How to (really) get the most out of a conference
Reflections from a few days in Palm Springs
Last week, I spent three days in Palm Springs at the inaugural in-person gathering of Chief, the network of women executive leaders.
As an extrovert who has met many dear friends through work over the years (many of whom subscribe to this newsletter - you know who you are!), I knew when I left my corporate job, I’d miss having colleagues. I joined Chief last year to surround myself with wise, seasoned women who could serve as colleagues by proxy.
During my first year of membership, I enjoyed my core group meetings; I attended some in-person events in the San Francisco clubhouse; and I even worked out of the New York clubhouse last spring when I was there for my book tour. But I’ll be honest: I was still on the fence about renewing. While I received a partial grant, it’s not inexpensive, and I felt I wasn’t taking sufficient advantage of the various offerings to warrant the continued investment.
Then Chief reached out and invited me to attend its conference in Palm Springs as a guest of the organization; I’d facilitate dinner table discussions and moderate a main-stage session with financial trailblazer Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest.
The opportunity seemed too good to pass up. The dates miraculously worked for both me and my husband (who’d be covering everything on the home front); Sallie Krawcheck is #goals; and did I mention it was in Palm Springs (only an hour flight)?
So I said yes.
Then, the night before I was scheduled to leave, I regretted it. I had a big deliverable due the following week, my younger son seemed to be coming down with a cold (yet again!), and I didn’t know anyone who was going.
But I had already committed (and as I’ve shared before, I’m an upholder), so I pushed through my regret and boarded the plane the next day.
I’m so glad I did.
Here are three things I took away from my experience:
Lesson 1: Assume you will be liked.
In the opening session, Dr. Marisa Franco, author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends shared research that demonstrated (in her words) “the more you assume people like you, the friendlier you’ll be, and the more they actually will.”1 Conversely, when you expect rejection, you behave more coldly towards others, which in turn leads others to withdraw, making your expectations of rejection come true.
This research set the tone for everyone to be inclined to be friendly to their fellow attendees. I’ve joined many a conference in my day, and this was one of the most open, approachable groups I’ve ever experienced - despite the fact that everyone there was juggling significant work and personal responsibilities.
It’s a lesson I will take into all my future interactions, including with parents at my kids’ school, my neighbors, and fellow travelers.
I’m assuming you’ll like Practically Deliberate with Abby Davisson!
Lesson 2: Make space for serendipity.
The typical advice on getting the most out of a conference is to look at the attendee list beforehand and book every minute in between sessions with “coffee chats” with other conference-goers (since they’re a captive audience and thus more likely to meet with you). I’ve certainly attended conferences with that approach.
I didn’t do that sort of pre-conference prep this time, which I figured was a mistake.
Instead, it was a game-changer.
Buoyed by Lesson 1 and my newfound deliberate rest practice, I set my alarm and showed up to the 7 am tennis clinic the morning after I arrived. I’d miss my weekly tennis class at home, and I was determined to get my deliberate rest time in. I was matched with another advanced beginner and a USTA-certified instructor, and we proceeded to spend the next hour having the most fun I’ve had on a tennis court.
I ran into my tennis buddy several times over the next few days, and our joy at “reuniting” with each other was palpable. After playing together for only an hour!
Other serendipitous moments include getting a personal tour of a beautiful buddha mural from the artist who painted it (who was also my yoga instructor the second morning) and sharing an airport ride with a start-up CEO who convinced me to be more deliberate about considering my Chief membership a business development expense as I grow the Money and Love Institute.
Making space for serendipity is both a matter of scheduling (don’t overbook yourself) and of mindset (remain open to it). I’ll do my best to maintain both.
Lesson 3: Treat it as a catalyst
Often, we leave conferences and other temporary gatherings and get distracted by the urgency of our daily lives. I was tempted to do the same. Both my kids got sick and missed two days of school while I was away, the emails piled up, and the world changed overnight when terrorist organizations attacked Israel the morning after I returned home. The world felt heavier than when I left.
But, determined to hold onto the magic I experienced in Palm Springs, I decided that instead of immediately sliding back into my life, I’d treat the conference as a catalyst - something that provokes change - rather than a static event. For me, that meant doing three things:
Setting up post-conference conversations. I left some interactions wanting more, and I’m using Calendly to make the scheduling process easier (yes, I’ve succumbed to its siren song of efficiency and been pleasantly surprised).
Adding to my ever-growing “To read,” “To listen,” and “To watch” lists. I requested books from the library (including Platonic by Dr. Franco); added podcasts to my listening queue; and after hearing Kerry Washington speak, resolved to watch Scandal, finally.
Actively reflecting on the lessons from the conference as a way of sense-making. Hence this post and the ones I shared on Instagram (below) and LinkedIn about my session with Sallie Krawcheck. I find this helps me internalize the lessons differently than if I didn’t spend the additional time reflecting.
The world still feels heavy, but instead of the magic of last week disappearing instantly upon my return, these lessons have allowed me to extend it a bit. And that feels like a win, especially this week.
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