I just signed up to attend The What if…? Conference again – this time in Vegas, baby!
Last March I attended The What if…? Conference in Columbia, MO as a presenter on the topic, “What if More People Were Happy?” (As a side note, I wasn’t crazy about this title, feeling that it was too light and fluffy for the content I was actually attempting to deliver. My talk describes how, after experiencing depression and hardships teaching, I actively made changes to how I lived my own life, empowering me to not only create a happier life for myself, but also for others through starting a school.) I left the conference dizzy with excitement over a successful public speaking experience. I also made lasting connections with new people, including having an attendee move to Charlotte from Columbia to come and volunteer at my school.
What I didn’t realize then, that I do now, is the specific vision and purpose behind What if…? and how much value conferences like this could have for a lot of people. I’ve heard Matt and Andrew (the co-founders) explain this to me several times, but it only clicked after I recently attended a big ticket conference. There is a need and a market that is unique to the What if…? Conference. I’m not advocating for it to replace other types of conferences, but I see how it provides an experience that actually fills a gap between very well-known, expensive conferences and the loosely guided “unconferences” I’ve attended. ALL have their own ways of providing positive social change.
I’ll attempt to clarify what I mean:
The Big Conferences (think BIF, TED):
These conferences display forward thinking, innovative, and dynamic speakers who have done incredible things in their lives. When I was starting my business, I watched these talks in conjunction with reading books as part of my learning and research. These videos reach people on a large scale and serve to inspire many. They also serve as great tools to promote thoughts and ideas. It’s almost replaced the, “Oh, you should read this book about ____,” instead, we can now share 15-20 minute videos about topics we believe in promoting.
These conferences are structured in a way that has an audience seated, receiving the content. You have opportunities to mingle with and connect with others during breaks or scheduled outings. You may connect with others if you manage to bump into them and authentically start a conversation, are introduced by a mutual friend, or if you are forward enough to walk up and talk to the person you want to connect with.
The “Create Your Own Experience” Conference (think Unconference or similiar):
This is the ultimate empowering experience, the “medium is the message” experience. I firmly believe that we are always creating our own realities that we live in and that we are empowered to make real amazing experiences for ourselves. Grabbing a bunch of people who have this mentality and putting them together to collaborate with a very slim framework can be powerful. There are some that can leave a conference like this feeling like they didn’t get a lot out of it, while others leave on a high having sought out the people they needed to learn from and collaborate with. I personally can attest to having incredibly connective experiences at past AERO Conferences, IDEC, and ReInventED, but I had to proactively create this for myself. The responsibility isn’t on the conference to do this for you.
The Gap Filled:
What The What if…? Conference provides is something uniquely placed between the these two conference types. 3 short talks, with a 45 minute break that is facilitated, 3 short talks, more facilitated conversation, lunch, and then repeat.
What’s key to me (and probably sticks out in my mind because of my experience as a teacher and starting a school), is the facilitated conversation between the talks. Rather than just taking a break where we all mingle around trying to connect or hand out business cards, we are instructed to sit at a table covered in butcher paper, armed with post-its and markers. Then we are led through a process of questioning that guides us as a group to decorate this paper in unique and collaborative ways.
It wasn’t following directions of a facilitated process that was the key, it was simply the act of telling us to sit down at table and ask each other to answer a question that then made it easier for us to get to know one another and connect on a deeper level. Think about the root of the word “facilitate,” it’s “facilis” in Latin, which literally means “the act of making something easier.”
What the What if…? Conference does is actually makes it easier to connect presenters and the audience. Presenters go on stage, and then go into the audience and participate in a lightly guided process. We are encouraged to change tables at each break to collaborate with different people. Where at The Big Conferences, one might be too intimidated or humbled to approach a presenter, What if…? makes it easy to sit at table and engage authentically with someone who just spoke ideas you want to talk more about. There’s more structure than at the “Create Your Own” Conference though, and you do sit down and listen to and learn from presenters because that is a part of of the experience too.
The Education Parallel
There’s a parallel I see here with these conferences and my experience as an educator as well. I’ve worked in traditional schools, I’ve worked in a private school, I’ve started my own school. I’ve learned about so many different types of education models – from being super hands-off to the traditional, completely adult-led schools. After opening my school as a democratic free school (think: hands off!), I realized that I could make it easier for kids to become self-directed learners if the environment provided a little more support. I’ve since switched to the Agile Learning model, and that’s been a huge help. And I keep learning that I need to continually see each child and discern where each child is in their journey so I can help provide the facilitation needed to support them.
There have been times I’ve left an unstructured conference thinking, “I didn’t get what I wanted out of that conference.” There are times I just want to sit and hear a presentation to learn from. At the last big conference I attended, I felt too small and unknown to initiate conversations with the speakers. Right now I feel like Goldilocks, finding my “just right” conference!
I think about how, as an adult, it can take me lots of time to figure out what experiences are “just right” for me. This makes me think about the kids at school and how it might be harder for them to figure this out on their own. One of the reasons parents are sending their kids to this school because they believe in self-directed education, where their kids can pursue their passions and interests. But not all of the kids actually know how to do this, (and many adults do not know how to do this as well!). My role is to ask myself, what can I do to make this easier for them to figure out? Just telling a kid, “Hey You! Be Self-Directed!” is a tall order. There are some that come to us ready, but others that could use our support to get there.
So…I’m Going Back!
It’s this supportive aspect of The What…? Conference that I really appreciate, and I think many others could as well. I write this post because I gained so much value out of my last What if..? experience and made lasting connections with the people I collaborated with. I am really excited to attend again and make even more lasting connections!
What’s even cooler about this upcoming conference (besides going to Vegas) is that What if…? is also creating a fundraising option for this school as well. For every person that buys a ticket (which is only $350 for a room, a ticket, and a food voucher), our school gets $100.