I have heard and read about a million cases against attending conferences.
They’re expensive. They’re a waste of time out of the office, away from work that actually pays off (and pays money). They’re just a bunch of people trying to sell you stuff.
[Add any other argument against conferences you’ve heard, or you’ve thought yourself.]
Let me argue the exact opposite.
I’ve tweeted a thread about this exact thing back in June (right after SearchLeeds), and it seemed to have resonated with many. Here’s the thread:
I made pretty much all of my key arguments in this thread, but there are a couple I want to unpack further.
First things first, a preface: I am an introvert.
These things don’t come easy to me. I can’t just walk up to a person I don’t know and comfortably strike a conversation. It takes a lot of courage and preparation for me to even try to do that. Luckily, many other people are a lot braver than I am, so new conversations easily happen (I gladly talk to anyone that approaches me—and unlike approaching other people, I don’t find it terrifying at all.)
Next, I spend the majority of my time alone.
Being an introvert, that suits me. But it also doesn’t mean I don’t crave in-person human connection. In fact, when I left a job that drained me, I was delighted I can now spend my time alone, not having to be surrounded by people that don’t fulfil me—but over time, I realized I miss real conversations.
When you’re self-employed, there are really only a few ways you can tackle that: working from coworking spaces, attending meetups, going to conferences, and organizing regular in-person meetings with other self-employed people. There’s not much else.
I work from a home office and there is definitely a certain advantage to working from a coworking space. This is an option I’m exploring right now, but for the past two years, I’ve only really worked from home (and have been happy doing so). Most freelancers and other business owners that I have a relationship with aren’t geographically close enough for me to meet up with them regularly to work together.
That leaves meetups and conferences. The choice between the two will depend on the availability of both in the location you’re in, your industry, and your personal preferences.
For me, conferences are a perfect balance of “there’s a huge variety of people I can talk to so I can find those that suit me the most” and “there’s enough going on that I can step aside and take a breather if I need it at any moment without feeling weird”.
Next, the people I get to meet are similar to me… yet different.
This feels like a good place to say that some of the people I’ve met exclusively through conferences have become my close friends.
With some of them, I’d gone into deep conversations after knowing them for a day or two. Deep conversations in this context include discussions about therapy and mental health, emotional abuse, burnout, grief… As well as big dreams, passions and goals, books that change lives or make you think deeply, people we love, and more.
Despite knowing each other for a day, we’d go into topics many people don’t go into for months into their friendships. Perhaps the answer lies in exactly that: not despite, but because of, we know each other since earlier this week, we have no preconceived notions, judgements, or really anything to make these conversations hard.
And while many people simply don’t want to put themselves through emotions that way just because they’re at a conference, every now and then you might just run into someone you vibe with so well that deep topics will feel like the most normal thing ever.
Making intentional friends at events is like the first few months of a regular friendship, fast-tracked.
Think about your real-life friendships, those outside your industry, that develop naturally.
You meet for the first time, you exchange phone numbers/social media at the end of it. Then, a while later, you catch up over coffee or drinks, and another while goes by when you start joining each other’s friends group.
This can take weeks and months.
But conference friendships? You basically skip all of that and squeeze it all into just a few days. You don’t wait for more time to pass until you meet each other again.
You don’t have the rest of your usual life filling your days in between. Because you’re so separated from your usual commitments, activities, your job, and other people in your life, you give 100% of yourself to this new person/people.
When I met Kristen at SaaStr Annual this February, we spent almost all of the time between and after the talks together—for three consecutive days. We shared food, drinks, stories, walked around, had fun, nearly brought each other to tears multiple times, celebrated my birthday, and just loved being there.
We also shared a ride from San Jose to SFO and, somehow, sitting in a car together for an hour with the exhaustion and the emotional hangover from the past week didn’t feel difficult or weird or anything other than exactly what you’d want it to be. (Kristen and I still talk to each other often and support each other through our career and personal developments!)
And this is just one of many examples of people that have entered my life thanks to a conference—and decided to stay.
And finally, events let you meet people from all career stages.
I’ve been lucky to meet those that are just about to leave college and enter the workforce, all the way through to respected and well-known leaders, founders, and speakers who’ve been paving the way for years—some even a decade or more.
I think this is special and irreplaceable. I don’t think there are many other environments that give you such a wide spectrum of people you can learn from, lift up, get inspired by, and make friends with.
Yes, conferences and industry events cost time, money, energy, and office presence. But if you approach it as an opportunity to make your life richer, you’ll suddenly see them as a place where anything can happen.