MythBusting! (aka my thoughts on the International Women’s Summit)

Turns out, I can do things on a whim! I’m impulsive! A few weeks ago I happened to think to look up where Elizabeth Gilbert was going to be speaking (I had seen her a month or so ago and, although she doesn’t know it, she became my new best friend). I wanted to hear her speak again and it turns out that she was going to be at this conference with all these other women that sounded amazing (a few of whom I recognized and was already in love with, as well). And so, a little under two weeks before the event, I signed up, bought some plane tickets, booked the hotel and voila! Here’s me running my life by the seat of my pants.

I was down in lovely, HOT Phoenix, AZ for the International Women’s Summit conference. According to their press, “Three days of empowering experiences featuring a stellar lineup of female visionaries” — and while it sounds a touch hyperbolic, their claim really wasn’t far from the truth. Of the ten talks I had the opportunity to listen to, I would say that seven were absolutely fantastic, two were only pretty amazing and there was only one that didn’t really resonate with me. Not bad, right? And I have to tell you — the speakers weren’t even the most valuable piece of learning that I took away from this conference, either.

Just to set the stage: I got up in the middle of the night to catch a flight, drove up to Sedona to hike for a few hours (a blog post in and of itself), and then, straight from the trail, drove back to the hotel.

So there I am, back in Phoenix, standing in the lobby of the very nice Sheraton hotel and waiting in line to check-in. Remember the story I haven’t yet told you about hiking in Sedona? Well, I’m utterly filthy — no kidding, my lower legs were coated with red dirt — and I stink so badly I can smell myself (hey, it was over 90 degrees out there hiking and this Chicago girl sweats when she simply considers doing something akin to working out) — and I’m fall-over exhausted. And, of course, because I’m a wreck, the check-in line is substantial.

But here’s where things shift a little from what I would have otherwise imagined; in my state of post-hiking-mess, other women in line were not only not avoiding my eye, but actively starting conversations with me. “Huh”, I thought, “didn’t see that coming.” And, I might add, they were not simply asking me to step downwind of them. Little did I know that these conversations foreshadowed the whole of the weekend.

After checking in, hauling my weary body up to the room and finally taking a long shower to make myself vaguely presentable, I went back downstairs to check in to the summit and pick up all my registration materials. There are all sorts of women milling around and I was directed to the proper place — I got in the correct line on the first try (something not everyone accomplished, according to my eavesdropping) and picked up my packet. It felt like packet pickup for a triathlon or run but with more hairspray, fewer boys and no one concerned about where they were going to pre-race carb-load.

Here’s where I start with the confessions: at this point, I started to get overwhelmed. Everyone was so very nice, but there were just so MANY people around. Of course, it wasn’t Lollapalooza-in-Chicago-in-95 degree-heat crowded, but I find I’m sensitive to even small-ish crowds and instead of sticking around and chatting people up or looking at the vendors, I fled back to my room to hide. And debated not going to the first keynote speaker, which was that night (the downside to whimming my way through things? I didn’t even read the schedule closely enough beforehand to know that things other than just packet pickup were going on that night).

I reasoned with myself — I was tired, I had been up a long time, the talk started past my bedtime if you went by Chicago time (9:30pm! yes, I have the bedtime of a second grader), I was sore and whiny and cranky and wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. In fact, I’d probably just fall asleep right in my chair. Wouldn’t that be awfully rude of me?

Then, the bohemian in me took over. I paid for this conference. And I paid a lot to fly out here, stay in this hotel and have the opportunity to hear women speak of the things they were passionate about. Maybe I wasn’t familiar with the speaker, but the least I could do was slip in the back unobtrusively and only leave if it was awful or if I really was going to start snoring (not that I snore, of course, that’s just a hypothetical I’m throwing out there…).

Hard to see from my back row seat (where I was DEFINITELY NOT snoring), but it’s Melissa up there!

You understand how this is going to go, don’t you? I went. I listened. My jaw dropped, my hands exploded into applause. That first speaker? Melissa Harris-Perry. Her absolutely compelling talk explained how we need to understand the humanity that exists on the other side of the aisle — the phrase she kept coming back to was “The stories you tell affect the actions you take” — and as such, you must allow your stories to induce action that furthers understanding of those who don’t think as you do. This whole experience jump-started both my brain and my heart, a situation that wouldn’t end until the weekend did.

