Peter in his circle of friendsPeter in his circle of friends at the start of Crafting {:} a Life (image by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA license

When the first Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, went to space on the D1 mission he had a clear goal. Earlier astronauts upon returning to earth had all responded to the question how it was to see the entire earth from above, our blue ball in the black void, with things like “Great”, “Very moving”, “So very beautiful”. Ockels was determined to find a better description for the experience, by preparing for it, by more consciously observing and reflecting while up there. Yet when he came back he realised all he could say was “So very beautiful” as well. There was no way for him to put the layering, depth and richness of the experience in words that would actually fully convey it.

Experiencing an unconference can be like that. It certainly took me about a week to come back down to earth (and overcome the jet-lag) after spending a handful of days on Prince Edward Island in a somewhat parallel universe, Peter‘s Crafting {:} a Life unconference with around 50 of his friends and connections.

Here too, the description “it was great” “it was beautiful” is true but also empty words. I heard several of the other participants comment it was “life changing” for them, and “the start of something momentous on PEI”. I very well understand that sentiment, but was it really? Can it really be that, life changing?

I have heard the same feedback, ‘life changing’, about our events as well. Particularly the 2014 edition. And I know the ripples of those events have changed the lives of participants in smaller and bigger ways. Business partnerships formed, research undertaken, lasting friendships formed. I recognise the emotions of the natural high a heady mix of deep conversations, minds firing, freedom to explore, all around topics of your own interest can create. I felt very much in flow during an hours long conversation at Crafting {:} a Life for instance.

Reboot had that impact on me in 2005, reinforced by the subsequent editions. Those multiple editions created a journey for me. Bringing students there in 2009, because I was one of the event’s sponsors, was certainly life changing for them. It spoilt them for other types of events, and triggered organising their own events.
In a certain way Crafting {:} a Life brought the Reboot spirit to PEI, was a sort of expression of Reboot as it included half a dozen connections that originated there in 2005. Similarly I feel our own unconferences are attempts at spreading the Reboot spirit forward.

What makes it so? What makes one say ‘life changing’ about an event? Space to freely think, building on each other’s thoughts, accepting the trade-off that if your pet topics get discussed others will do other things you may not be interested in. Meeting patience while you formulate your (half-baked) thoughts. That is something that especially has been important in the experience of teenagers that took part in our events, and I think for Oliver too. That everyone is participating in the same way, that age or background doesn’t somehow disqualify contributions, and being treated as having an equal stake in being there.

How do you get to such a place? I find it’s mixing the informal/human with the depth and content normally associated with formalisation.

What made Peter’s event work for instance was the circle at the start.
The room itself was white and clinical to start in, and people were huddled in the corner seeking the warmth of the coffee served there. The seating arrangement however meant everyone had to walk the circle on the inside to find their seat. Then once seated, after welcoming words, there was music by one of the participants who offered it, first a reflective and then an upbeat song. This in aggregate made the room the group’s room, made it a human room. The post-its on the wall after the intro round led by Elmine increased that sense of it being our room, and the big schedule on the wall we made together completed it. Now it was our own central space for the event.

Splitting the event over two days and marking both days differently (meeting/talking, and doing) worked well too. It meant people weren’t coming back for the same thing as yesterday, but had something new to look forward to with the same measure of anticipating the unknown as the first day. While already having established a shared context, and new connections the day before.

The result was, to paraphrase Ockels, “great”. Clark, one of our fellow participants, found a few more and better words:

Crafting {:} a Life was a breath of fresh air. The unconference dispensed with pretension, titles or faux expertise. Everyone had for the most part a chance to share their story, contribute, and talk. While some asked what I did for a living, it was only after all other avenues of discussion were explored. For the most part one-to-one conversations were much like what I had with Robert Paterson, (“What is Clark’s story” he asked) open ended, personal, and with the ability to discover new things about the other. The activities emphasized small groups and there was no “oh my God my PPT is out of order what will we talk about” that I myself have fallen victim to. There was music, laughter, food and tears. It was genuine, …

I think that goes to the heart of it. It was genuine, the format didn’t deny we are human but embraced it as a key element. And in the space we created there was way more room than usually at events to be heard, to listen. And most of all: space to share the enormous gift of two days worth of your focused attention.

I feel it is that that makes these events stand out. Most other events don’t do that for its participants: Space for focused attention, while embracing your humanity. Reboot did that, it even had a kindergarten on site and people brought their kids e.g. But that approach is very scarce. It needn’t be. It also needn’t be an unconference to create it. A conversation, dinner party, or other occasion might just as well. (I found that video btw on a blog in the rss feeds of one of the participants, which seems apt).

On our way home Elmine suggested doing a second edition of our e-book ‘How to unconference your birthday’ (PDF). I think that is a very good idea, as Peter and us now have experience from both being an organiser and a participant, and we have now several additional events worth of experiences to draw upon. We created the first edition as a gift and memento to all participants of our 2010 edition, the 2nd such event we did and the first we did in our home. A decade on a second edition seems fitting.

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