I just got back from SXSW (okay, I got back three weeks ago, but I've been busy), and it was amazing! Unfortunately a lot of my friends decided not to go this year because they felt SXSW had become too commercial and even overrated, but I have to say it was my favorite year so far, and it wasn't just because of the programming. I think it was mostly due to what I was looking for- I wanted to learn new things and meet new people.
So I decided not to go to any talks about things I already know about. I also decided to forego the day-drinking... THIS time.
And it worked out! Here's what I recommend to have the best SXSW ever:
1. Plan your schedule, prep your snacks
I took a new approach this time, and went to a talk in every single session block. Every. Single. One. That meant packing healthy snacks and a water bottle, and somehow convincing myself that it was okay to forego the amazing food trucks (and their long lines) for the less appealing lunch of garden salads in the Convention Center. It also meant being selective about the talks I would see, based on location. After the first day, I mainly stuck by the Convention Center and the Hilton, with the rare rickshaw ride to the Driskill for South Bites. I recommend Royal Blue Grocery for your snack stock.
2. Hold the line - odds are, you're getting in
I learned about MBA's Across America, which was incredibly inspiring, and saw I President Obama speak. And that was only Day 1!
I still can't believe it came together because I wasn't anointed in the lottery to see the President's talk. When I got to the venue to see Casey Gerard from MBAs Across America, I was told that his talk had been combined with the President's, so it was unlikely I'd see either. Here's the thing I found that first day, which gave me a little more confidence to battle the long lines in the following days: those ushers will tell you the venue is full, and that no one else is getting in (and many people will then split from the line). But it's because they don't have an efficient way to track seating (somehow that scanner isn't giving them a real time tally of occupied seats), so once people settle, the ushers get a better idea of capacity. If you wait long enough, and you're not a dick, they will get you in. Let those quitters ahead of you bail from the line. You are getting in!
3. Epiphany tends to strike in uncharted territory
One thing that really awakened something in me was a talk called "Just Food: What Happens When We Start Over" with Josh Tetrick from Hampton Creek. This is a brand that I now love. They are making quality healthful food that is affordable to the masses, and moreover it's accessible because they are distributing in Walmarts across the country. As someone who grew up in parts of the South with and without access to quality foods and grocery stories, this is huge. (Also, if you're interested in what life is like in America without access, read this Atlantic article.)
I had never heard of the Hampton Creek brand before SXSW, but I'm already evangelizing them at every opportunity. This kind of social-entrepreneur movement is profoundly important to where we are today, and where we will be tomorrow. I sat in the audience getting so excited about what I was hearing and what the possibilities for the future might look like. I felt that same way 10 years ago when I was in the audience at the Ethical Fashion Symposium for the first Berlin Fashion Week, when I realized I wanted to get into luxury marketing as a means to drive positive social change. Convincing people to do the right thing, the thing that's good for them and the world, is far more valuable and fulfilling than policy-planning could ever be. And now, the idea of teaching people to appreciate and therefore demand quality, healthy food options? Oh, man. Learning about issues that ignite something in you is priceless.
So there's another up-side to this approach to SXSW: you're more likely to have an ah-ha moment when you break away from the familiar and engage talks that you have a twinge of curiosity about, but no experience in. I'm now 100% interested in the food industry, and how storytelling can bring people into sustainable food patterns.
4. Be open to self-help your self
I caught Brené Brown's talk about "Daring Greatly". I had read her book by the same name, so this wasn't altogether foreign to me, but it was a great refresher on something that really inspired me the first go-round. It made me remember that we are all emotional beings who sometimes think, and that the brain really loves a story with a beginning, middle, and end. We are actually rewarded chemically when we come up with an ending so the lesson was: choose yours wisely! This is the opposite of "jumping" to a conclusion, and it's surprisingly hard to do. It's easier, however, when you understand that you're in a situation, and your brain is in overdrive, making up its own ending. She suggests filling in this blank, to put yourself in check: "The story I'm making up is..." Thanks, Brené.
I also learned that I am one of the rare (and probably not-so-desirable) "Rebels" in typologies of habit development, according to Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, who spoke about her new research for Better Than Before. This means that I have a hard time meeting expectations imposed on me unless I can figure out how to want to meet the expectation. It means viewing undesirable tasks as a stepping stone to something I want. As for the bad things I want anyway, it means finding ways to hate them. This doesn't work as well for the other three categories of people looking to change their habits (you can find yours in her fun quiz here), but this is definitely how I quit smoking, cold turkey, 5 years ago, so I tend to believe Gretchen! This little talk gave me a big framework to think about why certain tasks are energizing while others are depleting, and how to create a stick-to-it mentality that rarely comes natural to me.
So even if you're not a "self-help" junkie, you can learn a lot about yourself if you're open to these kinds of sessions, and it probably will help you out in the long run. If one tweaks your interest, there's probably a reason.
5. Ask questions
So, I've worked in Brand Publishing for years, and while I've been a part of teams that were pioneering new approaches, and have developed a content studio that churns out branded stories, to protect my clients I've had to learn the laws of copyright and how they impact the "brand as publisher" model. In essence, the laws of free press do not apply. At SXSW, I found out that while brand-to-publisher is a very tricky trail to blaze with all of the FTC restrictions, going the other way, from blog-to-brand, seems relatively easy (for now).