As I mentioned at the top, the speakers were amazing. But, for me, the speakers were only half of the revelation that unfolded during the summit (and one which I’ll address in yet another blog post). The other half? It turns out that this introverted, shy girl has some chattiness buried deep within her.

See, I’ve never liked going to things where I wouldn’t know anyone — so deciding to come to this conference scared the daylights out of me. My go-to move is to stand in a corner with a drink, not knowing how to approach anyone and wish that either the floor would swallow me up or someone will take pity on me and approach. Or that someone would just pull the damn fire alarm so we could all leave. That would have been okay, too.

The story I’ve always told myself: I’m just not good at meeting new people. To simply walk up to someone and start a conversation? My story always had an awkward and unhappy ending. And to be sure, there have been many such awkward moments in my life, but it’s also easy to forget when things have gone okay. And so, after being overwhelmed at registration, but then getting a taste of what this summit could be like, I had to recalibrate. I had to let go of my old story and create a new one. Go into the experience with a beginner’s mind, allow myself to be open to people and ideas. Be vulnerable. Ask questions. Really hear what the other person had to say. Be someone who was GOOD at meeting new people. How hard could it be?

And this women’s summit was different and a perfect place to try out this new story. I got my first taste while standing at the check-in line at the hotel, where people improbably made conversation with me, the dirty, dusty, stinky girl. And all weekend, the scene repeated itself (though, luckily for everyone else, not the dirty, dusty, stinky part) — no matter where I went, if I wasn’t in my room, conversations naturally started. Some just a basic “How are you doing?”, some asking opinions on speakers, some even more in-depth than that. It was amazing to me. You couldn’t be in a public place without talking to someone. AND I LIKED IT.

I can’t articulate how much this differs from my day to day life. While always friendly, I have never sought out conversation with strangers. It’s not that I don’t think others have anything to offer, it’s more that I have this deeply ingrained belief that not only do I suck at initiating conversations but that I’d actually be bothering someone by intruding into their day. I’ve always thought like this: leave that poor person alone, let them go about their business, they’re not looking to have some inane back-and-forth with you. Why embarrass yourself that way?

I figured out why I was quickly falling in love with this environment — it was like two of my favorite things combined: a women’s triathlon where everyone is so “you go, girl!” friendly and supportive and a great university class where students intelligently and thoughtfully discuss ideas and philosophies To my surprise, I found myself not wanting to go up to my room to hide out — I wanted to hang out where the people were, having conversations and connecting in ways that my story wouldn’t usually allow me to do.

I left on Sunday afternoon, head full of ideas and plans. As I did the airport thing (which is nothing more than one queue after another punctuated by waiting patiently for things to happen), I found myself breaking my own rules and starting conversations with strangers. More than just a polite “excuse me” or “thank you” — actual conversations. I didn’t even realize it at first, to be honest — I was just in that mode of thinking still. And you know what? People are pretty open to being talked to. Who knew?

Melissa Harris-Perry kept coming back to a main point — “The stories you tell affect the actions you take.” She may have been specifically referring to the stories you tell yourself about others, but it holds equally true for the stories we tell to ourselves ABOUT ourselves. My story — that I’m not good at meeting people — was blown out of the water this past weekend. I had to make the decision to let that story go, for at least a few days, and to create a new story in its place. This summit cooked up the perfect environment for it, but I still needed to do the work and make it happen. I needed to catch people’s eye and start a conversation. I needed to listen — really listen — and want to find out more. I also had to believe that my thoughts were valuable and worth putting out into the world.

And the results made me believe that I’ve been misleading myself for a long time. What stories do you tell yourself? What parts of your personality seem set in stone and unable to be changed? And what could you do to create a different reality for yourself? As someone much wiser than me once said, argue for your limitations and they will be yours. Instead, why don’t we start arguing against those self-imposed limitations? Why not tell a different story? Why not create the life you want rather than the life you feel stuck in?

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