Four Great Reasons to Go to a Conference

I think when most people try to justify going to a conference to their bosses, they usually hit on two justifications: the content, and the networking.

Recently, I saw a quote from the first person ever to build a nuclear reactor:

Never underestimate the joy people derive from hearing something they already know.

—Enrico Fermi

That may not be the first thing you’d want to tell your boss while you’re trying to pitch the idea of going to Open World in Vegas, but this thing that Fermi said is important, I think.

I learned from audiences over twenty years ago that one of the reasons you go to a conference is to hear some of the same messages again and again. There are several reasons that it’s useful to see content that you’ve already seen before. Like these:

  • To double-check that the ideas you thought were true still are true.
  • To see the advancements and refinements of the ideas you’ve seen before.
  • To understand the ideas in more detail or at a deeper level.
  • To reinforce that you’re not the only one who’s thinking about these ideas.
  • To meet people who are interested in the same ideas as you are.
  • To hear an idea explained a different way, which may resonate more deeply with you than ways you’ve heard it explained before.
  • To understand ideas you’ve heard before in light of new experiences that may cause you to relate differently now to the same ideas.
  • To give feedback to the instructor and audience, which might improve the ideas.
  • To learn how to explain ideas better to people who may not yet believe what you know.

My computer programming background instilled in me the habit of noticing when things might be better categorized in more than one dimension. In a one dimensional world, the list of conference justifications has three items on it: “Three reasons to go to a conference: 1) Content, 2) Connections, 3) Fortify previously known content.”

But when you think two-dimensionally, you discover there’s a 2 × 2 matrix way of structuring conference justifications. There’s the {content, connections} dimension, and there’s the {old, new} dimension. I’ve “factored out” the {old, new} attributes of a justification, just like a mathematician would factor out the ‘4’ in an expression like “4x2 + 8x + 16″.

Thinking this 2-D way reveals a new fourth justification type that you might not have thought of, the “Old Connections” cell (emboldened below):

NewOld
ContentInformation you want to know, but don’t know yetInformation you’ve learned before, but you still benefit from learning it again
ConnectionsPeople you want to meet, but haven’t yetPeople you’ve met before, but you still benefit from spending more time with them
A 2D matrix that structures our list of three—oops, no, four!—ideas.

This new justification is insightful, because of course successful networking includes meeting with people you already know. So then why should it be any different with content? Maybe thinking about content and connections this two-dimensional way makes it a little easier to understand and explain why revisiting familiar content might be valuable.

The goal of this “turning a list into a matrix” thing is a list that’s clean and clear, whose items span a subject area without overlapping. We loosely call such a list orthogonal, like the term from linear algebra.

When your list is orthogonal, you’re more in command of the structure of the information you’re thinking about. You’re better assured that you’re not missing important elements or categories or connections. When your list is not orthogonal, it’s an invitation to work a little harder, because there’s probably more to learn.

Here in the office, whenever we discover a list to be non-orthogonal, Jeff Holt will label the situation “atoms and electrons.”

So, anyway, now you know: There are at least four great reasons to go to a conference. Are there others?


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