Saturday, October 1, 2011

loneliness and conference assimilation

Recently, I've been saying that conferences leave me feeling lonely--ironic, since I typically meet 20 people per day and have interesting, deep conversations with at least 5. I know from conversations on the topic that I'm not alone in this experience, yet I also know I'm contributing to the problem. How do I contribute?  It's this game I play--at every conference meal, I sit with strangers, so I can get to know more people. Sometimes we hit it off, sometimes our conversation is forced and dull. By never returning to eat with the same people, though, I'm implicitly saying that none of those new connections are important. In other words, if I don't show that "I like you" by finding you again, it implies that I don't.  That's not an accurate conclusion--I'm just trying to meet more people--but the more people I meet, the more people I leave feeling lonely. With lots of people playing either this game, or sticking with the people they already know well, odds are that many of us aren't feeling the love.  Within three days at these conferences, I typically have talked to 100 people or more, and I can always find someone I know to talk to during a break... but by this point I feel utterly vulnerable and lonely.

Loneliness is not just for Conferences
How do you feel, commuting to work? Watching TV? Reading a book? At the end of these activities, are you satiated? While these activities can be unavoidable, cathartic, or intellectually rewarding, respectively, they're not as emotionally rewarding as a long dinner conversation with good friends. Humans are hard-wired to seek, and to crave, emotional connection. In Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block talks a lot about loneliness, and how to break the cycle by creating things together. Conference organizers, and even speakers, often feel connected to each other and to the community, due to the fact that they've worked together (in small groups) making the conference. Attendees, however, have an entirely different experience until they connect to a small group.

Self-Improvement / Specialization also causes Loneliness (and myopia too)
Since I'm so passionate about software process and teamwork, I spend most of my spare time (at least non-family spare time) reading blogs and books in the lean/agile domain.  Unfortunately, all this reading is lonely work--I'd love to talk about what I'm reading with my family, friends or colleagues in the office, and often mention it--but few other people are interested. So not only does this specialization make me lonely while I'm reading, but also when I try to chat at work. All this makes events at Agile Philly and conferences more important to me.
Even worse, specialization doesn't even give us the mastery we seek.  We've learned from the wisdom of crowds that experts and specialists are less likely to have the "right" answer predicting the future of complex situations than a crowd of competent generalists. Why? For any non-trivial subject, specialists must focus so much on one aspect of a problem that they miss the forest for the trees--and can't make holistic evaluations. So what good is it to isolate oneself, to focus on a topic to the point of mastery, if we'd simply be more wise if we spend time with other people?

Building Relationships
How do we break out of this loneliness? We build something together! In my next post I'll talk about Technically Philly Groups, a community built to promote networking and learning in the greater Philadelphia  region.

Conference Format Can Help Too
As David Rock says, people go to conferences for a couple of main reasons--to soak up new information, and to meet new people.  Rock argues that in this age of going online for our information, maybe the priorities of these two goals are backwards for most conferences. I agree. I don't want to sit in a room with 100 other people, staring at a speaker for 90 minutes, without a chance to speak up myself. If that was my goal, I would sit all by myself at home and listen to podcasts or watch conference videos. Rock breaks the mold of multi-track big conferences by imposing some interactive structure onto all conference speakers--something he calls DEAQ (at least every 30 minutes, stop for digestion, application, exercises, or questions).  I don't think he goes far enough, and prefer Pecha Kucha Pull (3-5 minutes of oration designed to provoke questions, followed by Q&A, then repeat) or repetitive exercise-then-debrief. I really expect more conference organizers to focus on session format.  Last year at XP2010 the organizers had a great variety in session formats, but not this year for XP2011 nor LSSC11. I'd even be happy to see more Bar Camp or Open Space style sessions... though I love Open Space, speakers rarely show up prepared to the same extent they would for a planned talk. Let's be agile about our conference talks--come with a deck of slides, prepared to talk about a variety of subjects, advertise those ideas, then let the audience  'pull' the information out of you!

Unconferences Don't work For Newbies
This past week at Agile Day Boston and Agile Day NYC, I applaud the organizers (especially Dan Mezick and Joe Krebs) for combining planned talks and open spaces in a one-day event. Even keynotes were limited to 20 minutes in Boston--letting us whet our appetites on ideas from many different speakers. Following the planned talks, we had afternoon open space sessions that attracted a huge number of topics and participants--as well as a sense of belonging!

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