Though content of this post is painted on the canvas of a conference event I recently attended, it’s not really about the event — it’s about me, my thoughts, and the self-discovering truths I’ve uncovered through this experience.
While some of you reading this may know me personally, or may know via context clues such as my social media activity or the place in which I live, the event to which I’ll be referring throughout this post, I will be omitting the name of the event, the principal host/creator of said event and any other brand names/people involved with it. The reason for this is not to keep this information a secret (I’m sure it’ll be easy for some of you to figure out, if you’d care to know who and what exactly I’m referring to), but because —
- What you’re about to read is not about them, it’s about me.
- I have some not-glowing things to say about my experience, and I don’t find it respectable for anyone with a following, however large or small, to use their platform to say not-great things about a fellow platform-owner when that recipient is not present to defend himself or herself (and may never even read this, anyway).
Got all of that? Let’s begin.
Might As Well Try
A friend texted me a few weeks ago. She wanted to meet for dinner and catch up with me. And, she added, she’d be going to a well-publicized conference later the same week of the proposed dinner meeting.
She had two questions. 1) Can we meet? 2) Are you also attending this event?
I gladly accepted the dinner meeting, and told her that no, I wasn’t going to the event in question, though I was well aware of its existence. The setup and energy of the conference, as advertised, just didn’t interest me. There was significant sizzle, but there didn’t appear to be much steak.
But I remembered one thing I’d told myself to do more of in 2019: mix and mingle, circulate amongst people, network.
Contrary to what you may think from looking at Instagram and YouTube, the life of an entrepreneur — whether a solopreneur doing everything himself, or a Boss employing a full staff — is mostly mundane and boring.
I’ve written 22 books, put together 200 programs for basketball players, and have fleshed out content for 1,000+ episodes of a solo podcast. Notwithstanding anything else that I do, do you know what this stuff, by itself, translates to?
Hours and days and weeks and months of sitting in front of a computer or looking at a phone, writing.
No excitement. No party. Nothing worth envying. Just isolated, no-one-cares-until-there’s-a-finished-product, work.
And it’s worked for me. I’ve built a brand and a business through it; somehow you’ve found me through it. I could keep doing what I’ve been doing without changing anything and be fine staying where I’m at. But to make progress, to advance, I realized that I didn’t necessarily need to work harder, but to multiply my efforts by connecting with the right people with the right relationships and the right knowledge. Would these “right people” be at this event? Maybe, maybe not. But one place that I’m sure they’re not, is my living room.
Maybe I should find out.
While still back-and-forth texting with the aforementioned friend, I googled the event in question and found good seats at a relatively cheap price.
I bought tickets.
The host of the event is a knowledgeable person, who’s proven his worth and sold me some products in the past. I’ve recommended his stuff to people. He’s good at what he does. He’s built a solid platform. This is guy whom I would invest time into talking to and/or learning from.
The conference setup, though, is more than just the one guy. He’s invited friends to share the stage with him. And that’s the first thing that makes my decision a risky gamble rather than a safe bet.
Finding Out What I’m Missing
As I said, this event that I was set to attend wasn’t just one person talking and teaching the whole time. There were ten other people advertised as special guests who would appear and speak at the conference. This was the way this particular conference had always been run.
A couple years ago, when I first heard of this conference, I reached out directly to the host to sell myself to be one of those special-guest speakers. This was not a cold call; the host knew who I was from some work I was actively doing with his company at the time. While the host replied that he would take me into consideration, in the end he chose other people who, in my opinion, were not better presenters than me.
But this was fine by me. It’s the host’s event; he can have whomever he wants on his stage. That’s how things go when you position yourself to be chosen, rather than being the one doing the choosing.
After finding out years ago that I hadn’t been chosen as a presenter, I thought about maybe attending the event.
Why attend an event that I thought I was good enough to speak at? I’ll take you back to my freshman year of college basketball to explain.
I’d butted heads with my coach Mo at Penn State Abington several times as a freshman, mostly because I was 18 years old and dumb, thinking I knew stuff when I actually knew very little. I had been a starter for most of the season though, nonetheless.
Near the end of that freshman season, one of the team managers told me that Mo had half-joked, out of earshot from me, that if I were to return to Abington for my sophomore season, he might cut me from the team during tryouts just to avoid the headache of having to deal with me again.
On this subject, I was not dumb. I replied with the best quote 18-year-old me ever made.
If Coach Mo can find twelve basketball players on this campus who are better than me, I’ll be sitting in the front row of every game to watch them play!
I transferred that summer when I was recruited to a higher level school.
Flashing back to present time (a couple years ago, that is), maybe I had been passed over because I had some learning to do.
Perhaps I wasn’t so great a speaker that I was ready for this particular stage.
It could be very possible that the chosen speakers were indeed better than me.
Maybe I needed to humble myself.
If I was missing something that had caused me to be passed over as a speaker for this conference, then shit, maybe, just like that basketball team, I should attend the event and find out what it was.
