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Few years ago, I came up with new rule that I’ll basically accept any offer if it will tie me up and keep me away from Austin during SXSW week. The results have been awesome: Last year, I went on my honeymoon. This year, I am speaking in Brazil.
It’s not because I live in Austin now and can rent out my place for a lot of money if I’m gone (although that is nice). It’s clearly not because I have a problem with conferences in general, or I wouldn’t have spent time at others. It’s not even SXSW, though since 2007 I’ve seen it undergo some changes and transformations that I can only shake my head at.
It’s because you don’t learn anything at a get-together with 286,000 people at it. You don’t find opportunities in the spot that everyone else has descended upon to look. And you definitely don’t get much out of an event that is clearly inclined to be an ego-assuaging party more than it is a conference.
“But they had Shake Shack at SXSW this week!” you say. If only it wasn’t also sold in six other states the other 355 days of the year.
It’s funny, for all the love of business books and buzzwords, SXSW is the definition of a red ocean—it’s loud, overcrowded, competitive and difficult to break through. There’s too much posturing, too much bluster, too much fighting the last war. Every startup taking their eye off the ball to recreate Twitter’s launch at SXSW in 2007 (which I remember scoffing at, at the time). It’s skating to where the puck was. It’s a choreographed performance that everyone feels obligated to do each year.
Let’s be honest: if you know your field, conferences are not usually the best place to learn or work. The bigger they are, the more general they become—as SXSW clearly has—and the further they lag behind. The need to appeal to the broadest possible cohort of attendees puts them six months to two years behind current, let alone more innovative practices. So why are we supposed to go this, again?
The panel format exacerbates this. It’s not one speaker, articulating a message or telling a story to an audience. It’s five nobodies, averaging each other out—each looking for a soundbyte so you’ll remember their name. At this point, panels are like poorly curated podcasts with no editor. They mostly benefit the people speaking…and make them feel important.
Shall we review some of the preposterous panels from SXSW this year?
And when they’re not writing panel titles that appear designed to give people douchechills, most panelists (and speakers) are lying. By that I mean, either exaggerating their credentials and expertise or, if they truly have some, lying by omission (nobody wants to give away their secrets). In fact, when you are honest—which I try to be, especially at events when I am getting paid—most people areshocked. They tell you this after the fact with genuine surprise. As if they expected (and were OK with!) everyone phoning it in and fluffing it.
Oh but you meet so many great people / everyone is in town for one magical week.
Strategically, I can think of no worse time for an entrepreneur to pitch a journalist, or a startup to pitch potential investors or employees. Do you not realize these people are as overwhelmed (or inebriated) as you are, and phoning it in just enough so their bosses don’t notice? Upon the Betabeat staff’s return from SXSW 2014, they reported their slogan for the week was, “Oh there you are!” which is what the aggressive networkers they were trying to shake would say upon finding them again.
Bluntly, SXSW has turned into an ironic spring break for people with corporate jobs to escape their lives. You can pretend to work while waiting in line for free beer and hoping to hook up with someone like you. But I’m not sure corporate attendees realize this is nothing more than a dress-suit bribe, offered by their employer to give them trappings of power, instead of the real thing. Your boss writes it off as a business expense.
At the very least spring break was supposed to be fun. The parties at SXSW? This is tech at its worst. Why do you have to get on a guest list or RSVP to seemingly every party? This exclusivity is manufactured, to give every startup spending other people’s money a chance to feel important and special. It’s definitely not to limit the amount of free booze they shill (corporate sponsors pay for that). It’s to manufacture status so attendees will feel like they got into the “cool” party with the “in” crowd. And the only way corporations know how to be cool is by proximity—to musicians, to film stars, to writers—and creating exclusive lists for parties that are expensive and lame.
I want to be clear. I don’t think the conference organizers at SXSW are to blame. Nor was this terrible car accident anyone but the drunk driver’s fault. From everything I’ve seen, they put on a good show, care about safety and seem to have stayed true to their origins. And they’re doing a good job: SXSW 2014’s economic impact on Austin this year was $190 million. The problem is you. The problem is us. That we willingly subject ourselves to everything I just described. And don’t even think about why we’re doing it.
