Over the past week, I was the lead organizer for WordCamp Minneapolis, where I gave three original workshop talks as part of our first ever Foundation Friday, and was in charge of overseeing the logistics of the speaker dinner, afterparty, a social brunch, and two days of multiple tracks sessions for over 400 attendees. Immediately following this, we had a couple dozen people over where we served them homemade tacos, and then I went right into PrestigeConf where I spent two more days learning and gave another original talk as part of the event.
One question I heard over and over again, especially from friends who know me very well from several events, is “How do you do it?” How do you run an event, write talks, get your work done, manage to stay cheerful and organized, and still find time to sleep and work out? How do you travel so much, stay involved in the community, not pass out from being overwhelmed?
I laugh a little too forcefully when they ask, and joke about my carefully crafted facade of success. The question especially surprises me coming from other friends and community members to whom I feel I could ask the same thing. How do you do it? How do we all do it? Hell, you do more than I do, what’s your story? The busy lives we live seem so absurd and unsustainable from the outside, and the people who continue to keep doing more appear superhuman. When I was younger I always assumed that was actually the case – that these people were just different than I, better, more dedicated, more efficient, and I could never measure up – until people regularly started asking me the same thing, and suddenly I was the superhuman.
Really, we all have so many things driving us, yet all anyone ever sees is the end result. So, I peel back the filters and lens flares of the highlight reel and go behind the scenes to what really makes this happen. This is my story of how I do it all.
Years ago, I made a decision (as a business and an individual) that my involvement in the community was a priority, and shaped my time accordingly. That has taken on many forms over the years as I’ve found ways to use my strengths (presentation and event logistics) to give back. I sought active roles in WordPress meetups and WordCamp organization back in Chicago, and here in Minneapolis stepped into that role as well when I was asked. Beyond WordPress, I’ve chosen to commit to other local organizations by taking positions in the AIGA Solopreneurs committee and the GDI Minneapolis advisory board. I’ve taken time to speak at events around the country, cultivate a network, and help people out. I’ve chosen to be smart and be helpful, even when it means losing out on other opportunities. It’s a choice.
A person doesn’t give up hundreds of hours of their (otherwise billable) time for something unless they have a passion for it. I invest time, blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of actual dollars into these activities because they ignite a fire inside me. Because I believe in the things they stand for: sharing, learning, teaching, growing, connecting, community building. Beyond the technology or discipline that brought us together in the first place, my enthusiasm and excitement for the larger forces at play here is intense. I will talk to you all day and all night about the amazing things that are happening, because I am fiercely committed to it. Because I am passionate.
Some of the most genuine laughter I’ve experienced has been in the company of my fellow design and tech nerds. I’ve experienced a number of moments where I am filled with such a deep happiness that I can’t help but say, “Wow. Yes. This is where I am supposed to be and I can’t believe I get to do this for a living and for fun.” Good natured ribbing between friends, a great Gif shared on Slack, a multi-emoji response to a joke, a riveting story shared over a drink or meal. It is this joy that I fall back on to carry me through a rough day in my life or career, the joy of belonging and of doing something helpful, and the ability to spread this joy to others.
The love of old and new friendships being born and nurtured. The love of people reaching out across the ether of the internet to offer kind words, help, or even financial assistance to those who need it. The love of those who think of others just because, even if they’ve rarely met in person. The love of a family member protecting, defending, and even being critical of their own because they want them to be the best they can be. The love felt for a city where you finally feel like you belong, and you want to share that feeling with the world. My heart is filled with so many different kinds of love, both towards and born from this community.
The perfect flow to a carefully crafted presentation. A highly-attended, organized class or event. A team that comes together like a well-oiled machine at that one crucial time to make everything go smoothly. A compliment about a job well done. Standing there taking it in, these moments make me swell with pride in the things I have created or facilitated. Pride that is amplified by the knowledge that I am part of a larger, supportive community, working with people I am honored to call colleagues, partners, and friends.
The desire to solve problems, to apply a perfectionist’s eye to what I’m doing. Weekends at a computer screen writing outlines, building slides, so many slides that all have to be flawless. Extra hours spent trying to get the details of an event just right, working within the constraints of time and budgets. Lists, charts, and matrices evaluating pros and cons of event spaces. Balancing needs of transportation, accessibility, availability, budget, and proximity. Reaching out to new speakers directly, asking them for recommendations I may not have heard of, straining for a larger network, more diversity, more new voices. Appealing to so many conflicting levels of expertise in content. Finding a happy medium. Anticipating problems and trying to find a solution. Just one more hour, just one more detailed email, just one more set of ideas, I can make this work. I will make this work.
