18 September, 2013
I love going to conferences. The talks almost always make me feel inspired to do great things, and make me feel just smart enough to believe I can achieve those great things with just a little extra effort.
I like feeling smart. I think everyone does—or at least, I can't imagine that anyone likes feeling stupid.
What I don't like is feeling dumb, and that's why I find the bits between and after the talks so difficult.
Networking is often heralded as the single most important thing you can do in your career. Yeah, yeah, citation needed. How about "it's not what you know, it's who you know"? That do you?
Yet in schools, where we arguably prepare the next generation for work in some form or another, networking classes are nowhere to be found. It's a soft skill, something that people seem to either have a knack for or not.
Now, half of you are likely nodding your head, and the other half are probably shaking yours, thinking "no, no, no: it's just a skill like any other. You just need to practice it". And I totally get that. But there are two things that make it hard for me.
The first is the opportunity. I spend most of my time around people that know me, that I know, and with whom I have some sort of shared background. This is a comfort zone that is hard to get out of.
The second is, frankly, an over-active manners gland. I like the idea of going up and chatting to the speakers at events, or chatting to anyone, frankly. I'm sure they're far more interesting than I am, and would have some great stories and anecdotes to exchange with me.
And that's where I draw short.
See, I don't like my time being wasted, and I assume most people are the same. Certainly, I don't like wasting someone else's time. And that speaker is already deep in conversation with another speaker, or someone else, and my brain immediately starts running the numbers:
And so I find myself feeling dumb, both literally and figuratively. I don't want to impose, to make a fool of myself in front of respected peers, and to feel worse than I do right now, standing in the corner with a pint, waiting for someone to walk up to me.
And of course I know this is all bullshit. I know because I forced myself out of that comfort zone at this year's Hybrid conference, and made a point of thanking speakers, asking them about why they chose to give the talk they gave and so on. Because when it comes down to it, this idea of "fair exchange" is entirely in my head, and doesn't even make much sense. In many ways, it's like going to a shop and not taking any free samples because you didn't bring any of your own to swap.
People like talking: that's why many of them came to the conference in the first place. And speakers are often as nervous as the audience. James Seymour-Lock espoused as much both before and during his talk on confidence, but it can be hard to internalise that.
It's hard to silence that voice that insists you're wasting this person's time, that you have nothing interesting to say, that you should stop acting like a fanboy, go back to your hotel and cut some code that will give you something to talk about next time.
But silence it you must. Nobody is scary, you're likely not wasting their time, and even if you are, you'll probably end up chatting to someone else with far more compelling chat.
Nobody likes feeling stupid, but that's not the same as being dumb.