A few months ago, I had occasion to take an unusual and particularly interesting inventory of my life.
I say “unusual” because as a chronic self-dev-junkie-(slash)-overthinker, my default setting is “taking inventory.” Taking Inventory is a sort of state of being, an always-on operation that provides a constant, low-level background hum.1 (Which, given this hearing loss I seem to have sustained from a particularly fabulous but surprisingly loud record-release party last fall, is actually a boon.)
I say “particularly interesting” because while any reasonably thoughtful inventory can yield some pretty wowser data, the circumstances surrounding this one changed both the way I approached the inventory and, I’m guessing, the quality of the results.
In this case, I had a really limited window to get very, very clear on my priorities, with probably no further at-bats. So the thing had to be vast and done fast, and the stakes were much higher than usual. This created an uncharacteristic mix of thoroughness and detachment in my execution, and a startling clarity in the results: quietude and simplicity are more important to me than, well, a lot.
They are more important than money, for sure. This is non-news, I’ve walked away from a lucrative position (with benefits! and opportunity for advancement!) because while I very much liked the stuff, I did not like the nonsense demanded as payment. Even more insanely, perhaps, I walked away from a consultancy I’d just started developing because it felt overly complex and “noisy.” I get that there are very few true “mailcart guy” jobs, but I’m still prepared to scale back even more and take a dumb-ass day job that supports a simple life rather than push through noise and complexity for money. Comfort isn’t comforting if you’re using it as chaos management.
What the inventory made clear (and which is still hard to wrap my head around) is that quietude and simplicity are more important than being liked, or in some cases, loved.2 I have always had a deeply-felt need to please and to serve. I still do, but I’ve finally ceded my physical limits: there is neither enough time nor enough me to go around; what’s more, I have some faulty factory-installed parts that shut down operations if I don’t handle them gingerly.
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So why the hell would someone who likes to keep it quiet and simple go to something like SXSWi, a now-22,000-person-strong (by some estimates) clusterfuck in a town barely able to accommodate half that, an “educational” conference whose programming is legendarily spotty (and getting worse), and whose noise and activity levels drain the lifeblood of even normal, hardy extraverts with youth on their side?
At first, back in 2006, I went out of curiosity and a need to be game. My then-boyfriend wanted to go, and I have learned that leaping has its rewards. So I leapt, and it was good, except for the burning out, which was bad. I learned about what makes a good (and a bad) talk. I learned actual stuff about podcasting and design. I saw movies, which was reason enough to go.3 I was really grateful I went, and grateful to him for encouraging (i.e., pushing) me to go.
When I leapt again in 2008, it was because I’d met a bunch of people online and wanted to meet them in real life, and while I was still uncomfortable with the practice, I recognized that the only way to it is through it. 2009 and 2010 became more and more about connecting with my now-friends, while slowly expanding my circle.
This year, quite frankly, I went because I had gone before. I went because I was afraid if I didn’t, I might be missing something. While that’s true, I actually would have missed a number of terrific chance encounters and planned meetups, going “just because” is no longer adequate as a sole reason to do something.4 And the drawbacks inherent in a massive, out-of-town conference, where it’s impossible to get true downtime, where the panels are so many and so spread apart it’s literally impossible to get to some of them on time, where the crowds are so thick and the control of them so absent a small person feels unsafe, mean this was probably my last South-by. It would take extraordinary circumstances to get me back, and a lot of ingenuity in the personal engineering of it. I like my insanity as much as the next guy, but I can only like it in micro-doses.
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I had a short spasm of semi-coherent debriefing in the Wave with my friend Dave. I vented my frustration, my feelings of overwhelm, my nostalgic longing for the Good Old Days when it was a “tiny” conference of less than 10,000 people. He reminded me that even then, way back in 2006, there was an old guard complaining about how SXSWi had tipped, how it had been taken over by non-makers, how it had been “ruined” by this next wave of people discovering the web as a publishing tool, a means of connection. And he was right. And I am right. And SXSWi is right (if a conference can be right): it is a living thing, there to serve the people of the web in the time that they are using it. I greatly enjoyed my five visits, and I’m fine with handing it over to whomever is moving into this ever-changing, always amazing space.
May you enjoy your glorious new thing, and may I find my new dollops of insanity easily and joyfully, and may we all leave the world a better place in our own particular way.
1What I mean by this is that I am constantly analyzing where I’m at and examining ways in which I might be resisting not moving further. Kind of like relentless self-development. There are obvious actions like being part of a growth-directed mastermind group, psychotherapy, and reading a great deal of self-development books and other materials on how other people tackle change. There are less-obvious actions like simply turning my attention (constantly, consistently) to whatever thing I’ve identified that I want to change, noticing envy, for instance, and going through a sort of on-site inspection/analysis/implementation process. If you have questions about this, please do ask them in the comments, or, if they’re super-private (and I totally get how they might be) feel free to email me.
2The “loved” part I still don’t have a handle on. I’d like to believe there’s a way to be me and be in a primary relationship, if only for the seemingly contraindicated reason that primary relationships are the world’s greatest self-development labs. Also, division of labor is a great time-saver. Also, footrubs!
3Although strangely enough I preferred the tech-y stuff and the meeting people. Mostly, I treated the movies, once we were inside, and over the stress of the lines and the “will this Gold Badge actually get us in and decent seats?”, as a way to be quiet and shore up needed energy for more mixing it up.
4I did also go because it’s still a cost-efficient way to see a number of people at once. The problem is that there’s a cap on the number, say, 30, and that’s on the outside. Over four days, given my capacity, I have the ability to have meaningful meetups with about 30 people. Hugs in the hallway are awesome, and it’s always nice to make a quick connection to someone in real life which you can then continue later, online and off. But meals, drinks and hangouts? You’re talking 30, maybe 40. 50 if you don’t need the insane amount of disco-nappage that I do these days.
UPDATE 4/7/11: Many writers have posted pieces, chiefly grumpy, about how SXSW has finally jumped the shark. Or that maybe it did last year. Or two years ago. Or 10. My favorite take on the hoo-ha is one written by my pal John Gruber. (And it should be noted that John and I “met” via Twitter, then met a few years ago at…SXSWi! After it had jumped the shark and everything, according to the old hands.) John’s take is, as per usually with John’s writing, straightforward, thoughtful, and succinct. You should probably read it, if you’re interested in that kind of stuff.
But for sheer charm, you should treat yourself to my friend Alissa Walker’s SXSW writeup. Because no one touches Alissa Walker for sheer charm. Especially with photodocumentation!