Pardon me for a moment, but I’m about to whine a little.
As I write this, I am sitting in the Vienna Airport, 1,600 kilometers from where I’m supposed to be at this moment (in Talinn, Estonia, for GeekOutEE), with another three hours to go before I board the flight to there. I’ve been up since 3:30am London time, I’m 400USD poorer that I won’t be able to get back, and most of all, I’m over 5,000 miles away from home with a week yet to go on this particular trip before I can lay down in my own bed and enjoy spending time with my family. I won’t see my hotel room in Talinn until after midnight, and that assumes that the rain here in Vienna doesn’t disrupt my outgoing flight.
And quite frankly, I’m really starting to wonder why I’m doing all this.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my 15-year speaking career so far. I’ve visited cities I never would’ve thought I would ever see, and met some incredible people I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to get to know at all. I’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the truly great in this industry, and some of them even call me a friend.
But this morning, when I left my hotel at 4, to take a 15-minute taxi to Paddington Station to catch the Heathrow Express (which is itself a 15-minute ride to London Heathrow) in order to catch my 6:30am flight to Amsterdam, and I missed the flight by two minutes—Heathrow apparently will not let you check in for the flight less than 40 minutes before departure, and I got to the kiosk at 5:51am—I was mildly annoyed. And then, when I found out that the cheapest way to get to Talinn today (because I speak at 10am tomorrow) was to fly two different airlines, one departing at 12:40 in the afternoon to Vienna and the next departing at 8:30pm to arrive in Talinn at midnight, and pay 400USD for the privilege….
(UPDATE: And then, my flight at 8:30pm was delayed to 9:45pm. Then, while on our way to Tallinn, mid-air, the captain informed us that we would be diverting to Riga Airport instead, because Tallinn Airport had decided to shut down the runways at midnight and wouldn’t let us land, which meant I spent the night sleeping on bar seats in the Riga Airport and waking up at 5am to board the same plane to fly to Tallinn in the morning. That meant I got to Tallinn around 7am, which meant I had about two hours in which to check in to my hotel room, take a long hot shower, change clothes, and get some breakfast before standing in front of a crowd of a thousand or so attendees and doing a keynote.)
… and please, understand, I can’t really blame anybody but myself. I could’ve left earlier, I could’ve checked in online (“Nah, I’ll have plenty of time once I get there”), I could’ve taken a cab straight to the airport (expensive, but a lot more direct in some ways) instead of trying to save some money and use the vaunted British rail system. There’s nobody to point a finger at and blame, and to be honest, I’m not really feeling like yelling at anybody, anyway. It’s more that…
I’m tired, guys. I’m really, really tired.
Not just because of the long day, although I’m sure that’s a big part of it. I’m tired of the constant “little things” that keep coming up every time I travel.
I’m tired of the haranguing I get from airport security personnel (this time, it was the lockpicks I carry with me—“No real reason to carry those around unless you’re good for a little breaking and entering, right mate?").
I’m tired of the constant paranoia that a flight is going to cancel, be delayed, or run into some other issue that will make it difficult or impossible to meet the commitment of speaking somewhere.
I’m tired of sleeping in hotel beds, living out of a suitcase, and eating irregularly and often poorly.
I’m tired of fighting for overhead bin space, I’m tired of wrestling for armrests, I’m tired of people who bring their dogs on the flight and expect that you’re going to be as concerned and excited about the little yipper as they are. (Seriously—one woman would not stop talking about her little “poochy”, and got very angry with the flight attendant when she wasn’t allowed to take the dog out of the carrier to let it walk down the aisle, “the poor thing”, fully expecting me and the other seatmate to be entirely sympathetic. Frankly, I wanted to slap her for bringing the dog in the first place—pets simply do not travel well, particularly not on vacation and this dog was very obviously not enjoying his trip.)
I’m tired of watching airlines slowly squeeze the frequent flyer programs of all the benefits that used to make flying reasonable.
I’m tired of getting doses of “family” through Facebook Messenger chat windows.
I’m tired of being alone on the road, even when I’m surrounded by people.
The “Allure of Travel”
In the beginning, it wasn’t this bad. Waking up in the morning at home, knowing I had a flight to go to a conference was a mix of emotions—a little bit sad at leaving, but excited because speaking is an incredible rush. And then, after doing it a few times, you toss in the thought of running into some of the cool people you’ve met over the years at various conferences, and wow, there’s a lot of things I’ll put up with in order to be able to do this.
But time passes, and like the proverbial addictive drug, the costs keep climbing while the rush never quite seems to get back to the levels it once had. In some ways, that’s good—it’s when you can get past the anxious energy and focus on the delivery that you become a good speaker. And that takes time and practice. Not just “stand in front of the mirror” or “friendly audience” practice, but real, actual “stand up in front of the crowd and deliver” practice.
Hundreds of conferences and thousands of presentations later, I’m pretty well-practiced.
And if the conferences were all really good about making sure speakers were reimbursed for their time and expenses not just getting to the conference, but also getting ready for it, it would be something that you could write off as “Well, at least I’m getting paid.” But many conferences—in fact, the majority of them now, it seems—believe that speaking should be its own reward, and feel generous in offering to cover your airfare and hotel “and you’ll get a free ticket to the conference”. If you try to submit expenses after the show to cover your taxi, your meals in the airport and maybe even the adapter you had to buy at the airport so you could charge your laptop, you get met with a certain amount of dubious acceptance if not outright scorn.
I’m tired of trying to explain to conferences that an airline ticket purchased on a credit card carries interest over the months until they’re ready to reimburse me.
