When I spoke in Chicago, I suggested a reflective exercise – before you do anything, make a list of what you think/expect/hope to get out of it. Afterwards, make another list of what you did get out of it. Did you get what you wanted? If your after list was your before list – if you’d have known that you’d get these things – would you still have done it? And what was your unexpected learning?

Unexpected learning can be one of professional involvement’s great gifts. Here are some of the things I didn’t expect to learn in Chicago.

Success is what you make it

During conference, I did a book signing (of the New Professional’s Toolkit). Three people came.

How did you read that sentence? What tone of voice did you hear me using? Resigned, depressed, self-deprecating? I mean, three people? That’s not very many, is it?

Let’s try again:

During conference, I did a book signing (of the New Professional’s Toolkit). THREE PEOPLE CAME!!!!! #zomg #awesome #iloveyouguys

That’s what I hear in my head when I say it. I mean, three people! Three people not only bought my book – TO READ – but cared enough to come and get it signed! One of them said she’d been looking forward to the book coming out since she’d heard me mention it in a talk at the 2011 SLA Conference.

After she’d gone, I may have had a little cry.

Would it have been ace to have queues of eager fans stretching right around the hall? Well, maybe (or not – the store only had 10 copies). But I really couldn’t have felt better about it than I do. The triumph was just doing a book signing. ‘Be an author’ has been one of my ambitions for as long as I can remember, and it finally, really came home to me there, sat behind that table, that I’d done it (with a lot of help from my friends). I was published, and I didn’t give a damn how many people came to get their book signed – I’d already achieved more than I’d ever thought possible just by being there. I could have happily sat there for hours.

So, umm, yeah. That.

I hate being on panels

There. I’ve said it. I hate being on panels. I hate not being able to prepare what I’m going to say (oh, you can in a general way, but you can’t script – it’s hard to script in a way that fits the more informal discursive nature of a panel, and a pre-prepared script can’t take into account the ebb and flow of the discussion – oh, and you can guarantee someone else will nick your best points). I hate feeling like the dead weight, surrounded by supremely talented and eloquent people. I hate having to try to be intelligent, profound, and quotable off-the-cuff. I hate microphones.

But I’ll keep doing them if asked (and reassure myself that I can’t be that bad, if people keep asking me). Why? Because they’re fabulous preparation for job interviews. If you can get through a panel without facially betraying how much you’re mentally berating yourself for being a blazing idiot who has no idea when to shut up, then you’re standing yourself in good stead for facing an interview panel. If you can face 50 people and manage to come up with something (vaguely) coherent when asked about problem-solving, you can definitely do it with 5.

Admittedly, I’m not sure where ‘not accidentally strangling fellow panel members with a microphone cord’ fits into the interview scenario, but I’m sure it’s a valuable life skill.

Back yourself up

You know how you’ll be talking to someone while trying to sneak a look at their name badge, only to find out the lanyard’s twisted, and you can just see the blank back? And then you lose all chance of pretending you remembered their name from 2 years ago, and either have to admit defeat and ask or keep the conversation as non-commital as possible?

Well, take some of that burden off your fellow networkees:

back of my SLA Chicago badge

Ok, full disclosure:  I didn’t actually think of this until the last day of the conference, but I’ll definitely be doing it at conferences from now on!

Immersion is key

Simon Barron‘s third blog post about SLA Chicago deals well with the feeling of total immersion you get from SLA conferences – exacerbated for the non-US contingent by literally being in a foreign country. I’ve felt like that at every previous conference, but not this time. As my hotel room was the same price whether one or two of us were sleeping in it, my husband came out with me, in preparation for a post-conference holiday.

And… it didn’t really work. I’d warned him that he wouldn’t see much of me while conference was on, and I’d mentally blocked out ‘conference’ and ‘holiday’ – but still, that one outside attachment kept me from being completely enfolded in the SLA bubble. I felt like a bit of an outsider – sure,  I’ll come along to the open house, but only till 9 because I want to dash off for dinner…

It meant I found it hard to be entirely ‘professional Bethan’ – ‘holidaying Beth’ kept trying to creep in, and remind me that there was a world outside SLA. This might seem to be a good thing (for balance and whatnot), but it actually just made it harder to feel involved and to really feel in the conference vibe. I was disconnected from the tribe.

I don’t think I’d realised how much I relied on conference to catch up with my SLA posse until this year. Not only did I have the clash of interests, I also missed some good friends and colleagues who couldn’t be there, and I think my conference experience was definitely the poorer for it. (Not that I didn’t have a fab time with the people who *were* there, but you know…) So that’s made me more determined to get along to some more SLA Europe events in person. I really believe that one of the rewards for involvement in a professional association is contact with the brilliant people you meet and work with, and that you owe it to yourself to make the most of that – so that obviously means I’ve earned more drinks with the SLA Europe folks, and deserve to put some effort into cashing (gin-ing?) that in.

So would I still have gone to Chicago if these (along with realising I need to think more about learning outcomes and learning how to edit down a presentation on the fly) had been my projected learning outcomes? For personal development, definitely! But my ‘want to learn new skills’ nerve is still twitching, and I wish I’d put a bit more effort into making sure I scratched that itch, too.