The Conference that Doesn’t Feel Like a Conference: Touch Down in Nebraska For Big Omaha, 2012

**A quick update for everyone who voted on the last post: First, an overwhelming thank you of gratitude, because I don’t know what I did to deserve all of you, but you’re absolutely the greatest. I put together a survey in the question about my future projects and more than a hundred of you responded to my crisis about what to do next--I love you. Not only that--but almost all of you answered my optional question, and you all had insightful, thoughtful, and encouraging notes to share. You are what makes me believe in the future of humanity – YOU. You’re amazing. Also, it’s starting to become really clear what my next project should be, and also quite clear what book(s) I need to read next—you almost overwhelmingly picked two. (Answers on Friday!) 

BIG OMAHA: Maybe you had to be there.

Last weekend I attended Big Omaha for the first time, a last-minute attendee who managed to snag a wait-listed spot after all of the first tickets had sold out. Time and time my friends kept telling me, “You have to go to this conference,” and I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why. There are tech conferences all over the place. There are innovative and entrepreneurial minds all over the place in San Francisco. Why should I fly to Omaha? But when all my friends fly out of their way to go to a conference, to go to a city, and especially when it’s a city I’ve never been to before, my urban nerd and my curiosity get the best of me.

Alright, I said. I’ll go.

Cut to the chase: It was an excellent decision.

BIG OMAHA: “Where I feel normal.”

I live in San Francisco—a city I like to affectionately refer to as “College For Adults” because it’s a place where I feel normal, where you can get places without a car, where late-night nerd-fests are typical, where experiments in collaborative consumption and disruption are the norm; where serendipity in coffeeshops isn't what happens in movies, it's what happens in real life. Where skipping through the streets and doing handstands and working late hours isn’t just okay, it’s not given a second thought. Where pursuing your dreams and hanging out with people you love is something you do on a daily basis, not once in a life time.

And guess what? This happens in Omaha, too, and I'll be the first to admit that maybe at first I wasn't so sure what was happening in the middle of the country. But I knew Jeff Slobotski was rad. And the people going were rad. And I'll be the first to admit that my hesitations were complete bullshit. And that maybe I was completely wrong.

How do you know if a conference is a good thing to attend? A conference isn’t about information, although you’ll get a lot of it.  A good conference is about people. It’s about energy. And it’s about community.

There was a point a while ago when I decided I was tired of feeling strange. I was tired of feeling like like I should hide the projects I’m doing because I was "doing too much." I want to be surrounded by people who think like me, dream like me, who believe in the world not as it is—but AS IT COULD BE, and I want to dance and do handstands with them and support every endeavor they do and I do, because unless we all hide away and go to Atlantis, I think that these innovators, these people--YOU--are the key to changing the way the world works.

The world we live in is arbitrary, it’s filled with past stories and architectures and lifestyles that aren’t reality anymore. We live in the architectural bones of our forefathers, but the way we use the space has changed, and the way we move and talk and listen and react and build the future is also changing, in some of the most interesting ways that I'm only just beginning to imagine and describe. I am a storyteller of cities, of people, of humanity, and I see this: We’re living on the tip of a world where we’re working and sharing re-inventing what it means to even be a city—where it's possible that cities are really the next start-up because the scale and rate at which we can build and invent them is unprecedented in our lifetime (I've worked on multiple whole-scale city-invention plans with my company, SWA Group that we are building in China right now), and somewhere in the midst of this beautiful land of airplanes and inventions and machinery, a group of 500 people all timed each of our airplanes to land in Omaha for two days and laugh, learn, share, and infect each other with the energy required to go out and conquer. To be. To imagine.

It's utterly fucking ridiculous. All of us, in metal tubes, jetting across the sky, tickling clouds with iphone photo apps, cramming ourselves into crowded seats, building second worlds and then meeting up to lie across the floor and laugh about it. But we're only just getting started...

THE OPENING.

As I always do with conferences, I tweet and curl up with my notebook and take copious notes and try to capture, catalog, and sift through the information at hand. Between Big Omaha and WDS (World Domination, for those unfamiliar), I think I’ve found my favorite two conferences to attend, and I’ll keep attending them as long as I can. Because it’s not about money. Or influence. Or power. Or giant, ass-kicking, audacious goals that take your breath away. Those things all happen when they need to and how they need to, and because they must.

Because it’s about the people. And that’s it. That’s what we have that technology doesn’t—will never have—no matter how many times people engineer a Like or a Poke or a Swipe or a Smile, no matter how much social engineering goes into discovering parallels to humanity. The capacity for compassion, empathy, trust and language might always dance beyond the realm of the digital: and in the tangible, touchable, hand-stand-able, lie-on-the-ground-because-we-can-able—is the space where the magic happens. And that’s why community builders, and connectors, and people who bring people together will always be the subtle influencers of our generation. It's why we'll always live in the here and now of conferences, no matter how many ways we can map our brains into the future and past for digital permanence or extend our connections into location-independent aggregations.

