Do you like meeting people?
I’m going to be really, really honest here — I don’t. I hate it. (Keep reading.)
Earlier this year, I bought myself a pass to go to a conference in Los Angeles — the Online News Association’s annual gathering for digital journalists and badasses to come together to share industry knowledge — and talk to each other.
What the hell was I thinking? I can’t even drag myself to a professional event in Atlanta, let alone fly across the country to do it.
I’m an introvert. Before you dismiss that claim because you’ve heard my extreme laugh, hear me out.
I am easily overwhelmed by crowds and I generally err on the side of, uh, complete avoidance when it comes to socializing with people I don’t know.
In the days before the conference, I didn’t have much to say about it. “I’m mostly stressed,” was my answer when questioned. I spent most of the night before my flight thinking, “What have I done?”
How was I going to deal with this? How would I survive this mortal combat known as — “networking?” I gave serious thought to completely ditching it for the sake of “saving money” — and my scared and fragile psyche. But it was a trip to California, for God’s sake. I wear a compass around my neck with a map of Los Angeles pasted to the back of it most days. (It’s cuter than it sounds.)
There was only one option — a one way ticket to getting the hell out of my comfort zone. So I committed. I packed my favorite blazer, an enormous stack of business cards — and an attitude synonymous with “Long Black Road.” They used to tell me boy you ain’t goin’ nowhere…
On Wednesday, after a painfully early flight (of sideways sleeping and freaking out) — ONA hosted a Google event in Venice Beach. There was going to be a presentation, preceded by the scariest words in the English language — “light refreshments and mingling.” Oh. God.
Now, normally, the mention of a mixer would have sent me running for the hills. With my head on fire.
And I didn’t have to go to it. I was tired. So exceedingly tired. I could have just showed up for the presentation and crawled into my plush hotel bed. But I forced myself to go.
And at first, yeah, I felt really freaking awkward. As expected, I didn’t know a soul, and I just kind of wandered around the room like a lost little kid. Like maybe this cement wall will strike up a conversation with me? I prayed.
But I remembered a simple piece of advice I’d read earlier in the week while prepping for the conference — act like a host, make other people feel welcome, instead of focusing on how weird you feel. So I found someone who wasn’t talk to anyone, and we had things and people in common.
(Funny thing about media conferences, you’re bound to have something in common — you know, like, everything?)
Once that conversation ended, I picked up another, and another after that. And that’s really all it took. One conversation with one stranger to propel me to have more conversations with more strangers.
I learned a ton of stuff at ONA — including how to negotiate a salary, how to write more engaging content, how to effectively use Snapchat, what the HECK Yik Yak is…
But the biggest thing I learned was how to face a really tangible fear in my life, a fear that has interfered with my success and growth as a person and a professional — a fear that manifested into a lie about myself that I started believing: That nobody cares or wants to know me.
But they do — and they did, and I want to know more of you in return.
So thanks to all of the people who made me feel welcome, and thanks to the Online News Association for forcing people like myself to face of some of their silliest hangups. It was worth every penny and every anxious thought.
I read and finished Into the Wild during my flights on this trip for the first time. I both admired and pitied Chris McCandless for his bravery, his brashness — and his fear and distaste for intimacy. But we have to assume near the end of the book, as his health deteriorated beyond repair, he began to crave human relationships. Days before his death, he wrote in the margins of a copy of Doctor Zhivago — “HAPPINESS ON REAL WHEN SHARED.”