Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

1 Man, 2 Keynotes, 2 Continents, 18 Hours. Delirious.

Fire Gamification

(Warning: this post is NOT about gamification, but just more about me. You will not gain in intellectual capability by reading this post, so please decide if you think this would be worth your time. But after all, the name of this site is, so I think this post would still be appropriate, regardless of how egotistical it may seem)

I almost had a heart attack

So I was greedy.

Every once in a while I get invited to go do some workshops, panels, or keynotes that require extensive traveling. Even though some are not the best paid and have extremely high opportunity costs (working with my clients, or just family time), my personal agenda is to make sure the world does gamfication properly instead of just slapping on PBLs on everything, so I tend to say yes when I can as long as the organization’s offer seems fair and sincere.

The Opportunity

In mid-April I was invited to two separate Keynote opportunities, one in Atlanta, Georgia and the other in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The one in Atlanta was a private conference for a couple dozen Chief Learning Officers of Fortune 500s gathering up to learn about the latest trends in employee training and compliance within the enterprise space (by the way, I feel that the employees of these particular companies should feel especially fortunate because these companies truly care about the growth of employees…to the point they have C-Level Officers dedicated to that).

The one in Denmark was co-hosted by the Denmark Innovation Center (funded by the Denmark government) and Innovation Labs, a great knowledge technology center in Denmark. They have a conference on Gamification that attracted close to 100 of the most forward-thinking executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals in Denmark – awesome people in an awesome country.

The Rude Awakening

Since I more often than not check my emails with my iPhone on the go, I didn’t get a chance to go through my calendar carefully (checking surrounding dates) before I told both events that I was interested and available (of course, we also had other conversations about potential topics, length, etc.) But when I later went back and checked my calendar, I was in for a shock.

The Atlanta talk was the afternoon of June 19th, and the Denmark talk was first thing in the morning on June 20th.

Oh crap. What did I get myself into.

At that point, the wise (but faint) voice in my head said I should probably email the event organizer of one of the events and cancel my commitment in order to ensure that I don’t end up being a major disappointment to anyone. The greedy (and somehow more charismatic) voice in my head said, “But is there really no way to make this work out?”

Before anything, I did email both event organizers and transparently shared that I was facing this dilemma, that I “may” end up canceling if I couldn’t work out the details, just so that they would have some heads up.

The Poetic Monologue

I was thinking that perhaps one of them would help me solve this dilemma by responding, “No problem. We have a few other speakers that have confirmed their attendance and they could do the Keynote instead. Enjoy your other talk!”

Very sly, Yu-kai. Delegating the moral decision on someone else’s time. I also like how those two words rhyme, and for that, maybe you should reward me with a dime on top of some lime. Alright, I’m sorry. I’m done. I promise.

Thinking about this entire thing was making me anxious. If I went for both, it would really be a hit-or-miss. If I could pull this off, I would feel like a hippopotamus – full of bliss. But if something went wrong with the airline service, I’d be seen as a complete conference menace. Of course, I’m not ready to take that type of diss, as It would be worse than drinking cow piss.

And even if I did pull it off, I would probably be delirious and people would think I had been remiss. Or perhaps I would be so awesome that people wouldn’t even notice…but that just sounds like a naive practice without a sound basis. And despite being consumed by this foolishness, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about this with a bad premise. There’s so much potential in gamification that the world can harness, and all I really wanted is to show up and make it surface.

So if it has to come to this, which one should I dismiss?

With all the Fortune 500’s, going to Atlanta could really help my business. And because of my parents, I was just in Geneva last Christmas. But a chance to visit Europe is hardly something one should just miss, especially when I heard that the other keynote is Deterding, who besides being a respected pundit, is often a doubting Thomas when he sees things amiss. I could also go and visit William Baeyens (you can kind of think of him as my apprentice), whom I believe is based in Paris.

And yes, I know. I broke my promise.

It was just too much fun.

The Commitment

So what was I talking about again? Oh yea, I was having a hard time deciding what I should do about the two potential events.

So fortunately for me, both event organizers wrote back to me, and generously said they would very much like to make it all work out for me if possible.

The Atlanta conference proposed that they could move my talk to first thing in the morning on June 19th, which was 8:30, while the Denmark conference offered to move my talk to later in the afternoon.

With that, I saw a glimpse of hope.

I started doing some research about potential flights, as well as how long did it take to travel from the airport to the conference location. Both seemed to be about 30 minutes according to Google Maps, which of course is never wrong in predicting traffic conditions.

I found a ticket that might just work out.

The Plan

So at that point I confirmed for both events and bought my tickets.

The plan is that, on June 19th, I would start my first talk in Atlanta at 8:30am, which should end in 10am. I would then take the taxi to the Atlanta airport immediately, arriving at 10:30am.

