Just over a week ago, I had THE MOST AMAZING experience. I went to an unconference.

Now if I told you I went to a conference, you may or may not want to hear about it. But if I told you I went to an unconference, nine times out of ten I know what you’ll say: “what’s an UNconference?”.

I was very fortunate to attend the Women Who Get Sh*t Done Unconference at the beautiful Living Springs Camp in Canterbury. Out of respect for the “un”, rather than tell you what it is, I’m going to tell you what it ISN’T – in my experience at least. I’m a bit of a conference and workshop junkie, and I’m grateful to have been to some wonderful, enriching conferences – but this was a whole different kettle of fish. (All views and opinions recorded here are entirely my own. They may not apply equally to unconferences with a different focus – but this one left me with a strong sense of just how unique an unconference can be.)

Photo credit – Erica Austin (Peanut Productions Photography). The image at the top of this post was also taken by Erica.

 

An unconference is NOT filled with personal or political agendas, strategic wheeling and dealing, or subtle one upman(person)ship.

An unconference has no set agenda. The attendees meet early on, consider what they want to learn and talk about and what they feel called to share or facilitate, and co-create a schedule. I’m sure every unconference would be completely different, depending on who attends and what they bring to the situation. Sessions are run informally and people offer to facilitate (individually or in pairs). The only formality was the simple but very effective code of conduct which we all agreed to on registering.

What amazed me was that we had such a fantastic spectrum of topics to cover – to the extent that I could have happily trotted along to at least three sessions in every single time-slot. We had a range of formats – small group discussions on an array of topics (e.g., climate change, women in governance, embracing diversity), demonstrations (e.g., kombucha tasting), activities (e.g., yoga, belly dancing, singing), speed networking and lightning talks. People were free to move between sessions and if you needed time out, the camp was surrounded by spectacular tracks for bushwalking and running, or spots to sit, soak up the view, and listen to the dawn chorus.

There was no sense of any session being more important than another, any opinions being more relevant that others, or any activity being more worthwhile than the rest. There was no undermining of other people’s perspectives, or the undercurrent of tension which can be present at academic conferences. I left with the feeling of being totally inspired in so many different directions, and supported by a whole new group of women who I was so grateful to meet. Unlike some other conferences I’ve been to, I loved everything I went to. My mind was officially blown by the end of the first morning – so by the end of the event, I felt like I was a new person coming home.

Photo credit – Erica Austin (Peanut Productions Photography)

 

An unconference is NOT a cliquey bunch of people who already know each other, getting together for an exclusive catch-up.

As the bus ambled through Governors Bay – where I hadn’t been for more than 20 years – I have to admit I wondered if I’d made a mistake. People were excited, and I was too, but I also felt drained after a big, infuriating week. I wanted to keep on travelling – maybe this weekend was going to be hard work. (Would anyone notice if I skipped off to Akaroa for a weekend of self-indulgence instead?)

But as soon as we arrived and were greeted with much excitement by total strangers, I knew I was in the right place. The overwhelming friendliness from the beginning set the tone for the entire weekend. Everyone was approachable, relaxed, happy to chat at length over dinner or in the hallways. In fact it was difficult to get people to pipe down (although the organisers had a cunning strategy for that!).

It took until the very last session for me to realise that many people already knew each other in some capacity – which shouldn’t have been a surprise (many people came from Canterbury, and an event full of Dunedinites would be much the same). Whether people were very familiar or had only just met, this was the friendliest bunch of 120-ish (around 100 adults and 16 or 17 children) people that I’d ever encountered.

Photo credit – Erica Austin (Peanut Productions Photography)

 

An Unconference is NOT an event where you immerse yourself in one aspect of life, to the exclusion of all others.

Often professional or personal development opportunities have a very defined focus. In contrast, at the WWGSD unconference, we covered all kinds of territory. Partly because we were at a camp for the weekend, there was a level of closeness and engagement a bit like high school (no, scratch that, this was a WHOLE lot more fun than angst-filled school camps).

