As the title would suggest this was my first trip to SXSW and I honestly had no idea what to expect. I read up on it, listened to people who had been there but didn’t overdo my research as I still wanted to leave a lot of the discovery for when I got there. After all, as they say, you can only experience something for the first time once.
I’m someone who hasn’t really been to many conferences/festivals in the past. I’ve always shied away, mainly because they tend to be abroad. My fear of flying, while not debilitating does cause me to choose which trips I want to take and which ones I can rationalise out of. Add to that my 6 month old son, who I haven’t been apart from for more than a day since he was born, and I have all of the ingredients to avoid SXSW like any other overseas event.
However, this time I didn’t avoid it, mainly because on researching it seemed to be the most relevant and interesting conference for someone in my field (CDO of a media agency) and Austin was supposed to be a great city. Most importantly I made a promise to myself when I left the UK and moved to Australia that I wouldn’t let my fears control me.
As I type this I am on a turbulent plane on an internal US flight, considering whether SXSW was worth the dreaded feeling in the pit of my stomach that won’t fully vanish until I land safely on solid ground.
The following are a few things about my experience at SXSW.
Austin puts the A in Awesome
Ok, a little bit American in my choice of adjective but you have to be there to appreciate it. The whole of Austin is decked out for SXSW and rather than a stuffy conference centre, you have to walk from venue to venue around this beautiful city that has a vibe I can’t quite describe.
It’s a bit like the feeling I had many years ago when I visited San Francisco for the first time. You feel relaxed, intrigued, enlightened and elated all at the same time. It’s a place that I warmed to instantly, and the more time I spent there the more I loved it.
This is a great city, where the locals may not all be happy that their beloved Austin has been taken over by a mass of “South by” visitors, but they are nothing but friendly, welcoming and inquisitive. They want to know why you have come here, where you’re from and how you like their city. They also give you advice and tips that help with your navigation of their great city.
A night out in Austin is always memorable and never the same, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It helped that I went with people that I liked and met other people of a similar disposition, but there is definitely something in the air when you go out in Austin. The location was one of the highlights of the trip for me and I now understand why SXSW is synonymous with Austin itself, as it is hard to see where one finishes and the other begins.
Time to think is a luxury, don’t waste it
On reflection, one of the most valuable parts of being at an event like this is the ability to think about things that you don’t usually have the time nor the luxury to think about.
You can’t underestimate the benefit of meeting and talking to people in the same field, getting to know your co-workers better and best of all meeting and hearing from new people who you would never meet in your day to day life.
Sometimes these are people that you have heard of and are interested to hear their POV, but often they are people in fields you may not have even known existed, let alone that their world intercepts yours or that their opinions and experiences could be so complementary to your own.
For me it was a good reminder that people who only look to their own field for knowledge and inspiration are missing a trick. We need to always be thinking about how we can tap into some of the knowledge from other fields and diversify our contacts and interactions otherwise we risk stagnating in our own little bubbles.
All sessions are not created equal
Some sessions were inspirational, some were interesting and others were utterly awful, so you have to learn to take the rough with the smooth.
As much as you can rail against the wasted time that you won’t get back, and as much as the session may not fit the description that you read in the guide, and as annoying as it can be that people who should really be experts in their fields end up being amateur, or even worse treating you like you are – you need to roll with it.
Some sessions had me pulling what’s left of my hair out, but other sessions were genuinely informative and I was inspired to think how I could apply what I’d learnt to my life and job. The hope is that if you persevere you will get the right mix of awe and awful so you feel like your time was well spent. I certainly did!
Overall I had expectations that I would enjoy and find SXSW a worthwhile experience, but at the same time I had no real idea of how this would be realised. If nothing else, I think the experience broadened my horizons, introduced me to new things and people and most importantly gave me time to think and reflect.
Fear of flying aside and the fact that I truly missed my wife and my baby boy, I can say hand on heart that SXSW was something that I am really glad I got to experience at least once.
The dreaded feeling in the pit of my stomach is still here, but even so I’m glad I lived up to the promise to myself and didn’t let my fears get the better of me and miss out on this experience.