Day 1: On The Way to SXSW 2008

I’m here at the Manchester, New Hampshire airport, waiting for my flight to board. Up until now I was kind of not in the SXSW spirit, but perhaps that’s not surprising because I feel different every year about the pending experience:

  • 2006 – Am I cool enough to be here? Will this be a big mistake?
  • 2007 – Ok, I need to pace myself and be social. I am self-conscious.
  • 2008 – Looking forward to the chaos of meeting new people.

SXSW (and just about every social event I go to) tends to put me in a mode of self-reflection because I wonder how I’ll present myself. I think the reason for this is that I want to optimize the meeting experience so it’s a good one, and there is probably a bit of self-doubt whether people will judge me “worthy” of talking to…shadows of childhood insecurity, perhaps. What’s helped me in the past is adopting a role or having a mission. A good role for me is as a host: I’ve always been appreciative of people who have taken the time to show me the ropes or help me get oriented. I’ve been less successful at defining the mission in a way that snaps me to attention. Last year I tried “being outgoing” and it freaked me out so much that I decided that withdrawing a bit was OK.

Being more specific about the operational elements of the mission would probably be more helpful. Let’s start with why I go to SXSW every year: I love the energy I get from being in a crowd of creative, entrepreneurial people. I love hearing how people have taken their ideas and dreams, discussing candidly what went right and what went wrong. I get to see a broad spectrum of personalities and interests aligned toward creative enterprise in an atmosphere of sharing and conversation. I’m not really one for partying, as I don’t drink and my hearing is not good in noisy environments. I also realized recently that I’m somewhat out of practice hanging out with groups of people; as my friends have started families or moved away over the years, I’ve only really interacted with people one-on-one. It’s probably been this way for the past 10 years, and I never really noticed anything other than I’ve been feeling isolated.

With this in mind, it’s pretty easy to just make the call to contribute to the energy that I love.

  • Share my enthusiasm and creativity, which means SHOWING it.
  • Start idle conversations based on things that catch my eye.
  • Hang out with groups of people and realize that that feeling of awkwardness is probably just being out of practice with it.
  • Stop being self-conscious about “who I am” and think about what other people might be looking for.

SXSW is a social conference full of people who love being social but maybe don’t know how to break the ice. There’s also a celebrity factor, because there are a lot of famous bloggers and authors wandering around, and this can lead to a kind of social paralysis. I was spared this my first year because I didn’t realize that there were famous people there in the web development world. My buddy Zach kept gaping at me when I failed to recognize the names of people. My second year, more fully briefed on who was who, I was much more conscious of circles of fame moving around me. This year, I am really just looking to meet interesting people that have that spark of curiosity and openness in their eye. At a festival like SXSW, that should happen often…the bottleneck is my own confidence.

Tactically, there are two tricks that may help me approach people:

  • Relax my face. I have a tendency to be tense up in social situations, and this makes me look kind of mean. I’ve tried doing the face relaxation thing and it has made a difference according to a few friends of mine. I have not yet applied this in the field, though. Thank you, America’s Next Top Model, for this tip :-)

  • Look people in the eye and smile. If they look back and smile, then that’s enough of a reason to strike up a conversation, moving from the immediate context to swapping information to telling stories. This is what I learned from a year of going to Starbucks every morning; it takes surprisingly little to just make small talk, and move on feeling good at having contributed a tiny bit of positivity to someone’s day.

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p>It’s almost time to board the plane. Looking forward to taking a nap. I should be at the Radisson by 6PM, then I’ll head over to the Convention Center and pick up my registration stuff. If you’re at SXSW, come up and say hi! :-)