Alt Summit

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Chasing Waterfalls & Alt Summit

Ricketts GlenI spent the weekend without internet or cell service in a super rural part of Pennsylvania (like, even more rural than where I grew up, which is saying something). I peed in the woods, hung out around a campfire with friends, hiked to some waterfalls, marveled at the incredible number of ferns surrounding the campsite, and went to bed when it got dark and started raining. It was grand.

Ricketts GlenThere was time and space to just be, without scheming or planning or striving. It felt really good. I’ve been feeling a little disillusioned with the internet/social media/blogging world lately. I’ve been wondering about the end game, or if I even have one. And maybe it’s ok not to. And if I do have an ultimate goal behind this screen, what do I do if I reach it? What comes next? Will it feel empty?

Ricketts GlenThis disillusionment is kind of inopportune, since I recently found out I was accepted to speak at Alt Summit in a couple weeks. Even though it might not sound like it, I couldn’t be more excited and grateful for the opportunity. I’m hopeful that the impromptu conversations I’ll have with kindred spirits I hope to find will be energizing and motivating. I’m also really excited to host my roundtable discussion, Don’t Be Afraid of Your Website. I’m planning to cover the basic moving parts of a website, using WordPress as an example, and how they all come together and leave plenty of time and space for questions. You can take a closer look at the fancier description and the other sessions here.

If you’re there too, please say hi! I’d love to meet you. Let’s be friends. If it’s your first (or second or third) time and you’re a little nervous, I’d like to offer up these posts to help you get excited & collect yourself a bit.

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Alt Summit 2015 Reflections & Recap

Alt SummitGiven that this was my second Alt Summit, I felt a little calmer and more prepared for the actual event. The overwhelm didn’t hit until I got home and immediately plunged myself back in the day to day of work and life. Next time, I will definitely be wiser about scheduling a couple days of decompression, planning, and follow up. I definitely left in a flurry of ideas and excitement. But now the real work starts.

I didn’t feel any earth-shifting revelations like I did last year, but I did come away with a solid list of very actionable observations. Each one of them could be an entire essay, but these are my abridged takeaways from Alt Summit Winter 2015.

  • The people I’ve watched from afar, who I’ve admired most, who I was able to chat with at Alt all have one thing in common. They work really, really, really hard. They do not come home from their day job and watch several episodes of Parenthood while dreaming about the day that they will get paid to do what they love on their own terms. They came home from their day jobs back when they still had them, and worked. They don’t hustle in a pushy, superficial, get-everyone-to-like-them, PR kind of way. They are in it for the long haul. They do it when they don’t feel like it. Sometimes it might feel like a slog, but they do it anyway. They faithfully plod. And it shows.
  • Play. Practice. Experiment. Show your progress and your process. You only get better by doing. People only find out about your work if you share it.
  • The most successful artists, writers, designers, photographers, and creative workers pushed through massive amounts of fear and resistance. After all, they’re people too, and paving one’s own way is terrifying for most people. Get comfortable with fear. Press into discomfort. If you’re scared, you’re probably doing something right.
  • Don’t be embarrassed about not knowing all the answers. The most compelling people ask questions. They’re humble, and they know that they still have lots to learn from those around them. They welcome feedback.
  • Most of us wait far too long to claim what we do. We wait too long to say that we’re artists or writers or photographers or designers. We second guess the work that we want to be doing, and hesitating to throw ourselves into it and claim what we do. This was one of the very many points Lisa Congdon made during her keynote that really stuck with me. Claim who you are. Don’t wait.
  • You may very well never feel like you’ve arrived, no matter how successful you are. This was another Lisa Congdon gem. Chasing the next level of success will feel empty when you reach it, unless you enjoy the actual work it took to get there.
  • Make for the sake of making. Work for the sake of doing the work. 
  • Transparency breeds trust. Willingly share what you know and what you’ve learned along the way. Some of the sessions I appreciated the most were incredibly transparent and open. There’s nothing to be gained from being secretive and suspicious of others who are working on similar things. There’s enough room for all of us here.
  • When things are hard, or when there’s just too much work to do, remember: You chose this. You chose your side hustle. You chose your work. You chose the way you’re spending your time. If you don’t like it, you’re the only one who can change it. And it’s totally fine if you do!