I stopped going when I heard someone—and unfortunately I forget who—describe South by Southwest as a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the internet. Too big, too corporate, too hyped, too bullshit. I think they’re right.
But there may be another, more specific metaphor. Every year during SXSW, every post, column and wall in town is covered with Saran wrap—so that posters can be quickly torn down at the end of the night. And yet…thousands of bands and startups and directors spent how many thousands of dollars to print up flyers and posters simply to be overwhelmed and torn down a few hours later. That is SXSW—an ephemeral moment of self-promotion lost amidst a sea of other self-promoters doing the exact same thing, while thinking they’re doing something totally different. Pardon me, disruptive.
It’s like that line from Arthur Miller about writing your name in a cake of ice on a hot summer day. Except SXSW is an oven…and you chose to do it there instead of any number of places where the etching would last longer.
When coach Shaka Smart was interviewed after his team beat North Carolina in a surprise upset last week, what did he say? He didn’t focus on the buzzer beater. Or the strategy. He said his team won because “they followed the process.”
It can be traced to Nick Saban, the famous coach of LSU and Alabama—perhaps the most dominant dynasty in the history of college football. But he got it from a psychiatry professor named Lionel Rosen during his time at Michigan State.
Rosen’s big insight was this: sports—especially football—are complex. Nobody has enough brainpower or motivation to consistently manage all the variables going on in the course of a season, let alone a game. They think they do—but realistically, they don’t.
There are too many plays, too many players, too many statistics, countermoves, unpredictables, distractions. Over the course of a long playoff season, this adds up into a cognitively impossible load. Meanwhile, as Monte Burke writes in his book Saban, Rosen discovered that the average play in football lasts just seven seconds. Seven seconds—that’s very manageable.
Nick Saban, head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
So he posed a question: What if a team concentrated only on what they could manage? What if they took things step by step—not focusing on anything but what was right in front of them and on doing it well?
As a result, Nick Saban doesn’t focus on what every other coach focuses on, or at least not the way they do. He tells them:
“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
It’s this message that’s been internalized by his players and his teams—which together have four national championships in an eight-year span, one Mid-American Conference championship, have been crowned SEC champions 15 times and Saban has received multiple coaching awards.
In the chaos of sport, as in life, process provides a way. A way to turn something very complex into something simple. Not that simple is easy.
But it is easier. Let’s say you’ve got to do something difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize. As Bill Belichick famously put it, just do your job.
The road to back-to-back championships, or being a writer or a successful entrepreneur is just that, a road. And you travel along a road in steps. Excellence is a matter of steps. Excelling at this one, then that one and then the one after that. Saban’s process is exclusively this—existing in the present, taking it one step at a time, not getting distracted by anything else. Not the other team, not the scoreboard, or the crowd.
The process is about finishing. Finishing games. Finishing workouts. Finishing film sessions. Finishing drives. Finishing reps. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks. Finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you and finishing it well.
Whether it’s pursuing the pinnacle of success in your field, or simply surviving some awful or trying ordeal, the same approach works. Don’t think about the end—think about surviving. Getting it right from meal to meal, meeting to meeting, project to project, paycheck to paycheck, one day at a time.
And when you really get it right, even the hardest things become manageable. As Heraclitus observed, “under the comb, the tangle and the straight path are the same.” That’s what the process is. Under its influence, we needn’t panic. Even mammoth tasks become just a series of component parts.
This was what the great 19th-century pioneer of meteorology, James Pollard Espy, had shown to him in a chance encounter as a young man. Unable to read and write until he was 18, Espy attended a rousing speech by the famous orator Henry Clay. After the talk, a spellbound Espy tried to make his way toward Clay, but he couldn’t form the words to speak to his idol. One of his friends shouted out for him: “He wants to be like you, even though he can’t read.”
