I recently attended an unconventional conference — an “unconference”, as they call it.
The event was like nothing I had ever experienced and fostered both intellectual bliss and psychological discomfort. Thankfully, the bliss eclipsed the agony — but it was a close call there for a minute. Would you like to hear more? Excellent, because I have prepared more.
The conference was hosted by Google and some other very Google-y companies with which I am intimately familiar, but solely as a consumer. Before the conference, such companies were essentially faceless to me. I don’t have a cousin that works at Facebook, for example. I didn’t go to kindergarten with Elon Musk — and thank goodness, because I know he would’ve eaten my paste!
This year marked the 11th year of this thing. The 350 people who attended hopped on planes and trains and came from all over the country to get to Google’s Chicago headquarters. But those 350 people weren’t just any 350 people, oh ho! No, no: We were all on the list. Oh, yes. There was a list. Because whatever you want to call it — conference, unconference, think tank, nerd camp, slumber party for geeks — is by invitation only. First, you have to be nominated by someone who has attended in the past, then you have to apply, then you have to be selected. If all that works out, you can get your groovy nametag and it’s on like Donkey Kong.
Speaking of Donkey Kong: I think I met the guy who invented Donkey Kong.
It’s possible. Because that’s the kind of person who goes to this thing. The whole place was swarming with top brass in the fields of gaming; government digital operations; linguistics; neuroscience; the internet … There was a guy who owns and operates a yo-yo empire. I met a woman who makes the Chicago Botanical Garden the Chicago Botanical Garden. I was in a discussion group with the host of a very, very, very popular network reality television show. I attended a talk given by the UK’s leading war correspondent. I went to an “Ask Me Anything” session about the Chicago transit system hosted by the guy who is literally in charge of Chicago’s transit system. In the mix were scholars. Writers. Thinkers. Artists. Doctors. Comedians. Lawyers.
And one … whatever I am.
There were numerous occasions when I had to swallow hard and try not to cry. And I know, I know: You’ll say that I was in the room because I qualified to be in the room! Logically, I knew that. But emotionally I couldn’t get there. No matter how you slice it — and though every single smartypants person was so friendly and awesome — these people were intimidating. Many of them are also exceedingly wealthy, so there was that inadequacy going on, too. I wasn’t in my comfort zone, sister. I was in my “uncomfort” zone which does seem appropriate.
In a few different sessions, I said things that just didn’t come out right. Afterward, I would tell myself, “Fons, don’t talk anymore, just listen in the next one” but then I’d go to the next session and get so excited about the topic that I’d raise my hand and say something and that sounded stupid, too. The session I lead went okay, but okay wasn’t enough: I wanted it to be amazing. At lunch or in the hallways between sessions, I was nervous. Surely there was lipstick on my teeth. Surely I had toilet paper sticking to my shoe. I bit my cuticles so bad I drew blood — twice. I had to put a band-aid on, which made me feel like a gross weirdo with a band-aid on.
In my defense, it was a lot of stimulation and sensory overload. The conference is objectively stressful and the organizers warned all the first-timers that it would be. When I shared with my “homeroom” leader that I was freaking out, she couldn’t have been nicer and confessed that the first year she came, she left after the first day! However fancy-pants it may be, being thrown into a room with 350 strangers is a lot for anyone, she said, especially if you work from home or with a small team. I told her how I was in a pretty fragile state, too, from some life stuff, and that maybe that was affecting me. She gave me a hug and grabbed my hand and we went and got schmancy coffee from the coffee bar. Things got way better after that. I learned more in three days than I thought was possible.
And the stress is a distant memory, now. I’m eager to volunteer to host the monthly salons local attendees put together between conferences, and, if I get to go again next year, I’ll be the first on the list to volunteer to help out newcomers. As soon as I get my nametag on, I’ll wing my way through the crowd, eagle-eyed, looking for any girl with a fresh band-aid.