Over the past 48 hours I have had the peculiar experience of surprising myself, my wife, my colleagues and Saul Kropman. Why? Because contrary to my rather vocal expositions beforehand, and the dread (yes, dread) I felt driving toward Stanford Valley on Friday last week, the second Geek Retreat not only exceeded my expectations but it delivered blows to my mind by the dozen.
Anyone who heard my co-coverage of the first Geek Retreat on The Digital Edge will know that I left feeling underwhelmed. I found the discussions aimless and the goals vague; the participants seemed to be drawn from a tiny sub-set of the digital industry, itself already a tiny sub-set of the general business population. I questioned whether anything would actually come of the many lofty proposals, and my particular session (on my proposed Africa Binary wiki) was spent mired in naysaying and points of process.
With bridges burned, so I imagined, and a vow not to subject myself to (in the inestimable words of a close colleague) any further “wankery”, I felt disembodied applying to attend the next one, agreeing to some low-level assistance and then going through the motions of arranging my travel plans. I put it down to showing my face and perhaps bumping into some networking opportunities. For the rest I planned to drag myself through, and resort to cheap wine whenever even the dragging became too much to achieve.
Stanford Valley is a short drive out of Hermanus in the Western Cape. Nestled in the mountains (well, it is a valley after all) it is a small conference centre built in Cape Dutch style, with sharp white walls gleaming against a dark, craggy backdrop. I arrived late (I blame a crowd of wandering geeks for extending my quick lunch in Hermanus into something altogether more involved) and rushed in to find a familiar kind of ‘teambuilding’ setup: flipcharts, data projector, crappy chairs, battered tables. The complimentary pen and exam pad were, gracefully, omitted.
But then over the next day or so a peculiar thing happened. A kind of trust seemed to settle into everyone. The usual marketing bullshit dissipated. The need to self-aggrandise skulked off into the corner, and was replaced by a genuine desire to make meaningful connections. Competitors shared stories and frustrations. People spoke when they had something to say, not when they felt they needed to be noticed.
This quickly starts to sound very touchy-feely and fuzzy, as though informed by the imbibing of too much tequila. But anyone who knows me knows I’m not that person. I don’t bond when I’m drunk, and I hate groups. Which leads me to conclude that I responded to the one thing I never imagined I’d find at a Geek Retreat: sincerity.
Heather Ford, whose brain this retreat is the child of, said “The people who are here are meant to be here”. I dismissed this as a platitude, but I now wonder if that’s not just exactly correct. In this immersive, intense, demanding, intriguing and – at times – frivolous space, I feel like the best parts of us were called out. And to say this about people who, in some cases, I might have set my pet scorpion on a day or two before means something big must have happened.
The content and proceedings will, no doubt, be covered in some depth elsewhere. Suffice to say I met at least 20 people from whom I learnt at least one important thing. I saw a possibility for collaboration in a way I had never before imagined. And I was stunned by how smart some people are in at least 3 cases.
The retreat made me question not only some parts of my business strategy and my career path, but also my attitudes at a fundamental level. I have not undergone a religious conversion (as some have joked) but instead I have experimented with using friendship as a way to interact with my competitors rather than defensiveness and egotism. It’s an utterly bizarre turn of events that has left me reeling, and who knows, I may come to regret it or change my mind. But I wonder this one thing most of all: if I treat those I have previously snarled at as friends first, and competition second, what will that do? If I let go of the notion that them getting is me losing, will something even better emerge?
At the risk of getting overdoing this I will leave it there. I have no idea if this kind of thing can be recreated at another Geek Retreat. Whether anything tangible emerges, whether we change anything is unpredictable and anyway irrelevant. Some experiences are enough in themselves.
I want to say a particular thanks to Marlon Parker for being a true example of a selfless humanitarian who makes just about everyone else I know seem ineffectual. In a world of reasons not to, he has challenged the inevitability of poverty and addiction and won, at least some of the time.
Oh and Willem van Straaten you are fucken crazy. Seriously.
For a full rundown of the retreat and interviews with some of the attendees, be sure and catch The Digital Edge episode 53 on Monday January 25.
Photo by Paul Furber.