July 7, 2015 #,  #,  #

Creating my own opportunities, and being unrepentant.

Update: My lovely employer actually was able to pay for my pass to XOXO. I am very lucky, but will keep this blog post up because I believe the ethos of it (and the self-encouragement) is still valid. 🙂

So, I recently bought a pass for XOXO, and I’m spectacularly excited about it, for a few reasons. The lineup is brilliant, I love Portland, and I’ll get to meet Kai Brach, with whom I’ve been working on the latest issue of Offscreen. But there is another reason this conference is particularly significant.

This edition of XOXO is the first event I’m going to that isn’t free, or subsidised by an employer. It’s the first conference that I’ve paid to go to myself, and this is Very Important for me. Until now, I’ve found the phrase “investing in yourself” to be bit of a cliche, but I’m beginning to come around.

A conference, free or not, is an investment. An attendee invests time if nothing else, and hopes to learn. That learning can be technical (a workshop, for example) but the talks can also be interpersonal or emotional— a unique approach to a problem, a new perspective on diversity, or simply a great story beautifully told. I love it when unorthodox, interdisciplinary connections are made between design and the world at large, and I’m reminded once again of why I love this industry. Just one of those eureka moments can make an entire event worthwhile, and it fosters a connection that can’t be found elsewhere.

Strangely, though, I almost never saw this as an investment that I could make personally— that is, I would always look at the price of a conference ticket and manage to talk myself out of it. It was too expensive. It was too far away. The money could be better spent on something for our house, or on my family. It felt selfish to want to spend it on something purely for inspiration’s sake. It doesn’t help that networking is often part of the deal, and I navigate a party with the grace of a cow on rollerskates. Prior to each event, though, I convince myself that this time will be different. I’ll talk. I’ll mingle! I’ll trade business cards like a proper networking human!

Usually, though, after a look at the price of a conference (no matter how reasonable) I convince myself that the learning I would get there is available elsewhere. Read a blog post, take a class, build something— anything. Until now this has always worked, and though I happily and hypocritically encourage my wife to go to events and courses, I’ve been able to talk myself out of making that investment in me.

But after arriving in Vancouver and attending TypeBrigade, CreativeMornings, and Style & Class, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the value of simply sharing a space with people who share the same excitement and passion for this industry. It’s inspiring just to be there, and I can participate socially in whatever way I feel comfortable at that time. Only through practice will I get better at that, but it’s enough to know that just being present forces me to engage and to think in a way that I wouldn’t do just seated at my desk. That’s the value of my investment.

So, at my wife’s urging (I did still need a push— old habits die hard), I took the plunge and bought the ticket for XOXO. The act of self-investment is an internal acknowledgment that I have more to learn (thus why I’m going), but crucially that I have skills to build on. It’s an acknowledgment that I can and should progress in my industry, that I should make connections, and not be ashamed of making that progress and taking steps up the ladder. Making that admission to myself has been difficult due to a healthy dose of impostor syndrome, but my recent talk at TypeBrigade helped with that— it came with the realisation that I have something to say, that I can listen to people and hold my own in conversations about the industry. A conference is a platform for me to do that, to make some friends and maybe lay the foundations for some cool projects in the future.

This is a big step for me. I used to worry about the implications of wanting those connections. Did it make me a ladder-climber? Surely if I just sat and waited and did good work, people would come to me? Maybe they would, but I now know that I can create them myself— after all, it’s not just the talks. It’s the conversations over coffees and beers and during breaks that are just as inspiring and just as educational, and may have nothing to do with design. Knowing that I paid for my ticket might also give me that little social push that I sometimes need, but it helps to know that my presence there is enough, and investing in that presence is okay.

I would also like to reinforce that I realise that I’m very lucky to be able to do this at all. I have a supportive employer that allows me the time off (and ensures I can afford the ticket), a supportive wife, and a car to get down to Portland. But the act of making that investment was important for me, and I look forward to getting a return, however it manifests.

In any case, I have until September to work on my icebreakers.

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