After attending another transformative, life-altering conference, a friend asked why he left feeling no different than the day he got there, while I felt like I was Isaac 2.0.
It dawned on me; he was just one of thousands of attendees – part of the white noise.
Maybe he learned a few new things, but overall, nothing really changed other than the size of his bag, which was full of the swag he'd throw away in a couple years and a stack of business cards that came from people he never really met. His experience had nothing to do with where he stayed or who he knew; it was all about his perspective.
Let's start with the basics: Why do you attend conferences?
If your answer is, because your employer requires you to, because you get some "alone time," or because your employer pays for you to get away, you're approaching it all wrong.
What does that mean?
Well, your "logical mind" is governed by a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex. It's also responsible for telling us how to react to things to remain consistent with who we believe we are, how we believe we look (vs. how we believe we should look), and how we process and internalize the experiences we have with the world around us.
Getting out of your head means, you're shutting off the prefrontal cortex and allowing your subconscious mind to control your thoughts, experiences and interactions.
Why is that important?
Because it lets us see and think differently.
It lets us form connections that would never otherwise be realized, and often helps us see things more clearly, lifting the vail of fog that normally clouds the way we perceive our lives and decision-making-process, offering the opportunity to help us improve ourselves.
So how can attending a conference help you get out of your head?
It happens in three ways: through sensory overload, collisions and communitas (a sense of community).
1. Sensory overload = sensory deprivation
In the 50's and 60's, pioneering research lead us to understand the potential of sensory deprivation, which allows us to experience something called ecstasis (getting outside of your own head). Being in an environment that has so much going on all the time gives us tremendous perspective and contrast, through-which we can enjoy one-on-one discussions in a way we often have difficulty experiencing.
Can you remember the last time you had a conversation with someone where you just got lost in the other person's presence? You notice every micro-gesture, and can sometimes guess the next word that person is about to say. When was that? Can you intentionally reproduce conversations like that?
Being at crowded conferences with an open mind, coupled with a desire to engage in meaningful conversations are a great place to engage in that type of experience multiple times each day.
And guess what?! When you have conversations like that, you're actually forging relationships. And, if you play your cards right (i.e. follow-up and stay connected, open-minded and agenda free after the conference), you'll find you're able to foster and cultivate some amazing, truly meaningful relationships.
When you're at conferences, you have the benefit of being in a tiny, concentrated city; a microcosm of individuals that are all focused on the same industry. Considering most of us spend more time working than we do with our family, finding ourselves among a group of individuals that are all focused on the same general industry can make for some very interesting meetings and interactions. I've always enjoyed attending SXSW because I experience a global community of individuals that share a diverse background, and are all tackling similar problems.
Having the chance to learn from one another without specifically talking about what we do gives me a perspective I'd never otherwise realize in the workplace, with my colleagues.
This creates one of the best intellectual growth experiences for me, because getting out of my head in this way arms me with the power of perspective and diverging approaches to achieving a singular goal.
3. Communitas, a higher purpose
As humans, we yearn for a sense of community. We want to know that what we're doing is meaningful; that there are others who care deeply about it. I'd argue communitas is the reason so many people are attracted to religion and most recently, rave/EDM culture and even Burning Man culture. It's the reason companies that have authentic corporate culture based on a common set of values and beliefs are the most productive and have the lowest employee churn.
It's arguably the main reason for Zappos' success, and it's a driving force behind political uprisings. We are social creatures, yet our day-to-day lives are spent inside our own heads.
Being in a place where so many people share a set of core values means you have the best possible chance of interacting-with and benefiting-from positive group-think with them. (I'm in no way saying that everyone at any given conference shares your core values — I'm merely suggesting that you'll experience a higher concentration of people who do at these events, than most other places.)
Tactically speaking …
I have three rules to help myself maximize the benefits of conferences/events (for those of you who know me well, you'll remember these as my 3 Rules of SXSW):
1. Let serendipity be your guide; she's a kind host
Think about it; when was the last time you let go, and just let serendipity guide you through an experience? Chances are you spend more time swimming against the stream that is your life than you do swimming with it. Letting go and letting serendipity take over gives you the opportunity to make the most of each experience and interaction. It also helps if you trust serendipity; that lets you trust that what you're currently experiencing is exactly what you're meant to experience, and hence, you're having the exact experience you need to have at any given moment.
This perspective allows you to make connections between problems and potential solutions that would be unattainable to your conscious mind.
2. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, do it.
That's the only way any of us can grow. As humans, we're absolute creatures of habit. And when we practice our habits, we're just reinforcing what we know. When we do something that makes us feel uncomfortable, we're doing something new, and doing new things helps us learn and grow. If you want to leave a conference or event feeling like you've transformed into a newer, better version of you, this is a must!
3. ABC — Always Be Charging
Your body, your mind, your devices (if they're required for attendance). If you're walking around letting your subconscious guide you, you're not going to notice how much you're draining yourself. If you have a chance, sit. If you see something that you feel will recharge your mind, do it. If you need your electronic device(s), when you see an outlet available where you are, charge it/them.
The Unspoken Rule
You need to surround yourself with people that get the above three rules. If you talk to people about the above three rules and they seem perplexed (like you just mentioned the unmentionable), you need to move on to someone that does understand. If you talk to someone that gives you a business card within the first 60 seconds of meeting, you need to move on. Try to have as many meaningful conversations as possible, because those are what you'll remember.
If you sit-in on a session where a speaker is talking and you like it, make sure you're the first person to stand and ask a question when they're done talking. Return the favor by helping them understand that you got them and appreciate what they had to say. Ask them if there's anything you can do to help them. Create a relationship.
The bonus rule, for humanity's sake
Always ask what you can do to help someone. This is a rule I live by, and always mean (don't offer this if you're not truly willing to help). While I can't afford to work for everyone pro bono, I do care enough to genuinely offer this to everyone I meet that I care about, and I'm only taken-up on the offer about 1% of the time (those people are generally super-surprised with my genuine willingness to help without asking for anything in return).
A mentor once beautifully stated, "When you close your fist you don't give, but you also can't receive. When you open your hand to give, it's also open to receive."
Let's conclude, shall we?
If you want to network like a boss, don't go because your employer requires you to, because you get some "alone time", or because your employer pays for you to get away. Don't go to gather a stack of business cards and certainly don't go to get free stuff.
Go to grow. Go to forge new relationships, because your intelligence is the sum of those you surround yourself with. Go because you won't have the time to just spend with new, like-minded people anywhere else. Go because you want to get out of your head. And go because you realize that getting out of your head has a massive impact on your life after the conference/event.
Go because you care about yourself and others. Go because you care about your community and humanity.
Otherwise, you have no business going. It's all about #relationships.
Isaac Naor is a designer, inventor and futurist who enjoys building startups and coaching others. He loves learning through design thinking and taught his three-year-old son to code before he could even write. Naor has been published by the Wall Street Journal and Mobile Marketer, among others, and is currently focused on virtual reality.