band of experience and expertise that person holds. Impressions depend very much on the questions you ask.
Now let’s be clear. The ORD Camp organizers do a phenomenal job of selecting and recruiting very smart, very interesting people doing a huge diversity of fascinating things. They are very disciplined about weeding out the kinds of people who could easily spoil the culture. They are brilliant at creating an environment that is open and inviting to a host of ideas. But what exactly is it that sparks the magic?
This event is important. Even if we were only to consider each year’s connections and unrepeatability, ORD Camp is a masterpiece, like a work of human art. Inspiring 300 talented, productive, caring people is about as important as it gets. It needs to be expanded and it needs to grow, but how? The inspiration that drives and inspires the event touches down in other ORD variants like the DisORDer satellite events, but how do we keep that spark lit throughout the year? How can this self-contained annual event grow without losing coherence?
Part of the answer comes from the location of the event. Chicagoans are by their very nature a humble and diverse bunch. We have an old city with a lot of different industries and a diverse economy, and our heroes reflect that. They aren’t all bunched together like Silicon Valley tech billionaires. They are industrialists, civic leaders, entertainers, marketers, engineers, educators and artists of all kinds, and that makes us more open and curious than our counterparts on the coasts. We celebrate lots of different types of success and excellence.
So to get to that magic: start with humility, curiosity and diversity of interests. Those are the essential raw ingredients to the magic of ORD Camp. They change how interesting and inspiring we find one another. They change that first impression. If we can assume that everyone attending excels at something, loves to share that something, and that any one ORD Camp may be our last, that adds up to every single Camp-goer trying to learn and share as much as humanly possible in every moment. We all listen more than we talk, but when we contribute, we contribute the best of ourselves. And that’s very special.
Fitz and Zach put a lot of smart, cool, curious people in a room, and over the years the enthusiasm for the event has snowballed to a point where everyone is beside themselves with contagious excitement, and that’s the raw fuel. The magic occurs because the diversity of interests and the momentum of the event trained us to unconsciously turn the usual conference intro question on its head. Rather than “tell me about XYZ,” we expect excellence from each other, but don’t presume to know the domain of that excellence, and every time excellence occurs, we expect it to be new, and to learn from it, share it and build on it.
ORDcamp is an “unconference” where we come to learn rather than impress. The great irony is that history shows it is in this setting where it seems we find one another most impressive.
Not to mention that the intro question often comes up later in the discussion when attending ORD Camp, rather than as the very first thing. “What, by the way, is the subject of your passion?” you ultimately ask. Sheepishly, not wanting to disappoint, and desperately wanting to return the energy this group has given me, Joe might reluctantly begin: “Well, I do have a lot of heart for kid’s inventing, it started with my daughter who had this invention…”
You may not have an immediate need for the random thing you’ll proceed to learn about YoYos, storytelling, running, 3D modeling, opera, physics, relationship research, startup law, button making, education, beekeeping, or choreography, but you will have no trouble finding a use for your new inspiration or the bond you feel with the person that shared it with you.
ORD Camp is not about elitism or exclusivity. In fact, from the organizers on down, there is an almost desperate desire to find a way to spread this magic far and wide.
At its core, it puts good, smart, open people together in a way that fuels passion and creates bonds between people. Chicago—and visitors from outside Chicago—have no short supply of such people doing very diverse cool stuff.
Those people, with their humility and open curiosity, are the crucial raw materials. The fuel is enthusiasm for learning. That magic spark? Sharing, with the only assumption being excellence, and building something incredible and new from those components.
Let’s learn how to light more ORD Camp fires and spread that passion broadly.