Constraints. Compromise. Having to make decisions that I know will result in less-than-ideal scenarios. Knowing something isn’t going to be perfect and anticipating all the complaints to come. Rules over my head that I strain against, but need to live by. The same ten questions over and over again, even though they were answered elsewhere. Watching my options be limited. Watching my own time be limited, and having to say no to things I don’t want to say no to, because I just can’t do any more. Seeing obligations pile up and know that I physically can’t fulfill them all. Anger with myself for my limitations, and for others for straining my sanity. Railing against “the man,” whomever that happens to be at the time. Railing against myself for a lack of ideas when I need them most. Half-unfulfilled checklists, half-empty talk outlines, preparations procrastinated until the last minute, other people disappearing, and a lack of trust in others and myself.
Watching all of the extracurricular responsibilities pile up and worrying I can’t handle it all. On top of the worry I already have about client work, and life, and relationships, I worry about events, and talks, and classes. Playing all the doomsday scenarios out in my head to try to find solutions to each one. Lying awake at night thinking of talk outlines, of event emails, of logistics and registration and ticket sales and budgets. Agonizing over travel costs and taxes and meeting my deadlines. Guilt about not making a meetup, guilt about not being more directly involved, guilt about my own limitations as a person. Guilt about blowing off events, friends, or family because I have to get my head down and work, or recover from having done so. Worrying about whether my choices are the right ones.
Fear of failure. Fear of being discovered as a fraud, as someone who shouldn’t be in the position that they’re in. Fear of people finding out that underneath the personable, poised facade is an awkward, self-loathing dork who doesn’t know how to adult. Fear of dropping the ball, of missing something important, of screwing something up that people were counting on you for. Fear of disappointing clients by letting your activities interfere with work. Fear of harsh criticism, of doing something wrong. Fear as a person in a position of responsibility that something bad will happen at your event that you’ll handle poorly. Fear that you could do something that could ruin someone else’s life. And in the back of my mind, the fear as a woman, that weird fear that’s hard to describe, that any given situation could suddenly turn sexual, negative, ugly, or even dangerous, regardless of how otherwise privileged you are.
Days and nights worrying about tiny details. Putting in full days of work for clients, only to have to spend my evenings and weekends writing another presentation, responding to more event emails, agonizing over new logistics, checking items off another set of lists. Still having to get up the next day and do it again. Borrowing against future energy to push myself through yet another wall, constantly worried about burnout looming on the horizon. Days and days of suppressing introverted tendencies to continue being “on” while wanting to curl up and take a nap. Attempting to summon the energy from my school days of late nights and early mornings, only to find that energy is no longer there. Weary, worn out, exhausted, wondering why I did any of this in the first place.
Losing personal time and missing friends and family because of commitments, and the stinging passive-aggressive comments that sometimes follow from not being there. Finally being ready for critique and evaluation after a long event, but instead getting merely criticism. Biting criticism with a much more personal tone than I expect. Criticism directed at me, directed at my team, directed at my peers, directed at something or someone I believe in. Disappointment in myself for not doing better. Agonizing over what I could have changed or should have said. Questioning my decisions, my expertise, what right I even have to be doing what I’m doing. A desire to lash out defensively to protect my team and my decisions, a desire to withdraw into myself and not put myself out there again. Taking it all too personally. Sobbing into a pillow or brooding over a drink. Spiraling.
Not understanding why people have to shit on the things that you, that your team, that your community work so hard on, for free, because you care. Wanting to berate people for their small-minded analysis, to tell them to join in and help fix the damn problems or shut their ignorant, condescending mouths. Put up or shut up, assholes. You don’t know what we had to do, you don’t know the decisions I had to make, you don’t know how much I have agonized over these very things late at night, and we all did the damn best we could, and how dare you. How. Dare. You. Seeing red, seething, preventing yourself from tweeting things you’ll definitely regret, trying to calm yourself down. Feeling a bit like a protective mother bear and also an animal caught in a trap.
Being done. Being just so, so done. Anger. Cynicism. Bitterness. Jaded, losing passion, giving up. Because it’s hard not to take things personally, even if you objectively know you shouldn’t, because you’ve invested so much of yourself into it. Looking back on months of exhaustion, anxiety, fear, sadness, stress, and your heart continues to beat angrily in your chest and you don’t want to do it anymore. Stepping down, stepping back, with tinges of regret and sadness casting a shadow over the pride and joy you once felt. Feeling like a statistic, feeling a little selfish, but trying to reclaim your own sanity again. Ready to go back to pursuing those things that brought you happiness, instead of all this mess.
Sometimes it’s just a simple “Thank You.” Or it’s seeing that spark or “a-ha!” moment on someone’s face when I’m explaining something. The people who come up to me after a talk to tell me something I said really made sense, or transformed how they thought. The overheard comments about how much fun someone is having, how much they love an event, how excited they are to discover this cool little city they’d never been to before. A person who pulls me aside to tell me I get it, my effort is appreciated, I made a difference to them. People who are at their first camp, their first event, and whose faces light up because they are suddenly introduced to a world of people just like them, and finally feel like they, too, belong. Most importantly, it’s the hope for years later, when that person is successful and happy, and I know that I was able to be a part of that somehow, like the people who once did that for me.
This is how I do what I do.