I would then spend an hour going through airport security, catching a 11:50am flight just in time.

With the time differences (losing 9 hours, or +9 to your watch), I would land in Denmark 10am on June 20th, with just enough time (and more!) to make my next keynote at 1pm.

As the great Fred Kim once said, the plan was flawless.

The anticipation

So that’s when things made me pretty nervous. For the month of May and early June, I was regularly thinking about this issue.

As you could see, my plan didn’t allow for many mishaps in the middle. Usually for international flights, they recommend you being there 2-3 hours before flight time. I had an hour, and usually boarding starts 50 minutes before the flight time – yikes!

I also couldn’t predict a few things: whether I would be able to end my talk and leave exactly at 10am on the 19th, would I be able to catch a cab immediately after finishing, and whether there would be traffic or not to the airport. I also didn’t know whether there would be flight delays (which happens quite often) or not, but this is something that for once would work in my favor. However, if the flight was cancelled or delayed for too long, I would also miss my connection flight and miss my keynote time in Denmark.

As you can see, my landing-to-speech timeline is so tight that if any of the 3 planes I would be on had material problems, I would miss my talk.


I also thought about the fact that, if I missed my speech in Denmark, not only would it not make any sense for the Denmark organizer to write me a check for the speaker fees, but there would be no reason for them to reimburse my plane tickets either (which were lower than the speaker fees but still in the 4-digits nonetheless).

Basically, if one little thing goes wrong with logistics, everyone gets screwed.

I started to regret my commitments. Those of you who have done financial projections would know, financial projections shows you what happens if EVERYTHING goes “conservatively” right. But in reality, that almost never happens.

What’s even worse, was that I later found out that my talk in Atlanta was not really close to the hotel…well, it was 10 minutes away, but that was a lot of minutes for my circumstances. My talk was going to be in the UPS headquarters (an amazing place by the way), which didn’t have any taxis or airport shuttles lurking around the entrance.

It almost seemed like, I was betting on the possibility that the airlines would likely have small delays. One random positive variable to set off all the other random negative variables. Just writing this out right now sends a chill up my spine.

My friends didn’t help me feel more cuddly about the situation. When hearing my circumstances, they said, “There’s no chance man. Seriously. It’s not possible. You should cancel it.” “Dude, the Atlanta Airport is one of the busiest ones in the US. You don’t have enough time.” Of course, that was indeed new information to me after I had made the commitment.

My knees were in too deep, so the only thing I could do was to optimize on a few things and hold on to my faith.

Desperate Attempts

The first thing I did, was to make sure I didn’t have to check in any bags. Since I’m going to Europe, I decided to stay around for longer and meetup with some family and clients in Berlin, Munich, Geneva, and London, totaling 2.5 weeks.

For this 2.5 week trip, I could only bring a carry-on (I apologized to my parents for not being able to bring them the gifts they asked for…but I still prepared something!), which would probably decrease my airport logistics time by 30 minutes.

The other obvious thing I did, was to plan for checking out of my hotel and taking my luggage straight to my talk, and see if I could organize a ride to the airport directly from the UPS building.

It was still dangerous, but I at least felt like I had some control.


I landed in Atlanta on the evening of the 18th. There was a dinner with the group that night, so I planned to attend a couple hours after settling into my hotel.

However, there was a thunderstorm that evening, and when I took the taxi, there was massive traffic. What was supposed to be a 30 minute ride became 90 minutes. Needless to say I was very stressed and anxious about what would happen the next day. I’ve heard that this entire week would be occupied by thunderstorms, which would not only affect the traffic conditions, but also increase the chances of a cancelled flight.

If going to the airport took just as much time as going from the airport, I would be a dead man. My heart was jumping out when I sat through the slow torture of stormy traffic.

I started having conversations with my driver, and towards the end, I asked him to wait for me at the UPS building at 9:45 the next morning so that once I finish my speech, I can rush out and get on the ride.

While at the dinner, I shared more about my hectic schedule, and everyone there was extremely supportive. They asked the organizer if we could even start earlier tomorrow, skipping the self-introductions and end the breakfast faster so I can start at 8AM and end earlier.

That gave me better odds and I felt a lot better.

The Day in Question

The next morning I woke up at 6:30AM, which is actually 3:30AM for me since I was on Pacific Time.

I did my speech, which was naturally on Octalysis, Gamification, and Human-Focused Design. It seemed to be very positive and I wished I had more time to not just talk about the basics of Octalysis but help them figure out how to implement it into their existing practices.

Once I finished my speech, I immediately rushed out to the taxi that was waiting for me outside (apologizing to the attendees). I ended up forgetting my Macbook Pro Adapter, but the CLO of UPS told me that she knows a really good shipping company that could help me with that 😉

I turned out to be EXTREMELY lucky. That day was a Wednesday, and according to Weather there would be thunderstorms on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, but not Wednesday! The weather was nice, and traffic was accommodating.