Think about it. What are any of your technologies, without an audience? What’s a leader, without a first follower?

It’s all about the people.

In the opening, Antonio Neves brought the house up by reminding everyone of a Big Omaha tradition: welcoming the speakers with a standing ovation. The energy of the crowd was palpable, tangible. “Something about Big Omaha feels a little bit special,” he said—“It feels like home.” He asked everyone to shake their shoulders out, which brought me to giggles early in the morning, just as the event was getting started, before the coffee had even kicked in.

THE SPEAKERS: Sitting around, having coffee—I mean, being on stage.

When speakers take the stage, it’s magical. We want to soak it in, hear from them, learn from the splendor of what they’ve done, write out to-do lists of the best of all their intentions and figure out a way to take their energy and translate it into success within our own projects.

Too often, however, we separate the speakers, elevating them both physically and mentally, to a place of superiority, thinking, “I can’t do that,”—or “I’m not capable," demarcating the line between us and them. As Jonah Lehrer writes in his recent book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” when we tell one another stories about creativity, we often “forget to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve,” when we were in the trenches, building, creating, worrying, struggling. And I think this was the heart of the magic of the speakers behind Big Omaha: the combination was a pulse of people raw enough to identify with, talented enough to aspire to become, young enough to identify with, quasi-famous enough to generate a small halo around, but still unknown enough to befriend and have drinks with at the end of the day.  The speakers--and audience--were a unique blend of inspiration and humility, of talent and energy, of faith and compassion.

Because when they shared their stories, we learned that if they can do it, maybe we can, too.

SERENDIPITY, WONDER AND SURPRISE.

A sense of wonder and surprise defined the event, and as the endlessly compassionate co-founder Jeff Slobotski wrote in his recap, “Big Omaha Was Magic.” In the final moments of the conference, it struck me that I had forgotten that I was at a conference—me, a slightly more introverted than extroverted person who craves wandering by my lonesome, and hates sitting in chairs, and hates crowds of people-- and thought to myself, “Wow—I just realized I’m at a conference. This feels nothing like a conference.” Typically, when my iPhone loses its charge, so do I. And yet I was out, about, soaking in the presence and magic of the people around me, awash in the serendipity of connectivity and compassion.

I’m not sure I was ever asked what I do, thank GOD, and it also wasn’t ever a point of importance. We all do things. We all work towards bigger things, but that’s not the point. There’s no room for ego, for pretension, for hierarchy, for listing out accomplishments. No matter who was in the room, I felt like we were all in it together, each figuring out the next step in our own projects and problems, defining the parameters, learning, living. No one had it figured out. We were all do-ers, movers, shakers, and the difference between doing and talking is that doing requires a lot of tenacity, persistence, humility, ego, confidence, and an unwavering belief in the ability to move mountains with an accumulation of sequential steps.

As the conference was winding down, I posted my thought up on twitter as the conference was winding down; moments later, when Antonio took the stage to wrap-up the event, he read the tweet out loud:

“Big Omaha: The conference that feels nothing like a conference.” -- Yes.


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6 Responses to The Conference that Doesn’t Feel Like a Conference: Touch Down in Nebraska For Big Omaha, 2012

  1. Andy Stoll says:

    Great piece, lovely writing, good analysis! So happy you could make it to Omaha and we could finally hang out. (I’m looking forward to your future post on lowering the feelings of social insecurities by creating safe environments and comfortable conversations…thanks for the advice. :)

  2. Jana says:

    Wow, Sarah, what a great piece of writing. I love your play with words and the account of Big Omaha! I so wish I could have been there and felt the energy of the people and ideas. Can’t wait to hear about what it is you have decided to do next! Also, I absolutely hope I will see you in SFO, a couple of weeks before WDS! Lots of love, Jana xoxo

  3. Great post and I’m glad you found so much value in Big Omaha. Thanks for coming in and we hope to see you back.

  4. Terry Gearhart says:

    Sarah – inspiring prose! I could feel the energy and passion in every word. Thanks and keep rocking!

  5. [...] skipping instead of walking, dancing my way into the wee hours of the mornings in New Orleans, Omaha, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Paris, Munich, Freising, Taipei, Seoul, Amsterdam, Portland, and many [...]

  6. [...] officially marks rounds out my top three conferences to date–The World Domination Summit, Big Omaha, and Feast On Good have hands-down been full of the best speakers, attendees, ideas, and [...]

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