I’m just back from SXSW and have spent the past few days decompressing, catching up on sleep and reflecting on all that I experienced while out there. I think this is my fifth SXSW Interactive Conference (I’ve kinda lost count) and every year I’m asked any, or all, of the following questions from friends and colleagues who have yet to attend the conference:
“Isn’t it all totally overwhelming due to the crowds, the long lines and how the event is spread out across several city blocks?
“Aren’t many of the sessions poorly constructed, low-level, navel gazing exercises in personal brand-building?”
“Isn’t it all just a big party for douche-bag NYC-marketing executives and the over privileged?
“Can you REALLY get work done there?”
My answer to each of these questions is a resounding “Yes, yes it is…BUT” – where I then add a HUGE caveat.
You see, for the past five years (or four – you see, I really can’t remember…) I’ve noted the post-SXSW rants by critics who complain that the conference is overblown, unproductive and a “Spring Break” for geeks where parties take precedence over substance.
While I do understand where these critics are coming from, I also think they very, very wrong.
SXSW provides a HUGE opportunity for those who are willing to embrace chaos, step outside of the everyday, trust in serendipity, and are willing to take chances. This year, I left Austin with a greater sense of what I should focus on – both professionally and personally – thanks to the eclectic mix of music, art, creativity, technology and capital and intellectual brilliance assembled in that weird little City in Texas.
SXSW is the “congregation of the curious.” I love this description, which I’ve plagiarized from a terrific session by fellow Kenyonite, Camille Sweeny, and her partner, Josh Garfield, during their discussion of the “power of failure.” More on this below, but the people who get the most out of SXSW are those who are willing to be curious – to ask questions and to take time to explore.
Through my journey this year, I found the following:
The best insights at SXSW can be found when you — CLICHE ALERT!!! — “step outside of your comfort zone.” Some of the most inspirational and thought-provoking events I’ve seen at SXSW over the years have not been specifically about work-related matters, but have been instead been about big ideas or have provided a glimpse into genius.
For instance, four years ago I saw a session by Douglas Rushkoff in which he implored the audience to remember that devices and online communications platforms are there to SERVE US and not the other way around. He explained that we should therefore check e-mail, Facebook and other tools when it suits us rather than when we are pinged, beeped or called. That session has helped me try to live in the moment.
This year, I caught an interview with Ralph Steadman that provided an intimate look into his creative process. We were able to get a glimpse (via Skype) into his studio where Ralph was safely ensconced, and where he shared his notebooks, sketches and the big pad of paper where he splats ink and produces his powerful observations of contemporary society. My takeaway? From Ralph, I was reassured that sometimes you just have to say “Fuck it” and make things happen, even if others may criticize or fail to completely get what you are trying to do.
Failure can be positive – it can provide an impetus for creating new, innovative and successful business ideas. When high achievers are faced with failure they challenge their beliefs and summoned their courage to find new ways of doing things.
As a small business owner, trying to find a successful business model in a very competitive environment, I’m used to the idea of reinvention. I understand that business plans need to be malleable – and in the session put together by Sweeney and Gosfield on the power of failure, a process was outlined that successful business owners go through to identify new models, opportunities and offerings. It gave me strength and inspiration.
We all have to take greater responsibility for the security of our personal data and information. Session after session – starting with Eric Shmidt, and including Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald (among others), all talked to the importance of protecting your data and personal information. Those that control data control the world. Though programmers have a responsibility for developing methods to encrypt data, we all should take more responsibility to ensure that we are protecting our own personal information.
Everyone at SXSW is on a journey – and it is best to take the time to get to know your fellow passengers. Though I felt I was constantly in motion for six days – jumping from session to session, prepping for my panel and interviewing folks for my side project with Shwen, www.pharmfresh.tv, the most rewarding time I spent in Austin was having quiet, thoughtful conversations with some of the clever, funny, accomplished and inspired people attending the conference. As my United Airlines flight sped from Austin back to Newark, my thoughts were not so much about the sessions themselves, but the ideas, insights and perspectives put forward by the folks I met.
There is much, much more. (In particular, I hosted a panel looking at the future of digital health — write-ups can be found here and here – in which we discussed what qualities a successful company in this space will exhibit – but I’ll cover this in a separate post.) So, while SXSW can be criticized for its frenetic and un-focused design, the hit or miss quality of the presentations or never-ending party atmosphere, it is just these components that help make it a success.
Given how so much of our lives are spent just simply getting by — given how much mental and physical energy we spend jumping from one project to another, serving different causes or initiatives other than our own, it is rare that we have the freedom to explore to gain inspiration, knowledge and perspectives that help see the world differently. For all its faults, SXSW provides the curious attendee with that opportunity.