As May turned into June, I was in downtown Fargo, attending the smallest conference I’ve ever been to. In fact, the organizers, AJ and Melissa Leon promoted it as a tiny, handcrafted conference for self-proclaimed “misfits,” those trying to lead a thoughtful, deliberate life that may be a little unconventional. Despite my conventional career, I applied, and was delighted to attend.
The Leons are based in New York City, but lead an almost nomadic life—their most recent adventure being “Around the world in 1,080 Days.” Their journey began with desperation. Feeling unfulfilled and miserable in his high-paying Wall Street job, AJ quit four days before his wedding to Melissa in 2008, much to the dismay of his future mother-in-law. Thankfully, his new bride embraced his quest to discover a more meaningful life. They’ve since created a design and consulting business that funds their world travels and humanitarian projects.
Thousands of people follow AJ Leon through his blog, In Pursuit of Everything. I discovered his writing last year through a respected online friend. I signed up, and received his “manifesto.” Since I love to read, I sign up for a lot of blogs. While the information is great, I don’t feel much of a connection. But things are different with AJ, and he created a life-long fan when he sent me a personal email thanking me for joining his readership. He made me feel valued.
When I caught wind of his first ever conference, I was pleasantly surprised that he and Melissa chose Fargo. “I get a wonderful learning experience without a plane ticket and hotel bill? Amazing!!!” But I also thought, “Why Fargo?” But more than 60 people from eight countries were brave enough to take the chance, buy the tickets, and make the trip to Fargo, without knowing who was speaking or what was in store. They believed in the Leons, and the seeds they planted for this tiny, misfit conference. And what bloomed was magic.
Fargo roots were a major part of the magic, as participants were encouraged to appreciate the nuances of our small city. Ecce was the hub, and Mark Weiler was a masterful host. The cozy arm chairs and couches were rented from downtown businesses like MidMadMod and Unglued. The food was organic and locally sourced. No Styrofoam… instead we had ceramic Fargo mugs for coffee and mason jars for water. Art and music played a big role. The HoDo, Zandbroz, the Radisson and Alley Fair were celebration venues. In fact, AJ and Melissa called the conference a kinetic art project, with every choice made intentionally. We took a photo walk that encouraged us to notice our surroundings and we saw beauty everywhere.
Our own Greg Tehven made waves when he spoke about moving back to Fargo, and helping create a community that makes people want to stay. TEDx events, historical parties, StartUp Weekend, Midnight Brunch, art events, social entrepreneurship and a few home-cooked dinners…these gatherings re-invigorated Tehven’s vision of his home town, our Fargo, and the mini-mecca that it has become. There is a sense that more is on the horizon, waiting to sprout. The MisFits reflected that vision back to us, with compliments and care.
Srinivas Rao, successful author and creator of BlogCastFM.com, spoke at the conference. He too, was inspired and later remarked, “When I heard you guys have one (TEDx), I came home and realized we have never had TedX Riverside (California.) I’m putting in our application today. It made me rethink my town as a place I want to escape, and instead as a place where there might be a community of amazing people.”
This is key. Maybe Fargo is special, but I think any community can be special if a few people don’t just hollowly say “Let’s get together.” They plan it, do it and are then curious about others, their mission and their stories. Tehven says, “Put your hand up, count yourself in, create and build.” He is a living example. Engagement and excitement in our community has obvious economic benefit, but research shows that empowerment benefits physical and emotional health as well.
Regardless of where you live, the ability to bloom where you are planted, by choice or circumstance, is priceless. How will you grow, and where will you bloom? Kudos to AJ and Melissa Leon, for seeing Fargo in a way that we usually miss because we are too busy with the urgency to embrace the important. I have a feeling the virtual community the Leon’s have created around this event will stay vital and connected, helping nourish and grow many neighborhoods around the world. I am happy that Fargo is my garden.