Solving the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum

Every now and then Elmine and I organize (un)conferences for our birthday party, in our home. We did one in 2008, 2010 and 2014 (with a BBQ party of similar effort in 2012). Each one brings 40-50 participants together, and double that for the BBQ the day after. (The whole thing started as a biannual BBQ in 2004, and we added the conference part to make it easier for friends and peers from abroad and clients to join).

We love the events, and we love the way it brings many from our international network together in an atmosphere that creates lasting connections between participants, as well as the inspiration and energy it gives us. (I think of it as invoking the ghost of Reboot)

But as you see several years can pass between two editions.
They involve a lot of work and energy, cost a considerable amount of money. After each one it takes a while before the itch to do it again plays up, and sometimes major life events get in the way.

After the last one in 2014, Paolo suggested doing these events on a yearly, or at least more frequent basis. I replied in similar lines as above. To which Paolo replied “What do you think you are? The Olympics?” As he’s putting on a yearly conference in Italy himself, simply ignoring his remark does not play. He knows the reality of putting on a proper event every year, let alone our smaller scale lower-key ones. Paolo’s question stuck with me, and has been deserving of a proper answer for the past three years.

I know I’m not the Olympics. I also know the ‘lot of work, and oh the costs!’ line of reasoning isn’t fully true. We started doing the events in our home as a way to cut costs after all (the first edition was in the local university’s conference center). And I organized similarly international meet-ups in my spare time every 2 to 3 months with 20-30 participants, which each event taking place in a different European city, all with zero budget, years earlier.

To me the important aspects that create the type of flow, quality of conversations and energy that make the events such fun are:

  • Picking a topic that fits all backgrounds, so it doesn’t put people off and can attract friends, peers, clients and family alike, of all ages
  • Picking a topic that is challenging as well, as that creates the energy
  • Having participants of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, with most (but never all) having a direct connection to either me or Elmine, but less connections to the other participants
  • Doing it in our home, as it creates an informal atmosphere for serious exchanges, and I think the distinctive flavour of it all
  • Providing excellent food and drinks, for all diets, and plenty of it

The reason it takes so much time to organize is mainly that I try to do it all myself. I’m not very skilled at delegating or asking for help (as anyone who’s ever tried to help me out in the kitchen can attest). Finding a topic on a yearly basis that is at the same time broad enough to potentially include anyone and provoking enough for people to start imagining contributing to it, can be challenging
There is also the suspicion that if we’d do it say yearly, it would attract fewer friends from our international peer network (there’s always next year after all), and overall less sense of uniqueness of opportunity or urgency to attend for anyone. Whereas it’s the mix of people that is a key ingredient.

The time since the last edition 2014, really was a matter of life events getting in the way (2015 a year of multiple losses, 2016 of welcoming a new life, this year of moving to a new city). Now the dust has started to settle, and in the coming month we can look forward to spending a few weeks camping and being away from it all. I am also trying to grow roots in our new city and having conversations with people to better understand the events, spaces and things the city has to offer. Maybe the time has come to use this as an opportunity to solve the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum.

Asking for help, the location, the scale of it, maybe a bit of funding, setting topics, are all dimensions to play with and to reflect on.

I’d like to do a new event in 2018, I’ve already been imagining it in our new home since we started unpacking boxes (or rather from the moment we were viewing the house already). What will it take to have the one after that not in 2022 but in 2019? Especially if you’ve attended in 2008, 2010 or 2014, what would entice you to join the event in 2018 as well as 2019, what would make you come back?

2 thoughts on “Solving the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum

  1. Martina Röll

    I am glad you are thinking about a new unconference. All that I have been to have been so lovely!

    To answer your questions: I’d be back any way. If you invite, I come, no matter the topic. So that’s that.

    Re: annual, not-annual, repetition etc I think you are overthinking this: Set a date for the next one, and we’ll go from there. Regularity is good in a way, but it is also not _really_ necessary, and for now, for me, a next date will do. 🙂

    I hear you with the burden of organizing and considerations of cost. I would be happy to support you. I could see myself doing work on financial planning / fundraising / cost sharing and supporting people from abroad with travel planning. We could also get the team of Structure & Process in, if you wanted more logistical support. Reach out when the time is right!

    Reply
    1. Ton Zijlstra Post author

      hey, Martina, thank you for responding and your kind offer of help. I think you’re right that just a next date is all that is really necessary. Other than that I’m not sure I’m overthinking things (yet 😉 ) Just a first attempt of teasing out what I think the factors that make the birthday unconferences what they are, and seeing how they would change if it were to be held more often.

      Reply

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