Terrifying yourself on a regular basis (a lesson from SXSW)

the author in the green room at sxsw

Each of the four years I've been coming to SXSW, I've learned a little something different.

The first time, it was about the value of coming to a conference, period. The next time, about learning to take the time I needed, regardless of the enticing hoopla happening around me (and also about not skipping a year, if you can avoid it). Last year, my Stuart Smalley year, apparently, it was about being myself, no matter how uncool I suspected that was (something that an intervening year has only confirmed).

This year, it was about terrifying myself. Not pushing my boundaries, not stretching just to or slightly beyond the limits of my comfort zone, but hurtling myself in harm's way and seeing what happens next. Specifically, pushing my way onto the most terrifying panel I could imagine: a two-minute, on-the-spot presentation improvised to 10 slides I had never seen before in my life and which had been prepared with the intent of maximizing audience laughter and enjoyment, not of making my job easier. A tradition sometimes known as "PowerPointâ„¢ Karaoke," and which a friend here dubbed "business improv." (Which sounds like the world's most horrible anything, but hey, I'm biased.)

Anyway. It was the opposite of rolling off a log (which I gather is easy, if not exactly fun), yet I managed to enjoy it. Especially the part when it was over. Okay, I exaggerate, as is my wont and prerogative. But really, now that I have made a fool of myself in front of 600 people, I can move on to  bigger and scarier challenges: making a fool of myself in front of 1,200 people! Or on national television!

Terrifying yourself is like building up muscle, as it has been told to me that muscles are built: you push things hard enough so that you are uncomfortable and the muscle tears a little; scar tissue builds up; the muscle gets bigger; you get stronger! Lather, rinse, repeat. (The act of terrifying yourself, of course, not that last action you used to do it.)

Also, if at all possible, I suggest the diving-in-straightaway-and-getting-it-over-with timing strategy. Gretchen Rubin (who ripped it up on the book stage) and I were both congratulating ourselves on having our respective moments of terror over with on Friday, so we were left free to enjoy the rest of our SXSW weekends.

Oh, and speaking of rest, one final note: there must be blissful (if brief) periods of rest in between the daredevil acts of muscle-building. Rest that includes things like hanging out with friends, taking in other people's feats of derring-do, and permission to write short blog posts.

See? You really can learn something at SXSW...


Photo ©2010 Jeffrey Zeldman via Flickr.