My ride flowed like a river and I arrived at the airport at exactly 10:30AM. Since I didn’t need to check-in with my bag, I went through security quickly and got to my terminal at 11AM, 50 minutes before my flight!

YES! I made it. At that point, I felt that a huge rock on my chest for weeks was finally lifted. I was so happy I did feel like a blissful hippopotamus as I went onto the plane.

Copenhagan, Denmark

14 Hours later, after a transfer from DC, to the Frankfurt Airport in Germany (and hearing a joke from Gabe Zicherman about the Frankfurt Airport being in Ohio on Facebook), I finally landed in Denmark. However, since there was some flight delays, I still showed up an hour later than anticipated.

At that point, I had to decide whether I wanted to go to my hotel and take a shower, or go straight to the conference.

I tried to sleep on the airplane, but since it was afternoon time for my own timezone and the seats were uncomfortable, I had a hard time really resting, so I ended up watching 3.5 movies: Oz, the new Die Hard, Spiderman Tech (which was actually the most interesting), and the Hobbit.

Remember I woke up at around 3:30AM in my own time zone? When I arrived at Copenhagan, it was about 2AM in my time zone. The worst thing about traveling is that, even though for the entire day you’re not doing much – just sitting on a plane and waiting at an airport – instead of feeling rested afterwards, you feel exhausted. Perhaps the true value of the first class seats is that they are “flights that refresh,” and is worth the thousands of dollars for people who needed high performance right after the flight (surgeons?)

There was still a couple hours from my actual talk, and a shower + power nap would be quite amazing (and perhaps more responsible for the conference as I could perform better). However, I decided to go straight to the conference because I was interested in hearing Sebastian Deterding’s keynote so my talk does not overlap with the same information but builds on it.

The Discourse

After meeting some great people at the conference, it finally came time for my talk, which was 90 minutes. I made my “delirious disclosure” up front saying that I could pass out any moment. It’s been 24 hours since my sleep in Atlanta, with 14 of those on exhausting flights.

The Danish are truly amazing folks. They were the most responsive (and knowledgable!) crowd I have spoken to on the topic of gamification. They were supportive throughout the entire time, gave great examples, related Octalysis to their own projects, and made me feel like home. They were also the only group of people I’ve seen that clapped in complete sync with each other – right on the beat.

Sebastian Deterding was good sport. Since I know his reputation of being a critical academic (the doubting Thomas reference above), I was anticipating the entire time that he would jump in and start challenging my presentation. Towards the end of my talk, he did finally jump in and talked about how he disagreed with my definition of “social pressure” (Core Drive 5 for those who have been doing your homework) and went into a deeper talk about how the word “pressure” was incorrectly applied to some examples I gave. I simply responded that, in my definition, the “Social Pressure & Envy” (now re-termed “Social Influence & Relatedness) Core Drive just represents everything that relates to people changing their behavior because of what other people think.

If what other people think is strong enough to make you change your behavior, that IS pressure. This is different from the common phrase peer pressure, where people actively push you in a direction. Social Pressure could just be about wanting to please someone, wanting to look good in front of others, or being kind to someone who was generous to you. Anyhow, I didn’t think his comments were unfounded, but from a usable standpoint, it is easier to design something by thinking through an inclusive theme of social pressure, and all the game techniques that push and motivation instead of wondering how technical the term is. Of course, if Sebastian or anyone has a better word that encompasses this inclusive drive, I’m very open to changing the terminology (but not a long technical term like “socially-driven motivation”)

The funny thing is, in the dinner afterwards, I mentioned to Sebastian that I was anticipating him “correcting” my talk as I was giving it, and he responded with, “Well, it would be extremely rude of me if I interrupted you the entire time!” This made me smile as it sounded like he wanted to jump in throughout my talk but decided to stay polite until he couldn’t stand the blasphemy from me anymore.

The nice thing is that, he gave me some saving grace and said (paraphrased), “I agree that from a usable standpoint, your framework is extremely useful in figuring out what to do in the design process. It’s just so academically incorrect!!” I think that’s a compliment I’ll keep and frame on my wall one day. (Maybe even a quote I can include on the cover of my next book!)

Finally an American

Through their generosity and enthusiasm, the Danish audience convinced me that I wasn’t that conference menace that would make Americans look bad (although a comment about the “Evil American” stereotype did come out when we were discussing the interesting topic of ethics in gamification – in a joking manner).

It’s funny how after years of being persecuted as the “Foreign Entrepreneur” from Taiwan (I was in a couple documentaries, including an interview done by PBS on why the US needs a Startup Visa), I actually get to represent Americans (while hitting continuous on-the-street references of my “American accent”). How the tides have turned.

