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Misfits - Photo Credit - J Alan

Photo Credit – J Alan Photography

Preston Johnson is the co-creator of Grassfire Studios, a Fargo-based creative video studio.  We asked Preston to share with us a report on the Misfit Conf, an intimate, two-day event in Fargo about changing the world. – EP

It appeared to be the start of a normal weekend in Fargo, ND. Downtown, the rain drizzled as spring flirted with summer.

Outside Fargo’s Ecce event space, it looked like the venue was hosting a routine groom’s dinner, gallery opening or yoga class.

Instead, sixty self-proclaimed “misfits” gathered inside for a conference with a lofty goal: figure out how to live a deliberate life by doing work that truly matters.

Their shared vision is where the group’s similarities ended.

Attendees were of varying ages, backgrounds, and professions. They represented eight countries. Most of them had never been to Fargo.

And that’s just the way AJ Leon, organizer of Misfit Conf, wanted it.

For him, Fargo would be the ideal location for his group of Misfits—they agreed.

Photo Credit - Israel Smith Photographers

Photo Credit – Israel Smith Photographers

Over 300 people applied to attend. At that time, there was no official schedule and no speaker list.

Some applicants waited weeks to hear if they’d been selected. Others thought it impossible that they wouldn’t be chosen. It all added to the mystery of the event.

After each attendee learned they had been selected, preparation began for their trip to Fargo. Some started with Google Maps. Others watched the movie. A few decided to come with an unhindered perspective.

As I talked with attendees (my company, Grassfire Studios, was hired to make a short film about the event), I found each person appreciated Fargo for many of the reasons we, as residents, take for granted.

They found the overall genuine nature of our citizens remarkable. They recognized just how integral artists are to our city’s success. They found the charm of our city’s best restaurants incomparable. Most of all, they found the pride we have for our city is unmistakable.

To the blacksmith from Ireland, or the moccasin maker from England, or the photographer from Australia, and even the chef from Sicily – Fargo was one of the most original cities they’d ever traveled.

With our city as their canvas, attendees opened their minds to two days of thought-provoking talks by some of the world’s most original thinkers.

Speakers took the stage to talk about a great depth of topics, including: technology, social good, minimalism, art, design, writing, travel, education and community.

Entrepreneurship was a common thread throughout many of the talks. Leon’s own experience of leaving a six-figure, corner-office, Wall Street job himself nearly five years ago wasn’t far away from the norm.

One-by-one, each speaker would step in front of the group to pour out stories about their greatest successes and failures – each one of them an opportunity to learn how to live with purpose.

Among the speakers were two of Fargo’s own: Doug Burgum and Greg Tehven.

For the most part, speakers shunned lengthy PowerPoint decks and attendees took notes on old-fashioned pen and paper (they were encouraged to leave their smartphones and tablets at home).

Spontaneity was a key ingredient for the weekend.

In fact, there wasn’t even a schedule for each day’s speakers. The closest thing to it was a tall chalkboard on the far side of the room, which listed the order for speakers. I later learned it was written just five minutes before each day would start by Melissa Leon, the Misfit organization’s chief of staff.

However, the focus on spontaneity shouldn’t be confused with the amount of thought put into each detail of the event.

Dried prairie wildflowers hung above the long, single dining table, which contained delicacies made from ingredients provided by local markets. An eclectic group of couches, chairs, and benches lined the presentation space.

Leon and his small army of Misfit organizers took into account the details many might miss – like the crafted bamboo forks and candy drinking straws.

As I spent more time talking with the attendees, it became clear that each one of them had big plans to change the world. But it wasn’t the conference that had built up a false sense of empowerment. Instead, many of them were already on their way to doing it. Misfit Conf was simply a refuel along the way.

One attendee in particular framed the purpose clearly. She was a city organizer from Iowa – one of the older attendees. I asked her how she overcame challenges as she worked to find purpose.

Mid-sentence, she interrupted.

“Take what you’ve said and turn it around. They’re not challenges – they’re opportunities and possibilities.”

Misfit Wall

Photo Credit – J Alan Photography

And that’s what being a Misfit was all about: Seeking out meaningful work, experiences and relationships, pursuing them with relentless purpose, and ultimately doing something remarkable along the way.

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Preston Johnson