But something deep in me kept telling me that this just wasn’t the case.
There’s this thing about high-stakes moments in basketball, whether the game be in the NBA Finals or at your local playground, when the pressure is turned all the way up, and everyone is watching, that you find out who’s a gamer and who’s not.
My last two years of college, our open gym pickup games were heated contests that were often better than the actual games. The games were physical. Everyone was trying to prove themselves. There was a ton of trash talk that often turned personal and disrespectful. Open gym was not for the faint of heart.
During those games, some of the same players who would happily participate during calmer moments watched from the sideline with a look of relief on their faces — relief that they didn’t have to be on the court in those heated moments. Everything ain’t for everybody.
Life is the same way. Some people want to be a part of what’s going on, and want to perform— as long as the stage isn’t too big. As long as the expectations aren’t too high. Some people have a comfort zone that they’d prefer to exist in. And that’s fine.
Others, people like me, handle one stage, then we’re immediately looking for the next biggest one. The moment that many shrink from is the exact thing we seek.
I skipped on attending the conference, and later saw video snippets of what I’d missed. I listened to the chosen speakers, and wasn’t impressed. I decided that there was nothing missing from my game as a presenter. I never attended the conference, and didn’t plan to attend it in the future, until that text from a friend piqued my curiosity.
Walking In With A Plan
I’m not the planning type. I just do shit.
I wrote my first book Buy A Game and didn’t even edit it before offering it free to anyone on my email list (it has since been updated and improved). I get an idea and immediately execute on it. If it works, great; if not, discard it.
I had a colleague who told me she was a six sigma black belt. I had no idea what the hell that was. Six sigma, it turns out, is a set of tools for process improvement — in other words, six sigma users are people who value and optimize planning before just doing shit. This colleague advised that any person doing anything should try spending at least 20% of their time planning their work before blindly jumping into it. And I remembered that quote that’s attributed to Abraham Lincoln about spending a majority of the time allotted to chop down a tree sharpening the axe.
I decided that if I was going to attend this conference, I should formulate a basic plan with some clearly defined desired outcomes resulting from my investment (which was much more about my time than the money).
Here’s what I settled on, by order of priority:
- Take copious notes from every presentation and find out what any of these speakers, all relatively well-known entities, has or does that I don’t.
- Pay close attention to the setup and overall flow of the event. I could learn from the process if I ever have my own events.
- Meet high-quality people who had also come to the conference to network and connect.
I got to the conference and found my seat, ready to learn, notice and connect.
Whenever I go to any event — concert, basketball game, business conference — I find a spot where I can see people moving about and just watch them pass by (think the concession areas at a basketball arena). I do this so I can observe and get a feel for who my peers are, and ask myself some critical questions about the room that I’m in.
Who are the other people who invested their time and money into this?
What kind of people are they?
Are these people the people I aspire to becoming?
Am I one of the smartest or the dumbest people in the room? Am I one of the most accomplished or the least?
How do I feel about being in the same boat — attending this event as a paying customer — as these people who I see?
Would associating with these people make more or less valuable as a person/business?
My answers to these questions made my attendance at this conference a clear disappointment.
All of us are judgemental on some level; we have to be to survive. Surface judgement is how we decide to whom to ask for directions and who it’s best to avoid when we have very little to no information above what we can see.
My lady Anna has told me that, had she seen me in my everyday clothing before we’d met, she would have profiled me (ie, judged and decided about me, before any conversation, based on my appearance), which very well could have precluded any relationship from happening. Anna admits to judging people, and she’s proudly told me that she does it all the time.
I used to challenge Anna on this point, telling her that is was wrong to pass judgement on people without knowing them.
The fact is though, we all do it.
I’m a 6’4” Black man living in an area that’s mostly white, European and Hispanic. I don’t normally
wear dress slacks, blazers and loafers; I wear basketball shorts, Jordans, SnapBack hats and tank tops. I have tattoos. I don’t return the fake smiles of nervous people who’ve never shared an elevator with a Black guy. I get viscerally judged all the time — meaning, every day. And while I like to think of myself as more objective than the average person, most people reading this probably would say the same about themselves. I judge others just as much as I myself get judged; just as much as you judge people (maybe — probably — not even knowing you’re doing it). Self-described “objective” people like me probably do more judging than anyone, since we are so sure we’re the ones not doing it.
Standing in the common areas of the conference, near the places people got their food and took pictures and shook hands, a very judgemental thought occurred to me.
These people are not on my level.
It was hard for me to reconcile, in my own mind, that I was even thinking this. Mr. Objective, judging other people. But it was exactly what I was thinking.
And I was right.
The people looked and felt like business amateurs to me. Beginners. People who could listen to speakers all day and wouldn’t know the difference between high-substance material and surface filler if you offered them money to point the differences out. People who saw the phrase “business conference,” and thought that, just by being in that room, they were all of a sudden business people.
