I am writing this after the third weekend in a row of attending professional conferences. While I wouldn't suggest such a schedule (it was a fluke of the calendar I hope won't ever happen again!), I came away from the experience renewed with the belief that, no matter what your field, attending conferences — given the usual caveat that moderation in all things is important — is an extremely smart financial move.
Refresh your enthusiasm
One of the conferences I attended was career-agnostic, and one of the many “TedX” events held throughout the country. This one was a day-long series of short, highly-designed talks with a similar theme (“What If?”) that was meant more as a jumping-point than a strict theme. The talks were on such a variety of things that I was certain some of them would have no applicability to my own career goals or life plans.
And certainly, some of them were as far from my own life as can be — one, for instance, detailed the way a professional athlete had overcome attitude problems and the disadvantage of growing up in a small town, became proficient and famous and by either luck or the grace of God and then developed Parkinson's disease. However, even this one was a window into a story for me, and some of them were very inspiring.
“People are weary of being asked to do the least they can possibly do,” said one speaker, inspiring me to ask more of my community for the two non-profit organizations I help run. Naomi Pomeroy, a local chef famous for failing big and then succeeding far bigger, talked about living a life that was “not positive thinking, but positive action.” She asked, “What is it you need to stop dreaming and start being?”
I've been a bit weary and run down with my many obligations lately, and I left that day so refreshed and with a feeling of contentment about my choices — and a serious spark of energy to renew my efforts in my creative projects to transition them into financially successful endeavors.
Develop your ideas into opportunities
The conference I attended just this past weekend, the Mom 2.0 Summit, was one where I had pitched a speaking idea based on the post I wrote about crowd funding last summer. I found out I would be giving the talk only about a month ago, and by that time my thoughts on it had evolved. Having this deadline and imminent public unveiling of the idea forced me to develop my swirling thoughts into what turned out to be a very defined and cohesive philosophy of creative project finance. Whether or not I end up capitalizing upon that as a line of work (independent creative funding consulting, anyone?), the conference and the conversations I had as a result of the talk were worth my travel costs.
I saw similar ideas translated into opportunities by getting a bunch of smart, ambitious heads together; a group who organizes a digital family conference seemed a match made in heaven with an online service to collect and archive the stories and the wisdom of kids. A dad creating a database of children's activities in major cities around the country found ideas about partnering with hyperlocal parenting blogs. Lines tossed around in a workshop on “Unstoppable Girls” were fielded as new campaigns for Dove and possible advertising work for one of the teen girls there.
Make friends and influence people (into giving you work)
Within the space of about 15 minutes Saturday night, I heard two separate conversations that went something like, “I met her at the conference in 2007. And then when the job opened up, she got in touch with me.” In a few sessions, someone asked the question, “but who does social media consulting? How do you find one of those?” and half the room would raise their hands. Writers and editors sat down at lunch tables and discovered each needed the other. Charity representatives and brand representatives looking to work with charities would answer one another's questions from the audience in a session.
As we all know, the world of industry runs on connections, and we can't all go to Harvard Business School or somewhere else where simply being a graduate/member/whatever means the phone is always answered when you call. Forging real friendships at conferences of like-minded people is the next best thing (and definitely easier to access).
Make friends and influence people (who will expand your industry knowledge)
The first conference in my string of three was a small, intimate writing conference, and one of the speakers was a literary agent. I had just signed an agreement with a literary agent and had no need of her services, but I liked her. So after I got to know her I asked her a lot of questions about how the industry works from her perspective, which editors she enjoyed working with, how she had scored her big wins, and how long she was willing to work on a project that had a hard time selling. All this was invaluable for my own perspective and strategy for working with my agent to sell my book; and I also have the benefit of having made a great new friend.
Have fun (but don't overdo it)
There is something, also, about taking the opportunity to have a great time in the context of people who work in your industry. I often heard the women at the conference I attended this weekend saying, “when I went to academic conferences…” or “at the baby and child products expo I'm attending next week…” or “at the homebuilding conference, they…” and stories of mild revelry and lovely connection would follow. Having fun with the people who people your professional world is something to be cherished; it helps you remember why you enjoy your chosen career, and gives you more energy to go back to the grind (or the awesome everday of your fulfilling work life, if you're lucky).
But don't overdo it. And by “overdoing” I mean, of course, don't get smashed every night and spend your airplane ride/drive home sweaty and nauseous. But I also mean don't spend too much. Don't order room service every morning just because it's super fancy and when else do you get the chance? Don't go out every night to a $100 meal. Sure, it's ok to indulge in small ways, but going overboard is easy if you've decided all this expense is justified and deductible. Set a budget ahead of time — preferably without incurring debt — if you're planning to go to a conference, you should have time to save up and stick to it! Share cabs to and from the airport, room with friends and use other frugal tools that will keep costs down and increase the opportunity to make those awesome connections that will pay off in the future.
Do you agree that professional conferences are helpful? I'd love to hear about your industry's conferences; have you been? What has paid off for you, and what have you regretted?
Sarah is a blogger by trade and a finance geek at heart. She cut her teeth on her first Excel spreadsheet full of financials at the tender age of 21, when she began her investment banking career in First Unionâ€™s Loan Syndications group. She went on to get her MBA from Wharton, work at Merrill Lynch and fall in love with analyzing company strategy and endless rows of numbers. She got into blogging as a marketing strategy and the blogging took. She now is a freelance financial and (award-winning!) literary writer, working in between baking bread and finding socks for her three little boys in her beloved 1912 Portland, Oregon, home.
Sarah's even-more-personal blogging about being an Army wife, parenting, food, biking and life can be found at urbanMamas and Cafe Mama.