I’m tired of telling conferences no, I will not fly the cheapest option to get to your show, because that will either (a) take me through twice as many cities as necessary, or (b) require me to fly some bargain-basement airline whose reliability record is sketchy and breadth of flights and airline partnerships is almost nil. I have no desire to be stranded in Iceland over the weekend on my way home because of weather/maintenance/whatever, forced to pay for an extra hotel room night (which the conference will not cover, of course).
(As I write this, I’m arguing with a conference that wants to me to find a flight to London from Seattle for under 2k USD; as in, they will reimburse up to 2k USD, and that’s it. And now we begin the process all over again—why that’s not really feasible, why only covering two nights' stay at the hotel isn’t really enough for a European trip, and most of all, why coming 5,000 miles for one single half-day workshop just isn’t a great use of my time.)
I’m tired of trying to explain to a conference that my time is worth something beyond just the time I’m on stage for them.
And if it sounds like I’m blaming the conferences, I’m really not—they’re just doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is to optimize to their best local optima. Every dollar they can save on airfare for me, they can spend on something else, or it’s a dollar they don’t have to raise through sponsors or selling ad space or whatever else they do to defray the costs. That’s understandable.
But it’s an argument, every time, and after a while, you get tired of the arguments.
And I know I’m not being unreasonable, compared to some other speakers I (and you) know, who charge a minimum of $10k/day (plus first class airfare) to be at a conference.
The joys of accounting
When I first started doing conferences, I was very careful to track all of my expenses and submit them after the fact for full reimbursement. Now…. pffft. Which means that every time I do a conference somewhere, it’s a net loss to me financially, without even counting whatever billable time I’m surrendering to speak there. That’s money being spent just to get through the day on most days. Money that I wouldn’t have to spend were I at home.
And that opportunity cost is huge, by the way; I’ve already watched several potential full-time jobs slip away because of my conference commitments. (Companies love the idea that you are an industry thought leader, but they hate the idea of letting you continue to do the activities that keep you recognized as a thought leader.) It turns out that most positions—with the exception of being a developer evangelist for a product company, or else being the “face” of a consulting company—do not have a lot of room for doing a ton of conferences. As in, anything more than two or three in a year is pushing the envelope.
I’m tired of arguing with bosses, co-workers, and business partners as to the value of speaking at a conference. I have come to realize that if you don’t see it for yourself, then nothing I can say will ever convince you.
And for what?
I’ve been told that speaking at a conference is a great opportunity for exposure.
Personal brand is important, to be sure. It’s something far more professionals should give serious thought towards. But there’s a number of different ways to build a brand without having to surrender a ridiculous number of hours standing in an airport security line.
I’ve been told that speaking is a way of “giving back to the community”.
And giving back is important. Except when individuals within the community seem to see the opportunity to bend your ear at a conference as a God-given right, as opposed to something that is part of a social contract. One which says, “Dude, if I have to go to the bathroom, we’re ending this conversation until those biological needs are taken care of.” I can’t tell you how many lunches have sat, cold and congealed on my plate, because a stream of attendees each wanted to ask me “just one question”. I’ve long since abandoned any hope of ever being able to eat in any fulfilling manner when I’m out “in public” at a conference.
Don’t get me wrong—most of the attendees are nice people, well-meaning, but, again, optimizing to their local optima. They have questions that they didn’t have time to ask during the session, or thought were off-topic to the session and didn’t want to derail the talk. And honestly, I do enjoy talking this stuff out—I’m an “external processor”, which means that I often think better by talking out loud about something. More than once, I’ve had an interesting insight about a topic by discussing it with an attendee.
And also, don’t think that I don’t get something out of this. Quite the opposite—it’s still a rush when I see an attendee’s face light up because suddenly, something that has always remained stubbornly opaque to them has become crystal clear and now they “get it”. Or they’ve seen something that they never knew existed, and it represents huge potential to make their lives easier and/or richer. Or even just because they’re excited that they learned something new. That smile that comes with their shaking of the head when they say, “Wow, that was a great talk, I never knew you could do that, thank you!”
… Yeah. That’s pure gold.
But when somebody gets offended (and makes a point of calling me “aloof” and “arrogant” on an eval) because I’m absolutely tired and I need to get back to my room and take a nap, instead of answering their fifth or sixth question, particularly if they’ve stopped being even remotely relevant to the material I was presenting in the session, you can color me ready to say something really rude.
And I’m tired of the exhaustion of being “on” all day. (The people who work the booths at a conference will know what I mean by that one.) Even the most extroverted extrovert needs to get away from the crowd at some point and take a breath. (And yet, conferences are starting to do away with the speaker room, as a means of trying to promote more speaker-attendee contact. Which means now I have to retreat to my hotel room to be able to take that breath, and that makes me even less likely to go back downstairs.)
I’m not telling you all of this because I want your sympathy, or because I want anybody to behave any differently when you see me at the next conference.
I’m telling you this because, for the first time since I started doing conferences 15 years ago, I am very seriously considering “retiring” from conferences. As in, 2017 will see me doing maybe three or four, instead of the two dozen or more that I usually do. Those will probably be the ones that I’ve got the best working relationships with, because they don’t really present the same level of emotional drain that arguing with other conferences do.
That means I’m going to be turning a lot of conference organizers down, and after I do that a couple of times, I’ll probably not get invited anymore, which will make me sad.
But only a little.
All of you who’ve enjoyed my presentations over the years, I’m happy that you’ve enjoyed them, and that I was able to entertain and educate you. If there were a way to do that without having to fight with all of the above, I’d keep doing this indefinitely.
But there’s no sign that any of this is going to get any easier in the years to come.
I’m just so damn tired.