Back in early 1994, I was very new to the corporate environment. I worked with a woman who requested to go to a conference in her industry. I didn't even know such a thing was possible! I thought, if she can go to a conference — why can't I? I somehow found and got approval to attend the HOW Design Conference in May of 1994.
I had no idea what to expect. I was only 3 years out of school, having received my BFA in graphic design/illustration in 1991. I met David Carson, Kit Hinrichs, McRay Magleby, Charles Anderson, and the like. I had no idea who they were! My education focused on art history, not design history, so I didn't recognize their names or their faces.
Another name I had never heard of was Gordon MacKenzie, the closing keynote speaker. Back then, we sat at round tables and were actually served lunch at the closing keynote! This was before Gordon wrote Orbiting the Giant Hairball (which I strongly recommend you read, if you haven't already), and his session was called "Achieving and Maintaining Creativity Within a Bureaucracy." ("Orbiting the Giant Hairball" is a better title, don't you think?) There weren't any slides in this talk. Behind him on stage were instead sixteen numbered posters with curious little drawings on them. He told us he had tried unsuccessfully to put them into some kind of sequential order, and asked us to just call out the numbers of the drawings that interested us, so he could tell us that story. When he was finished with each story, he'd say, "Next number." These stories became part his Orbiting book as chapters.
Several stories in and I fell in love… with the format, with the stories, with the unique, vulnerable, amazing human being up on stage. I decided I'd call out a number… "Thirteen!" Card number thirteen had the word "courage" on it. (Being a Leo, that word came up often for me; I have always been drawn to the word.)
Unlike the other stories, this time he said, "Who said number thirteen?" My face reddened, and slowly, I raised my hand. He pulled an envelope off the back of card number thirteen, came down from the stage, and made his way through the hundreds (thousands?) of designers, toward me. My heart raced, my mouth dried up, all eyes were on either me or Gordon. When he finally reached me, he opened the envelope, pulled out a $50 bill and handed it to me.
"Never be afraid to single yourself out again."
My eyes bulged, my jaw dropped. I didn't know what to think, or what to say.
After the stories were finished, I stormed the podium. I can't remember what exactly Gordon and I said to each other, but we ended up crying and laughing and hugging — we bonded. This changed my life. (I'd like to tell you that it happened overnight; it didn't.) I still have that $50 bill.
Fast-forward to this year's HOW Design Live — also in Boston, also in May. Tuesday afternoon's Spark was session with Marta Stiglin was called "Shameless Self-Promotion." She had us pair up and practice our pitches with each other. When we "bought" what our partner was pitching, we were instructed to stand up. I've been working with my business coach on perfecting mine, so I felt I was pretty ready; my pitch partner stood up right away. Then Marta asked for a volunteer to pitch to the entire audience.
I think I channeled Gordon for a few seconds there, because my hand shot up and "Meee!" came out of my mouth (at least I think that's what I shouted). I think I was as stunned as the people around me. Marta chose me and I sprinted toward the stage. I'd never pitched to an audience of 3,000 people before! Surprisingly, I wasn't nervous, but I was seriously out of breath (I don't run — ever)! Marta told the audience to hold up their phone flashlights when they "bought" what I was pitching. There was a moment of slight panic after my first pitch — there were no lights! No one "bought" it. And again, as if channeling Gordon, I started over. I said the same thing, but in plainer language. From my heart instead of my head. Suddenly there were hundreds of lights shining my way. I was SO inspired!
Sure, HOW is a place for creatives to connect. It's a place where mind-boggling coincidences and beautiful serendipity happens every year. It's also a safe place, where you can find your family, where you can single yourself out and not fear ridicule. Like how we feel about family, it's a place where we feel the most belonging, that also exists in our hearts long after the conference ends.
After that first conference in 1994, I came back on fire, knowing that I was now part of a larger supportive community, ready to design the world! I feel the same way after every HOW conference, including this year. So don't be afraid to single yourself out — especially not at HOW. You never know what might happen!
Thanks for reading. Good juju to you!