‘Click to join online meeting’—an American Interlude

by John Marshall of Australia

The philanthropist Ron Hall once said, “Together, we can change the world with just one random act at a time.”

The early years of the 2020s will doubtless be remembered in years to come, laced with memories of the horror of the spread of a virus that literally stopped the world. Or at least it felt that way to me in my home city of Sydney, New South Wales—population five million – the largest city in Australia.

Whilst life may have continued more or less as normal in some areas of the world, this was not the case in Australia. Our second largest city, Melbourne, retains the dubious honor from that period of being the most “locked down city in the world,” reflecting 250 dismal days where non-compliance drew draconian censures. Even in Sydney, we were well past 150 days. Looking back, it often feels like a lifetime ago already that:

  • Outdoor public gatherings were limited to a maximum of two people.
  • People were limited to traveling no more than five miles from home for one hour of exercise.
  • Browsing in shops was prohibited; only one person per household per day was allowed to shop.

For a country equivalent in size to the continental U.S. but where 90% of the population lives close to the coast, this enforced period of isolation and social distancing was incredibly challenging. We are a nation characterized by an outdoor culture of beaches, BBQs, and sports.

Toastmasters, naturally, was also directly impacted. Indeed, had the recent technological advances enabling virtual interactions not been achieved, my home, District 70, might have disappeared completely. But as Zoom meetings replaced the in-person ones and members gradually lost their reticence at online, so the social aspect and learnings continued in spite of the challenges, with many fascinating new skills to learn. 

It occurred to me that, as with every crisis, within a difficulty, there are always opportunities.

A random click on the Easyspeak scheduling tool showed other online meetings occurring in other countries—all suffering the same fate of switching to virtual meetings. Here was the opportunity to do something previously impossible: Try an overseas club!

I determined that the U.S. Eastern Time Zone suited me perfectly. The 15-hour difference would enable me to join an early evening meeting somewhere over there before my workday began here, and following a lucky dip, I found myself at the wonderful District 84, Omni Club 6861 in Lake Mary, Florida. It was completely random, having no prior connection to that area. Despite having visited nearly half of the U.S. states from previous vacations, Florida — paradoxically given the tourism industry — was not one of them! Yet the welcoming attitude, engaging humor, and fun, allied to the weekly frequency and low cost of membership, made it well worth signing up.

As I became a regular attendee, so I benefitted from this weekly distraction to life-in-lockdown by being on a type of vicarious vacation to Florida each Friday before work. The new learnings obtained, especially from a different culture and new perspectives, gave me valuable insights on how to improve my speeches and evaluations—just as I suspect my fellow members had a reciprocal benefit from my consistent input and trademark dry humor, even once restrictions were finally lifted.

You may assume that I ceased my membership with Omni Club 6861 once life finally returned to normal and District 70 reinstated in-person meetings. But this is not the case. Why is that? 

The answer is simply that I continued to derive value from being a member. In time, the people who were once merely faces on a Zoom square became friends. I’ve also been proud to represent Omni in annual competitions, once even advancing to the District 84 evaluation final, albeit at the challenging hour of 3 a.m. local time! 

And yet . . . another random coincidence arose last year when my boss approved my attendance at a project management conference, which is hosted in different U.S. cities annually. To my interest, I noted this one was taking place in Kissimmee, Florida. It would be a 20-hour flight from Australia, but what an opportunity to actually meet those faces on the Zoom square that had been part of my life every week for over two years, through good times and bad. Yes, I am in!

It was a signal honour therefore, to finally meet my fellow Zoom Toastmasters in person at an Aussie-style BBQ with a cold beer in the warm Floridian summer—and enjoy an Orlando City soccer match, a delightful 3-2 win, to boot! Truly amazing days! What were the chances?

I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had randomly selected some other club or some other country from that Easyspeak list. Yet I know you more than often end up staying with clubs that align most closely with your objectives—it’s why members often guest at a few clubs prior to selecting one best suited. 

The randomness of clicking on Omni Club 6861 was one thing; the persistence from transitioning to guest, to member, to ultimately becoming friends is quite something else. But, for me, the Zoom era literally helped bring the world closer together. The early years of the 2020s will remain dominated in my mind by the impact of the pandemic. And yet, from that great difficulty, a greater good did come by making new friends on the other side of the world.

The full quote from philanthropist Ron Hall was, “Together, we can change the world with just one random act of kindness at a time.” The kindness shown by the members of Omni to me during the lockdown period will live long in the memory, and I continue to appear each Thursday at 5:45 p.m. Eastern Time!

Why not give it a try?

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