Anyhow, the entire thing went extremely extremely successful, and I stuck around until the end of the conference, leading to a dinner that lasted till 11PM Denmark time, which of course was 2PM Pacific Time.

And this concludes my exciting adventures of staying awake for 36 hours, delivering 2 speeches on 2 continents within 18 hours, and finally becoming an American while in Europe.

Honestly, I’m thankful to God that everything went smoothly and so successfully. I also had a hell of a time.

I hope you enjoyed my story.

Share the Post:

other Posts

14 responses to “1 Man, 2 Keynotes, 2 Continents, 18 Hours. Delirious.”

  1. Ah, the joys of intercontinental air travel. But it does get you there faster… usually. Heading back to the US from Korea in about a month. It has been an awesome year!. Side note: I am filled with sympathy as I see how your weight seems to go up when you travel… Oh the foods of the world! Side note 2: I traveled by train across the US and back across Canada (coast to coast) over a one month period. It was a powerful and positive experience for me. Cheers!

  2. I feel envious not having so much energy. There is so much I want to learn and achieve but find I don’t have enough time or I am not focused enough.

  3. Haha… Yu-kai – your rhyming skills may not be extremely high, but I do find you pretty sly 😉
    Loved reading about your experience. I did not realize that we Danes are special for clapping in sync. Always nice to learn new things! 
    Do you know if anything from your keynote will be published for the rest of us to see? I am really sad that I missed out on the opportunity to see keynotes from both you and Sebastian Deterding. But glad to hear that you had a good time in Denmark.

    • MichelleAndreassen Hahaha, what are you talking about? It rhymes perfectly in an American accent, so hopefully that’s not what you really meant. 
      The organizers might have the slides (and since you are now like the number 1 user of the month, I can send my deck to you too). The thing is that the deck itself is a bit similar to the eBay one you shared (with some graphical modifications/improvements) and most of the content are in the conversations, examples, back and forths, and exercises I had.

      • MichelleAndreassen Actually, since you are like the top Gamelite on my site (widget on the right which I’m sure you have been aware of), I might just do a skype workshop with you 😉
        According to Gabe Zicherman, it’s called SAPS: Status, Access, Power, Stuff, hahaha. (the 5th one was mine)

      • Yu-kai Chou MichelleAndreassen Just had to finish my dance of joy before answering this one 😉
        Of course I’m aware of the widget – unfortunately you are now responsible for me reading everything on your site and watching every single video instead of writing my master thesis. No doubt about it – I’m an achiever!
        I took the online courses on gamification from Kevin Werbach and Gabe Zichermann, so I am familiar with SAPS, although I think it should have been called SPAS, since that is an old word for fun in Danish!
        I would love to have a skype workshop with you, now that I missed out on the gamification conference. That would be way more awesome 😉

      • MichelleAndreassen So now you are making me responsible for you becoming smarter? Sadness!!
        Haha, yes, I’m still experimenting with the widget and the mechanics/design of this widge. I’ll be writing a post soon on some decisions I made. The key here is to make users feel respected in the design, not like, “You get points for giving me money or help do marketing for me!” but more value the inputs users have and interactions with the content, and so they think this is a game “worth playing”. Of course, if you would like to share the content, I want to show appreciation too 😉
        You have my email I believe. Send me something and lets coordinate a Skype meeting.

      • Yu-kai Chou MichelleAndreassen I just had to make it rhyme aswell. Found your rhyming rather amusing 🙂
        I would very much appreciate the slides, thank you.

      • MichelleAndreassen  Haha, and yes, I was also just rhyming “accent’ with “meant” 😛

  4. Loved the story.  You should do more of these — I think it would have been great if we could have seen the video version of this post, to actually see how tired you were.
    Great to have you back!  Lets hang out.

    • JunLoayza Thanks Jun! I’m still in Europe until July 9th, so won’t see you in a while. 
      LOL, your incentive to see the video version was just to see how tired I was 😛 Of course I’m not writing this post before I finally found some time to rest!

  5. amazing trip!! once did two talks in three hours after making the Atlantic jump to Denmark and I was shattered. You’re an ironman pioneer in verbal dissemination (more than “just” in gamification). Sad that I didn’t get a chance to meet up!! (I started Innovation Lab and head up the daily activities). Hope to catch you sometime somewhere else, Yukai! with that erratic itinerary, combined with my own, it seems likely ; ).
    And above all: THANKS for your Verne-worthy efforts in making it to Denmark!
    //mads thimmer

    • thimmer Thanks for the comment Thimmer! It was sad that I missed you, but with the decades ahead of us, I’m sure it will happen one day 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *