As I sit on Delta flight 1592 on my way back from Austin for SXSW 2012, I can’t help but think about what a whirlwind the last few days have been. To put it simply I’m absolutely exhausted.
Staying for months on end someplace isn’t that hard. It allows you to get into a routine, build a feeling of home and security, and generally find time to relax.
The last two weeks have been a different story entirely.
I started in Pittsburgh for TEDxCMU, migrated to NYC, and then spent 28 hours in a car getting to Austin where I’ve been for the last week. Amidst all of this I’ve experienced enough beer, late nights and meaningful conversation to last me for the rest of the year.
Put simply, it’s been exhausting. Over the last 24 hours I’ve been checked out, and haven’t been this excited to return to Portland for awhile – even if I’m told there’s 4 inches of snow on the ground.
Note: Luckily upon arriving the snow had since subsided…
However, just because I’m tired doesn’t mean I haven’t had an great trip. The people I’ve met and stories I’ve made are exactly what I was hoping for and I even learned a thing or two throughout the process.
What did I learn you might ask? Here are the 10 major takeaways I got from this iteration of SXSW.
1) Openness is Undervalued
For some reason many people have a tough time opening up to strangers or people they’ve just met. And why shouldn’t they feel that way? You never want to be that crazy person that gives a complete stranger your entire life story within 30 seconds of meeting.
This year at SXSW I’ve learned that’s not always true.
When in an environment with people that think the same way you do, and have had similar experiences, you often get more value by opening up to them than you do from your close friends. This morning I spent an hour talking to two people I hardly knew about entrepreneurship, relationships, lifestyle choices etc. and I got more from that than almost any conversation I had this week. Often it’s the strangers who can relate the best, while providing completely unbiased feedback to the situation at hand.
It can be uncomfortable to open up in this way, especially if you’re a naturally introverted person. However, if you find yourself meeting someone new, and resonating with their story and what they’re all about, speak up. Don’t be afraid to dig a bit deeper, as there’s a good chance you’ll be surprised by what happens.
2) FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) Won’t Do You any Good
New acronym of the trip award goes to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It’s a naturally tendency. You want to do everything and be everywhere regardless of how impossible that is, and how potentially detrimental it can be to your overall well-being.
Conferences like SXSW are the hardest places to deal with this. There’s always 100 things going on and even more people to see, so you have to pick and choose. As soon as you come to terms with the fact you can’t see or do everything you’re able to stay present in the moment, enjoy the interactions you’re having more, and generally get/provide more value than if you’re constantly looking for the next best thing.
3) Depth Over Breadth Wins (Usually)*
Along the same lines as FOMO, it’s easy to go overboard and try and meet as many people as possible. You know the type who strives to do nothing but collect as many business cards as possible, and meet the most important person in the room (what does that even mean?).
By choosing depth over breadth you’re able to build more meaningful friendships and business relationships. I’d rather spend 5 days with the 4 people I get along with best than spend 5 minutes with 500 people who won’t remember my name 10 minutes later.
I say that depth over breadth wins with a caveat. This year we had an incredible core group of maybe 20 people. I spent the vast majority of my time with them, built those connections up, and feel great about it. However because of that I didn’t get to see as many people as I’d wanted to. There were a few blog readers, other entrepreneurs in my space, and a couple others I’d hoped to meet, but just didn’t make the time for.
I’m ok with the fact that I didn’t see these people because I got so much of out of the interactions I did have, but looking back I’d consider 25% fewer parties, and 25% more real conversation with new people.
4) Shut the F*** Up
This morning I was chatting with a friend, and he started to interject in a story I was telling. He then consciously backpedaled and asked me to continue my story. After I’d finished with my tale he said for the last few months he’s been making a conscious effort to “shut the fuck up” when other people are talking. He said doing this not only gives him the opportunity to learn more from the person he’s interacting with, but it also provides an opportunity to do a better job of giving feedback in the conversation.
It’s easy to talk, however sometimes (most of the time) listening is how you’re really most valuable.
5) Ask More Questions
So now that you’re doing a better job listening, what do you do with the information you’ve been given or learn from someone? Answer: Ask thoughtful questions, and then listen some more.
I’ve never been the best at asking questions. Last year I wrote about the concept of inquiring minds, and how by nature I don’t tend to dig deeper. I was never the guy in class that was asking questions about the content – I’d just nod and agree. I still find myself doing that in conversations, even if I don’t totally understand what’s going on, or would like to get more information.
The ability to ask high quality questions is one of the most beneficial skills there is.
My friend Dane was talking about an interaction he had with Andrew Warner of Mixergy, where Andrew had asked for his advice. Rather than say “oh you should do this, or you should do that” he asked a series of questions to get more information, then he asked some more. Andrew commented that most people are way too quick to offer unsolicited tactics, and what set Dane apart was his ability to dig deeper even when asked for his input.
After all, tactics without a proper strategy and base, are not only ineffective, but they can actually be damaging to your business or brand.
6) Often No Plan is the Best Plan
At SXSW and other events, it’s impossible to have control over every situation. Things happen spontaneously, and as great as it would be to always be able to do exactly what you want and know what’s next, it’s impossible to do as distractions always come up.
That said, when you’re open to distractions amazing things can happen. The events that I’ve stumbled into, people I’ve met, and conversations I’ve had, all due to being willing to go with the flow were better than anything that was planned on my trip.
Sure planning is great, especially in contained environments where you can have control over what happens, but when the situation calls for spontaneity and uncertainty, roll with it, the chances are good you’ll like where you end up.
7) There’s Always More to Learn
One of the things I love the most about SXSW is I’m always reminded of how much I still have to learn. Being in such close proximity to so many other incredibly smart and talented people is both humbling and motivating at the same time. I’m leaving ready to build better habits, continue my education, and most importantly, ready to put techniques and ideas I had in conversations into practice – after all, what good is knowledge if you don’t do anything with it?
There were a few moments where I found myself getting down on myself as I listened to other people talk about things like marketing strategy, psychological triggers, or behavioral tendencies that I’ve just never delved into much. However, after the gut reaction of inferiority I realized , these people aren’t any smarter than me – they’ve just invested the time to learn. As I continue my evolution in life I’m thankful for the ability to have conscious goals of what I do want to learn – and it’s being around these people that solidify those personal goals.
8) There’s No Substitute for Meeting Face to Face
I’ve talked about this in the past, but there’s really no substitute for meeting face to face, shaking hands, having a drink and talking to someone in person. It helps solidify any relationship formed over the internet, and adds a base of reality to friendships that may not always seem entirely real.
Whether it’s been the new friendships formed or the strengthening of the ones that were already there, I’m always thankful for the ability to meet people in person.
9) SXSW is a Marathon and a Sprint All At the Same Time
Perhaps the biggest things I learned about the conference itself is that SXSW is both a marathon and a sprint all at the same time. It’s 4 days of awesome conversation, drinking, partying, plotting, planning, discussing, working, evaluating, and just about any other verb you can think of. It’s tiring, but difficult to slow down because there’s always opportunity to get even more out of it if you choose to do so.
Preparing yourself for this reality beforehand makes a big difference in how you approach the event and your goals for attending.
Coming to SXSW this year has once again reconfirmed why I’ve said I’ll never miss another one. It’s a hell of a time and something to look forward to – however it’s the lessons I’ve learned, and more importantly the ones I’ll be acting on, that make the trip so special and worthwhile.
Have you been to SXSW or a similar event? What have you gained from doing so? How do you pace yourself in such a hectic environment.