Because we covered such an array of discussion topics, I didn’t leave with the feeling that I’d immersed myself in one aspect of life while other areas were neglected. In fact I had the opportunity to think about my relationships, my various work hats, identity, finances, wellbeing, causes I feel strongly about, and how I can contribute to making my community and the world better places. And I came home feeling more refreshed and whole than I have in a very very long time.

 

An unconference does NOT demand that you participate in any set way.

What struck me after we left was that it felt like such an empowering and inspiring environment, unlike any I’ve experienced before. The shared responsibility of creating our own agenda meant that people who might not otherwise put themselves forward to talk or lead felt encouraged – but in no way forced – to actively participate.

A case in point would be me; although I’m happy to speak at events when invited to, I’m not typically one to put my hand up and volunteer to facilitate or lead. I’m kind of a little bit lazy in that sense! And yet in this case, I felt inspired to give a lightning talk. I put forward ideas for session events – which meant either leading those events or finding people to lead them with me – and I loved them all. It felt safe to talk, and it was equally valuable to listen.

If you felt like the most important thing to do with your time was to spend an hour talking with the person you just met at morning tea – you could do that. If what you most needed was to go for a stroll rather than speed network – no problem. If you typically sit back and listen in sessions – it was ok to challenge yourself and make a comment. Without clearly defined expectations, everyone created their own experience.

Photo credit – Heather Milne

 

An Unconference is NOT a walk in the park for those who are challenged in the decision-making department.

There was a pool at the camp, and I adore swimming – but I couldn’t justify missing anything at all so my togs never made it out of my bag. I spent a lot of time gazing at the boards covered in sticky notes which became our agenda, and agonizing on what to go to next. If I do this, I’ll miss that! I’m hosting this, but that means I can’t be at that! (Honestly, FOMO was my only problem with the whole weekend – although ultimately I’m sure we all had precisely the experiences we were meant to have.)

So I’m sending out a challenge. I met many smart, creative women who work in the tech sector. I’m hoping by the time the next unconference rolls around, one of you will have designed an alternative reality system whereby everyone can attend the exact same unconference multiple times, and visit all the sessions they didn’t get to first time around! (I promise to help with any crowd-funding campaigns for this. Just show me where to pay.)

Note that I am so engrossed in the session that I have failed to master the basic skill of putting on my jumper properly. Photo credit – Erica Austin (Peanut Productions Photography)

 

An Unconference does NOT necessarily leave you with the feeling that you have massive to-do lists, multiple shoulds, and various takeaway messages to action quick-smart.

Usually when I come home from an event, whether it’s been for personal or professional development, I have a whole lot of things I need to follow up on. Lots of notes, lists of things to implement, people to contact. Somehow I feel like improvement is needed.

At the unconference, in contrast, I took almost no notes. Nothing seemed deficient – I didn’t need to add more in, or do anything differently. But I FELT so different! I bumped into a friend at the airport and talking with her, I was like a new version of myself. Sharper yet more relaxed. Happier yet more fired up. Focused and frankly a little fanatical about what we’d just created. 

And I realised why….it’s because meeting so many wonderful people gave me confidence that our world actually IS in very competent hands. There are so many people doing amazing work in our country – and as a united force, I think we’re unstoppable! This doesn’t leave me feeling complacent – but quietly confident that there are so many people who care and act on what they care about. Their influence inspires me to keep moving forward too.

 

What now?

There’s something about the collective passion and inspiring action created by a WWGSD Unconference that is very, very powerful.

If this sounds like something you would love to be part of, then check out the WWGSD site – their next Unconference is at Waihi Beach in June 2017. And if you think it’s not for you, or out of reach financially…think again. The organizers have a policy on making events as accessible as possible. There are scholarships available, there is childcare onsite, and through a selection process the organizers aim for a balance of attendees from as many walks of life as possible. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.

PS. If you’d be interested in a WWGSD Unconference in Dunedin, please comment below to let me know! I’m feeling so inspired, I’d LOVE to show that Otago would be a fantastic venue for one in future. Who’s keen?

 

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