Go nameless to your next conference

What were the founders of Twitter (Evan Williams), Zynga (Eric Schiermeyer), PayPal (Luke Nosek), Facebook (Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein), Kiva (Premal Shaw), eBay (Pierre Omidyar) and the CTO of Cisco (Padamsee Warrior) all doing two weeks ago? Attending Wisdom 2.0, a small conference in Redwood City, CA created by Soren Gordhamer.

I decided to go nameless for the conference. I covered up my name on my badge. The rules were that I could not tell anyone my name, and I could not pass out any business cards. It was a bit awkward during the unconference at Google when the security guards kept asking me to reveal my badge, but they never revealed my secret.

Here is what you get when you go nameless: I had no agenda when I talked to someone other than getting to know them authentically in that moment. I never had to worry that my title or company name did not impress them. It was liberating to stand there and really be present, starting the conversation with absolutely nothing, from which anything could arise. I think people remembered me more by not giving them my name. Hilariously, in one of the unconference sessions an old friend of mine mentioned my real name in a comment he was making, and someone I met earlier in the day spoke out to defend my namelessness. I wonder if he would have remembered who I was had I shook his hand and carefully said my name when we met?

This was a wonderfully intimate conference where the founders of some of the most world changing companies in recent history dropped into the crowd after their discussions on stage. Was it because I was nameless that I started noticing everyone running up after Evan Williams’ talk to pitch him on something? I was really present to how pained he looked as person after person tried to squeeze their pitch into their ten seconds with him. Evan told people he was very focused on the Obvious Corporation right now, and even at this conference the import of focus resonated very silently. Despite all his accomplishments, creating two of the top ten websites on the Internet (Blogger and Twitter), Evan still describes himself as a farm boy from Nebraska. My wife is from Nebraska, and I stood in the line to talk to him. Was the only smile he gave up when I asked which part of Nebraska he was from? Was that one of the few authentic connections for Evan that day? I have my namelessness to thank for stopping me from using my moment with Evan to get somewhere with him.

The most riveting discussion was with Eric Schiermeyer, one of the founders of Zynga, and a buddhist monk named Joan Halifax. Eric seemed to be really struggling with who he was right on stage. In the middle of the discussion, the monk prodded Eric about a statement he had made to her at some point in the recent past: “You told me you had addicted millions of people to seratonin.” It was shocking to have someone say that on stage with the person responsible right there, and more gripping because it was said completely without criticism. For the monk, I think, acknowledgement of this is part of Eric’s path to peace now that he has left Zynga. Eric is now building a new type of healthcare company which I say also places importance on mindfulness (as opposed to mindlessness). Is this the first time in the history of the world that someone could have such a powerful (and some would say negative) impact on millions of people and then be in a position to do something equally or more positively impactful about it in a few short years? How will Eric’s story of influence on the world be written in ten years and will it be vastly different than what would be written now?

I would have argued that many of the speakers there created companies that have arguably negative consequences, but I changed my mind after being at this conference. At the two day unconference there was a small discussion on mindfulness and neuroscience in the middle of the first day. Luke Nosek talked about how he had not invested in Twitter and Zynga, and I think he had some pride in having made a conscious decision to stay away from companies with which he did not align philosophically, or perhaps even felt were harmful to the world. And, he noted he has been attacked by participants at his fund for not investing in these now skyrocketing companies. I align with his principles, and you cannot help but think that the presence of these companies have made it infinitely more important to be mindful than all those of us yammering about meditation ever did. People cannot help but look for meditation and mindfulness to help regain control of their brains now being systematically attacked and mined by Facebook and Twitter. In the very end, it was so inspiring to see people like Luke Nosek at this conference, offering a meditation sit training in his hotel room after the conference day and spending his weekend talking about how to make the world a more accepting and mindful place instead of sitting on a beach sipping margaritas.