Clay grabbed one of his posters, which had the word CLAY written in big letters. He looked at Espy and said, “You see that, boy?” pointing to a letter. “That’s an A. Now, you’ve only got 25 more letters to go.”
Espy had just been gifted The Process. Within a year, he started college.
What Rosen, what Espy, what these coaches are practicing is a central tenet of stoic philosophy—one which I’ve tried to pass along in The Obstacle is The Way. It’s just a modern take on Marcus Aurelius when he advised:
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?”
Equestrian Statue of emperor of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. (Photo: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Seven seconds. Sticking to the situation at hand. Focusing on what’s immediately in front of you. No strain, no struggling. So relaxed. No exertion or worry. Just one simple movement after another. That’s the power of process.
We can channel this, too. We needn’t scramble like we’re so often inclined to do when some difficult task sits in front of us. Instead, we can take a breath, do the immediate, composite part in front of us—and follow its thread into the next action. Everything in order, everything connected.
When it comes to our actions, disorder and distraction are death. The unordered mind loses track of what’s in front of it—what matters—and gets distracted by thoughts of the future. The process is order, it keeps our perceptions in check and our actions in sync.
It seems obvious, but we forget this when it matters most.
Right now, if I knocked you down and pinned you to ground, how would you respond? You’d probably panic. And then you’d push with all your strength to get me off you. It wouldn’t work; just using my body weight, I would be able to keep your shoulders against the ground with little effort—and you’d grow exhausted fighting it.
That’s the opposite of the process.
The process is much easier. First, you don’t panic, you conserve your energy. You don’t do anything stupid like get yourself choked out by acting without thinking. You focus on not letting it get worse. Then you get your arms up, to brace and create some breathing room, some space. Now work to get on your side. From there you can start to break down my hold on you: grab an arm, trap a leg, buck with your hips, slide in a knee.
It’ll take some time, but you’ll get yourself out. At each step, the person on top is forced to give a little up, until there’s nothing left. Then you’re free.
Being trapped is just a position, not a fate. You get out of it by addressing and eliminating each part of that position through small, deliberate action—not by trying (and failing) to push it away with superhuman strength.
With our business rivals, we rack our brains to think of some mind-blowing new product that will make them irrelevant, and, in the process, we take our eye off the ball. We shy away from writing a book or making a film even though it’s our dream because it’s so much work—we can’t imagine how we get from here to there.
How often do we compromise or settle because we feel that the real solution is too ambitious or outside our grasp? How often do we assume that change is impossible because it’s too big? Involves too many different groups? Or worse, how many people are paralyzed by all their ideas and inspirations? They chase them all and go nowhere, distracting themselves and never making headway. They’re brilliant, sure, but they rarely execute. They rarely get where they want and need to go.
All these issues are solvable. Each would collapse beneath the process. We’ve just wrongly assumed that it has to happen all at once, and we give up at the thought of it. We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.
We want to have goals, yes, so everything we do can be in service of something purposeful. When we know what we’re really setting out to do, the obstacles that arise tend to seem smaller, more manageable. When we don’t, each one looms larger and seems impossible. Goals help put the blips and bumps in proper proportion.
When we get distracted, when we start caring about something other than our own progress and efforts, the process is the helpful, if occasionally bossy, voice in our head. It is the bark of the wise, older leader who knows exactly who he is and what he’s got to do. Shut up. Go back to your stations and try to think about what we are going to do ourselves, instead of worrying about what’s going on out there. You know what your job is, stop jawing and get to work.
The process is the voice that demands we take responsibility and ownership. That prompts us to act even if only in a small way.
Like a relentless machine, subjugating resistance each and every way it exists, little by little. Moving forward, one step at a time. Subordinate strength to the process. Replace fear with the process. Depend on it. Lean on it. Trust in it.
Take your time, don’t rush. Some problems are harder than others. Deal with the ones right in front of you first. Come back to the others later. You’ll get there.
The process is about doing the right things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.