Okay, I need a minute to freak out here, because, to be honest, it blew my mind listening to this fairly successful beauty brand leader go on about their blog-based content strategy, which is no longer monetized as a blog but is under the marketing department, and constantly shows competitive brands they do not sell, without a thought to the legal risk of showing these brands without permission. I wish them the best but definitely cringed as the head of the brand sat on a stage at SXSW and brazenly talked about how brands like Chanel and Estee Lauder would "probably" welcome the publicity she was giving them by photographing them with her products. As though co-branding with a startup is an obvious delight for an established luxury brand. As though big brands have a track record of not going after copyright infringement. Why wouldn't that be a problem? Yikes. Okay, I'm off it.
But it did prompt me to ask the question in the Q&A, and to pay attention to other media outlets who are evolving into product brands. I think the laws and accountability for these groups will will become increasingly impacted as bigger brands are limited and (quite publicly) restricted in publishing freedoms. I'm definitely curious about this, and will continue to pay attention!
If you have a burning question about a talk, ask it! It will round out the conversation, and there are likely others in the audience wondering the same thing. But, more importantly, the thing you have a burning question about is probably the most important thing you will take away from that talk.
Which brings me to...
6. Take your take-aways
I heard Anthony Bourdain share his business model for creating great content (never get comfortable, it will never be the same format twice) and approach to authenticity - that of simply not giving a fuck about what anyone else thinks. He made a great point that most people in TV want to stay on TV for as long as possible. Not him! This was never his dream, and he feels he can always do something else with food and people. That inherently gives him the freedom to experiment and explore, and not compromise for projected ratings. Of course, this thinking can be quite reckless, but he's comfortable with that, and there's some great truth about quality, intuition, and authenticity in that message. (I'm a novice in all things Bourdain, but I really enjoyed his 10-second life story: "I was basically a 42 year-old fry cook who was coming clean after years as a crack head, and I wanted a different story for my daughter. So I wrote Kitchen Confidential, and within months I was on TV. And there you go." I need to read that book.)
I heard the Bushnell family (as in, Nolan Bushnell, inventor of Atari, and 4 of his 10 kids) talk about the future of gaming and entertainment. They are seeing the gaming and entertainment worlds trend back in the direction of physical spaces and real, human-to-human interaction, after decades in the virtual spaces. I have to say, this family is pretty incredible. 7 of the kids work in the industry, and their stories of growing up sound like they come from a modern Swiss Family Robinson. They all still gather on Sunday nights for a family dinner and game night. This is my dream scenario! In an effort to model them, I wrote down three of the family's favorite games and got them for my dad's birthday. Game night, here we come! (For the record, the games are Settlers of Catan, Set, and Codenames, which is my favorite so far.)
I heard an incredible talk on Race in America with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and PBS Documentarian Ken Burns. Afterwards they were signing books, and I got to shake their hands and thank them for their work (and I picked up Gates's The African Americans, which is as comprehensive a history as you could imagine). I heard another talk on Bro-culture and the importance of women helping women. They had so many great articles in reference that I will share with my group of ladies in creative industries.
I learned that 40% of food is wasted in America, most before it even leaves the farm because it doesn't meet sellable produce beauty standards. (I made a vow to start buying the ugliest produce on the shelves.) Then a lot of it is thrown out by grocery stores that have to abide sell-by dates, regardless of their accuracy. And it's too expensive for them to donate without knowing they will get a tax credit. There's some food for thought. (Ouch.) But now I know what my pro-bono work will center on this year.
I learned that Ira Glass only makes stories that he is personally interested in, and I learned how he developed his radio voice over years. (To avoid sounding like a person imitating a bad reporter, he read scripts as if he was doing it live and conversationally, for 5 years. Then he actually did it live.) He also said: taste and talent should be equally cultivated, so start making NOW. Which leads me to another great talk: I heard JJ Abrams speak about narrative with Andrew Jarecki, who just launched this sick content app called KnowMe which I absolutely cannot wait to try. Their point was that there are so many creators out there with all the gear to make great stories, and then there are people who don't bother because they don't have the gear. KnowMe is for the latter. And while storytelling - good storytelling - will always take time, they want to help bring a level of quality to the masses.
I also realized that, even though I've met her and her twin sister Radha before, Miki Agrawal is a bad ass. I caught a bit of her talk on fashion and cause, and was blown away not only by the social business she's started (THINX, which has ads all over the NYC subways that uses the until-now censored word: period, and makes me so proud), but I was inspired by her tenacity. She sets milestones, is courageous and disciplined; she meets the people she needs to meet, and just generally gets shit done. If you haven't read her book, Do Cool Shit, I recommend it.
And finally, I wasn't a total stick in the mud. I may not have gone day-drinking, but I enjoyed the night life! Before we headed back to NYC, we had the pleasure of seeing Willie Nelson live. That man is 86 years old and still plays the guitar like a superhuman. He was absolutely amazing, and I stood directly in the front row. The best take-away from the whole week? His bandana. I caught Willie Nelson's bandana, and no matter how much money my friends offer me for it, I (probably) will not sell it!
7. Bonus: PURSE TACOS!!!
Okay, I really owe this one to my girl Tamara. Here's the concept: you get great tacos at night in Austin. They are the best thing you've ever eaten. Then you wake up in the morning, starving and possibly too rushed/hungover to find a good breakfast. Her solution? Purse tacos. Order extra at night, wrap them up, and bring them along with you in the morning. It's as good as cold pizza (when you find excellent pizza), and it keeps the Austin food party going.
I'd be a terrible person if I didn't tell everyone that the best candidates for purse tacos can be found in the back yard at Lazy Lizard (formerly Gypsy Lounge). You're welcome.