It reminded me of a network marketing event, where most of the people looked like they were either —
- New, knowing very little about business, or
- Trying too hard to look like they’re somebody (you can tell when someone’s doing this once you’ve seen it often enough)
Noobs, as the kids like to say.
I’m not mad at these people. Everyone was a beginner at some point; we all had to start somewhere. Social media has made it profitable to pretend. But I haven’t been a beginner for a long fucking time. And when your substance is proven, there’s nothing to pretend about.
I saw — and met — a lot of people whom I could help. I didn’t see many people who looked like the type that I could learn from, the person whose knowledge would benefit me.
Not that there were none at all — there just weren’t a lot of them.
I do my share of giving and helping. I feel safe to say that I do far more than my share of giving and helping, asking nothing in return from people who couldn’t pay me back anyway. So, when I’m paying my money and investing my time into being in a room, a room that was sold to me as a way to level up, I want the majority of the people, not just a few of them, to fit the description of the person I want help and knowledge from.
I stood in the conference venue and didn’t see those people.
WTF am I doing in here?
As you probably know, I’m a big proponent of content. You know my name because of content —and not just any content, but quality content.
The content of this conference left me underwhelmed, not because there wasn’t any, but because the content wasn’t aimed at people like me. The content was beginner, amateur-level shit. And, as I looked to the left and to the right of me, and at the people milling about around me, they seemed content, satisfied with what they were being given. To them, the material coming from the stage was good stuff.
Which meant, the host of this event did a good job serving his audience.
The event was more of an entertainment-based pep rally in celebration of its host than education-based learning experience. Which makes sense: Conan O’Brien will make more money this year than all the teachers in California combined. People don’t travel and budget and change around schedules and buy tickets to be educated.
90% of the attendees of the conference, I would guess, left the event satisfied and happy that they’d attended. Regardless of what I think of the conference’s material, a 90% happy-rate is a smashing fucking success— morally, and for the bottom line of that business. Nobody can throw cold water on a 90% success rate.
The host didn’t mess up: he delivered to the bulk of his audience. It’s not his fault that I didn’t get what I wanted from the event; the event wasn’t made with people like me in mind. It was my fault for being there and expecting something from
It that it wasn’t designed to be.
Selling Short Vs. Selling Out
That last sentence was not tongue-in-cheek. I’m not trying to use reverse psychology to diss anyone, their brand or their work. I truly believe I made a mistake in judgement in choosing the wrong place and time to invest. And I own that choice.
While sitting in the audience at an event that I feel I could have been presenting at, I thought of Jay-Z.
Jay-Z, billionaire business mogul, was once the opening act for someone else’s concert — a fellow mogul named Puff Daddy. Jay-Z quit his role as opening act of that concert a few dates into the tour, citing that he felt by even doing that opening-act job, he was selling himself short.
We know what happened with Jay-Z.
My birthday was yesterday. Thirty-seven years. I have a book coming out in eighteen days.
I remember being in second grade and getting a sticker on a worksheet that said, You Can Do Better. I cried because I was used to getting 100s and gold stars on tests and classwork.
Then I thought of the time I was in Montenegro in my team’s main offices. The team had shorted me $300 of pay because of some “clause” in my contract that said our head coach could fine the whole team for poor game performance. I demanded to see that clause pointed out in the contract; they didn’t have a copy of it in the office.
I was the only fluent English speaker in the room, but everyone understood me clearly when I said, we will sit in here all fucking day until y’all give me my fucking money.
I didn’t learn anything new about the event itself or the host or any of the guest presenters. I didn’t learn anything new about the people or even about myself (well, maybe the judging part).
But I remembered some things.
- The higher your level, the more things that won’t be for you — thus, you’ve got to say NO a lot more often.
- If you’re too smart, you’ll go over people’s heads and they won’t understand anything you say (one of Jay-Z’s friends told him this when he first started rapping). “Dumbing down” is good business strategy, like it or not.
- If you’re gonna sell, sell out — don’t sell short.
I’m not giving up on my aim of networking and connecting. This experience was nothing more than a missed shot, a wrong turn down the wrong street.
I don’t have any issue with the sellers of this conference; they sold tickets to a conference and they delivered a conference. Individual results may vary.
I’d rather experience something and not like it, than sit home wondering what if.
And like I said, it’s not about the conference. Or the hosts. Or the other speakers. Or the people in the crowd. They’re mere supporting actors in my first-person movie called life, and just like you, I am and will always be the star of my film.
I wrote this to share with you what I saw and what I felt. How I did something that I wasn’t going to do and it ended up a mistake (here’s hoping that doesn’t scare me into remaining in my comfort zone in the future). How I thought I was one type of person, then found myself doing the exact opposite of what that person does. How some of the things we think we know, we actually do know — but we can’t be quite sure until we live them in real life.
Shit, I guess I learned more at this conference than I thought I had.