The Summit Series: Lessons in Being Brave

I was very lucky to attend the Summit Series in Miami, FL. Imagined by four twenty-somethings, the Summit Series brings together young business leaders in an effort to promote collaboration and learning.
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I remember, back when the Harry Potter books first hit the scene, my family and I would play a very cheesy game amongst ourselves, trying to peg which of the four school houses--Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, or Ravenclaw--each of us would have been sorted into. Considering the mammoth book sales Ms. Rowling has enjoyed, I doubt I need to elaborate on what I mean by sorting. Just in case: the Potter series centers around life at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, which is comprised of the four houses listed above. The students in each house are defined by their bravery, cunning, kindness, or cleverness, respectively.

In real life, it might be difficult to rank these characteristics in order of desirability. Since the three protagonists in the Potter series belong to Gryffindor, however, most readers will try to find ways of identifying themselves as brave, even if it's only when they walk the dog alone at night or shop at Macy's on Labor Day.

Some contrarians might choose Slytherin, advertising their ambition and determination to succeed. Unfortunately, in Rowling's world, most Slytherins turn out to be dark wizards that meet unseemly ends at the hands of even more ambitious and successful competitors.

For those who prize their intelligence, Ravenclaw is the obvious answer. And for those who spend their lives caring first for others, Hufflepuff provides the perfect home.
In any case, most of my family members would generally have chosen to be Gryffindors for one reason or another. I always tried to lump myself in with this crew, but found that my experience with bravery has been fairly limited--am I brave? I don't really know. In general, I observe caution, which confounds reckless behavior in general. Not that bravery is always reckless: or is it?

In any case, this discussion of bravery (and whether I was, in fact, brave at all) resurfaced this past weekend when I was very lucky to attend the Summit Series in Miami, FL.
Imagined by four twenty-somethings with Elliot Bisnow as their chief provoker, the Summit Series seeks to bring together young business leaders (mean age of 30) in an effort to promote collaboration and learning.

The conference grew from a small collection of "early adopters" a year and a half ago, to some 250 at this weekend's event, each of whom received an invite because they are trying to do something truly unique to make their mark on the world. With a firm commitment to entrepreneurial spirit and charitable giveback, Bisnow and his team sourced speakers and attendees across all fields: a few notables include Nancy Lublin of DoSomething, Tony Disanto of MTV, Charles and Kai Huang of RedOctane Games (the geniuses behind Guitar Hero), Barry Silbert of SecondMarket, and Yosi Sergant, creator of the Obama "HOPE" campaign.

When I read about the conference online, I emailed Mr. Bisnow out of the blue to request an opportunity to learn more about his initiative, and he graciously obliged. As it turns out, he'd gathered the first Summit group by cold calling the folks at College Humor, Thrillist, Feed Projects, and other forward-thinking startup businesses. These young men and women took a risk on Mr. Bisnow by attending, and he was willing to pay it forward, even allowing me to speak (with the amazing Chris Ashenden of IDK Nutrition on the topic of health access in this country, but we'll leave that for another blog).

And here was my first lesson of the weekend in being brave: don't be afraid to ask, even if you have never met the person. He or she could say, "No." On the other hand, you could end up in South Beach.

Let me begin by saying this was not like any other "conference" I've ever attended. First of all, over the three nights the conference spanned, we rolled 250-deep to some of the trendiest clubs the Miami strip has to offer. One of the conference's goals is for attendees to make genuine friendships, and the extravagant revelry successfully forwarded this mission, if in a totally inimitable form.

The conference also instituted a "speed dating" networking session: 3 minutes to make conversation and connect with the person across the table and then...
"Rotate!" By the end of twenty or so type dialogues, I had my bio-pitch down to a tight two sentences, and was throwing out conversation openers like "what was the worst day of your (professional) life?" No need for formal introductions, let's get right to the heart of it.

What I was struck by was everyone's overwhelming willingness to share their stories and trade secrets with none of the typical double-secret lockdown most people who have achieved even a modicum of success use to try and protect their ideas. Rather, there seemed to be a genuine interest in helping one another learn and grow, a testament perhaps to the synergies that can arise from meetings between people like this (seven former attendees of the conference just launched a business together--Qwiki, the world's first video encyclopedia.)

Lesson #2 in losing fear and getting brave: Loose lips don't always sink ships, and sometimes they build new and better ones. I think there is something to be said for knowing who not to share your ideas with, but sometimes the collaborative effort of so many different perspectives provides the missing link to a struggling idea that could be great.

And this brings me to skydiving. Non sequitur? Not really. We're talking about ways in which the Summit Series sought to broaden the experience of attendees and force them beyond their comfort zones into new territory of strategic bonding. In the frat boy dream that was the entire conference, skydiving was an essential part of this process. I signed up, knowing I was absolutely terrified but that I had to go through with it, just to prove I could.

I was sure I was going to chicken out at the last minute. I was psyching myself up during the hour long car ride to the launch point; while zippering up my hideous, blue jumpsuit and pulling on a tiny rubber cap and goggles; even while being edged to the side of an open hatch at 13,500 feet.

In the end, I did it, though more by force of gravity than conviction. And it was the coolest thing ever. I barely had time to look down at the ground before I was plummeting towards it. The tandem instructor (mercifully, a highly qualified and experienced jumper) leapt from the plane's cavity like a little spider monkey with me latched to his chest, screaming.

The sensation is somewhere between drowning and flying. It's not the stomach-in-your-throat feeling you get on roller coasters, because the velocity of the plane creates a bubble that cushions you, but the pressure makes it hard to breathe. Just after the jump, it's only natural to think "Wait! I changed my mind!" But there's only one way out: down. You only realize how fast you're falling after they pull the parachute and you become buoyant again. Like a tiny wisp of cotton, 5,000 feet up and free-floating, is the only way to see Miami Beach. When you touch down, every single person, myself included, wanted to get right back in the plane and do it again.

And so, lesson #3: when in doubt, do it anyway. There are situations that call for caution and thoughtfulness. And there are times when knowingly pushing the limits of what you are comfortable doing--what you would do under normal circumstances--opens doors to an experience that is vastly superior and maybe even life-changing. I suppose my skydiving endeavor was a bit more reckless than traditionally brave, but I think they approximate the same state of mind: a willingness to do something despite the possibility of failure (failure being death in this case, however unlikely). Not that I am advocating having a death wish, but there are very few "safe" experiences that can really challenge us to test our mettle. The exhilarating part is finding out how much fun this self-discovery can be, and just how far pushing the limits will get you.

And so it seems the theme of the Summit Series conference was intelligent risk-taking, which is bravery in not so many words. We gained insight into how this sort of boldness translates into business success when one of the speakers clarified: Employees are afraid to make mistakes, and CEOs have made them.

Especially in these uncertain economic times, we could all use a few reminders to be brave. But maybe the definition of bravery needs to expand from the traditional view of knights in armor rescuing damsels in distress (or kid wizards fighting their foes): it can be as simple as pushing past comfort zones to unknown and inspiring new frontiers. True Gryffindors would see the opportunities for boldness and growth in everyday life.

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