So here’s to the hard workers, not the superficial hustlers. Here’s to the brave, not the fearless. Here’s to the transparent, the empathetic, the encouraging, not the secretive competitors. Here’s to those who work for the sake of working, not for the potential glory.

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Women in Tech, Ben Silbermann, & Why I Want To Be Visible

Women in Tech, Ben Silbermann, & Why I Want To Be VisibleBen Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest, has given keynotes at Alt Summit a couple times now. I remember people gushing about his talk the first time he spoke there, even though I wasn’t in attendance.

So I was really excited to see that he was back on the Alt Summit schedule this year as the closing keynote. He had a lot of really wonderful things to say, and I did enjoy his talk, despite being pretty exhausted from the previous three days packed full of really great content and new friends.

I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime towards the end of his talk or at the beginning of the Q and A session afterward, I got a sinking feeling in my gut. Why? Because I thought of a question to ask him. I knew if I didn’t ask it, I would regret it for a long time. I’ve never spoken into a microphone in a room full of that many people and I was shaking. But I had to do it. So I stood up and Ellen handed me a mic.

“Hi. My name is Lisa. I have a background in the humanities, but I’ve made a career transition into tech and I just accepted a position as a front-end web developer at Urban Outfitters. Do you have any advice or wisdom for people like me as we transition into an industry that isn’t necessarily welcoming, and at times can be downright hostile, towards women?”

Now, I know this was a Q and A session at a women’s blogging conference. He wasn’t prepared to talk about the massive gender gap in tech. To be honest, I don’t really remember his answer because I was so stunned that I had opened my mouth in front of so many people, but I do remember being mildly unimpressed. It boiled down to something about reaching out to other women in the industry and that changing social norms takes time. I do remember that he congratulated me on my new job, which was pretty surreal and awesome.

But, like, duh. Of course I’ve been networking. Of course I’ve worked really hard. I was a little disappointed he didn’t say something super brilliant. But to be fair, he wasn’t prepared to answer questions like that. And to be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The real reason I wanted to ask that question was to bring more attention to the issue. I wanted to bring it up in front of that audience. I wanted to bring it up in front of the founder of a huge and massively popular tech company. I wanted to be visible as a female web developer.

Social change is slow, it’s true, but visibility helps.

In the spirit of showing up and being seen, I applied to speak on a panel at the 3rd Philadelphia Women in Tech Summit, and I was accepted. I decided to apply at the very last minute, without worrying about rejection, just to see what would happen. I’ve never done anything like this before and I’m a little nervous. If you’re near Philadelphia and even vaguely interested, I’d love to see you there.

Is there any area you’d like to be more visible in? Have you taken any risks, “just to see what would happen?” Do you have any public speaking advice?

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Alt Summit: Lessons from Garance Doré

Garance Doré Alt Summit, 2014

Credit: Justin Hackworth

I had never seen her speak and I’ll admit I hadn’t read her blog, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. But Garance Doré is one of the warmest and most relatable speakers I’ve ever seen. Even in an auditorium of 700 people, she oozed charm and warmth. I’m pretty sure each one of us felt like maybe she was our potential new best friend, speaking directly to us about her own mistakes and foibles like an older sister or glamorous, more experienced, European study abroad friend. I could’ve listened to her talk all day long.

I won’t try to dress it up more than necessary. Everything she said was perfectly quotable. Garance has got the effortless soundbyte down. So, without further ado…

Garance Doré Alt Summit, 2014

Credit: Justin Hackworth

Lessons from Garance Dore, Alt Summit 2014:

1. “Numbers aren’t important. The masses are scary. What’s important is to talk to individuals.”

This is so important for writers of any kind. Garance emphasized that she thinks of just one reader, her imaginary very best friend, who listens to her and loves her a lot. How many of us would be better writers if we didn’t try to please the whole world? I know I would be.

2. “Don’t worry about giving people what they want. You’ll be bored. And boring.”

No explanation needed.

Garance Dore, Alt Summit 20143. “‘Niche’ is actually ‘dog house’ in French. So it’s never been very appealing to me.”

