I posted on LinkedIn last week about some of the great friends and connections I made at ICF Converge in Orlando last week. What I didn’t talk about was some of the story behind that, and what makes it so profound an experience for me. Here’s the story of what happened, and why it’s such a big deal.
I knew that the major reason I wanted to go to the conference was to expand my network and make new connections and friends. So, the first night, before the conference had even fully started, I went to dinner at the hotel restaurant, found a table by myself in the middle of things, and watched.
After not very long, I saw two women wearing conference badges who looked like they were having trouble finding a place to sit, and I invited them to join my table. They accepted, and we chatted for a couple hours over dinner. We shared our stories, chatted about coaching and our mutual careers, and nerded out for a while. And, wonderfully, they challenged me. They challenged me to think more deeply about things, and to express my beliefs more clearly. I love that. So, we met up the next morning at the opening keynote, and were off and running.
They introduced me to friends, and some of those friends introduced me to other friends, who introduced me to other friends. Through the entire conference, essentially the only time that I spent alone was the time that I wanted to spend alone. I walked away with a dozen or so new strong connections, and another dozen or so that I’d like to make stronger.
Now, why is this a big deal? I’m sure there are people for whom the story of going to a conference and making bunches of friends and connections is completely unexceptional, unsurprising—even expected. However, it hasn’t been my historical experience.
Between my recovery life and my professional and academic life,I’ve been to dozens of conferences large and small throughout my career—50, maybe? I’ve been a speaker or presenter maybe a half-dozen times. In all that time, of course I’ve met people. Of course I’ve been friendly with some of those people. Of course I’ve made friends in contexts that weren’t conventions.
Before last week, though, I’d never left a conference feeling like I made new friends, like I had become part of a new community, like I had made connections that have the potential to be long-lasting. This time, I did. I have a history of feeling different and not a part of, and that feeling had always left me a bit unsure as to whether or not that sort of experience was within my capabilities.
So, what happened to make this time different? Several things. First, this time I explicitly decided that it was my mission. When I’ve gone to conferences before, I had a mission to learn as much as possible about the state of the art, or to recruit new talent, or to spend time with existing friends—all of which are great! I might do those things again at a conference in the future, and I won’t feel badly about it if I do. This time, though, I intentionally set the goal of making new connections.
I also had a plan. I knew that this was going to be a new experience for me—not necessarily out of my comfort zone, but definitely out of my zone of familiarity. I’ve been doing and enjoying networking lately, but at 1-2 hour events, not 4-day events. Since I’ve never before walked away from a conference with what I wanted to walk away from this conference with, I made sure to get some coaching beforehand about what I wanted to accomplish, how I was going to do it, and what might stand in the way.
I also have built up my self-confidence and emotional resilience over the past decades. While I made a bunch of new friends and new connections, not everyone I reached out to was receptive. Not every conversation went the way that I would have liked. And, although I had a plan and stuck to it, I didn’t do it perfectly. I did have moments where, in retrospect, I would have done things differently.
But, I’ve practiced compassionate self-talk for decades. As a result, I didn’t engage with the (by now fairly faint but still present) voices of not being good enough. I didn’t spend any significant time in self-recrimination over what I should have done. And so, this conference acted as a further bit of evidence for me that I’m not bound by the limitations of my past.
Now, although I still sometimes have shy moments, the truth is that I love people, and I love interacting with people. So, in some ways, this experience may have been playing to my strengths. On the other hand, had you asked me even 5 years ago if this was something that I would be capable of doing, I would have had to stop and think about it. I don’t know that I would have said I wasn’t capable, but I don’t know that I would have said I was, either.
So, if you’re facing something that you’ve never done before, even if it’s something that you’ve always thought you were not capable of doing, consider the possibility that you might be more capable than you think. It might be that your beliefs about who you are are the only thing (or the major thing) standing in your way. And, it might be that if you plan and prepare, you can accomplish things that you’ve never been able to before.