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who has struggled with feeling like I don’t have a niche. So this was super encouraging. I’ll write about whatever I damn well please, thankyouverymuch. I’ve wasted a lot of time hesitating and not producing because I didn’t know how to figure out my niche. There was definitely a phase when no one would shut up about finding your niche blah blah blah. But each of us are so much more than a niche. That complexity is what makes the world interesting. If I were to pick just one thing to write about, I’m afraid I would feel like I would be denying large parts of myself. That is not conducive to telling an interesting story, and honestly I don’t think I’m quite capable of it, which is why I tend to avoid writing. At all. (But that’s another blog post…)

4. “I will never have the same experience as you. That’s called having a point of view.”

I think Garance gave the example of two women describing an identical pair of shoes. Each woman has different memories and feelings attached to those shoes. Bringing that personal connection to the story is what makes the difference between interesting and mediocre.

Garance Doré Alt Summit, 2014

Credit: Brooke Dennis

 5. “Don’t just describe things. Just experience them and talk about it.”

I recently read a quote floating around the internet that went something like, “If you’re not writing, at least be doing something worth writing about.” Perhaps Ben Franklin said that? I’m paraphrasing. Anyway. I’d love to really live by that.

6. On fashion and whether it’s a worthy subject: “Picking a small subject can be a way to talk about a big thing.”

Back when I was doing Street Stories, I struggled with this question a lot. Was street style photography and blogging encouraging superficiality and consumerism? I consider myself a fairly well-informed and intelligent person, and I was afraid I’d be seen as vapid and frivolous. When Street Stories was just an idea, I talked to a lot of creative people I trust about that question. I decided to embrace this concept, though I hadn’t articulated it yet. I wanted to tell a person’s story based on what they chose to wear. I wanted to use a small thing, like an outfit, to talk about a big thing, like a life or a story or way of moving in the world.

7. “People won’t always follow Twitter or Instagram. What they will always follow is their emotions.”

I think everyone in the audience tweeted this line. It was the perfect way to end her keynote, and really cemented that I will forever think Garance Doré is the sweetest, most intuitive genius in the world. Yes. Yes, of course, Garance. They will always follow their emotions. Remember that the next time you’re needlessly freaking out over analytics.

Garance Dore Alt Summit, 2014

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A Confession & The Real Magic of Alt Summit

Photo by Brooke Dennis

Credit: Brooke Dennis

I have a confession. My biggest concern and source of anxiety about going to Alt Summit last week was that the people I’d meet there would be super self-promoting, superficial, and disinterested in sincere conversation and friendship.

Boy was I wrong.

Alt Summit

Credit: Brooke Dennis | I really don’t mean to be glaring at the panelists.

I’d just read so much about the time and effort that goes into the outward displays of creativity and style. I was worried that this intense focus on how people look and what they wore and how beautiful their business cards are would discourage people from forging quality friendships that grow deep beneath the surface.

But behind the cute outfits and beyond the beautiful business cards and even inside the very grand Grand America (there’s a chandelier in every toilet stall), I met people who were willing to share their insecurities and struggles, accomplishments and joys. These were people whose beauty and spark emanated from the inside.

Alt Summit Umba

Credit: Chad Braithwaite

It’s inevitable that there’ll be quite a bit of self-promotion going on at an event like Alt. After all, that’s how a lot of people approach networking. But I went into the conference with the mindset that I was going to make friends. I was determined to be myself, and if that meant hanging out at the lobby bar alone every night because I needed a break from the hustle and intense social interaction, then so be it.

Alt Summit Green Party

Credit: Justin Hackworth

And you know what? I never had to hang out at the lobby bar by myself. Not once. I ended up spending time there with Paige, Megan, Allison, and Mere at different points throughout the week. I didn’t walk through a hallway once without recognizing a new friend like Joy, MJ, Ashley, Bobbie, or Amy, who said hello. I’ll be eternally grateful to Megan for saying hi and introducing herself when I’m sure I looked shell-shocked in the green lounge while way too many people were squeezing in to either listen to Christy Turlington’s interview or look at a fox, skunk, or parrot (Unbeknownst to me. It is safe to say I am a more than a little distressed that I missed out on a chance to cuddle a fox. Had I known, I might’ve tried to foxnap the creature & bring it home to Pennsylvania. I mean, LOOK AT IT.).

Fox at Alt Summit

Credit: Brooke Dennis

The point is, I started to feel like I really did belong in this space, and that felt pretty revolutionary for me. I met real people who I hope become real friends. To me, that’s the real magic of Alt.