Dan Monheit on SXSW 2022 day one: on gathering

Let us rise up and talk about the excitement, the energy and the weirdness that comes from being at a physical event with thousands of other people, writes Dan Monheit, founder of Hardhat, from SXSW 2022.

I didn’t intend to go all meta on my first SXSW piece in three years, but sometimes that’s just how things land.

Yes, the content was good.
No, the lines weren’t bad.
Of course, there was too much talk about crypto and NFTs.

With that out of the way, let us rise up and talk about the excitement, the energy and the weirdness that comes from being at a physical event with thousands of other people, after being all but locked in my bedroom for the better part of two years.

“When gathering was taken from us, we started to see it,” began Priya Parker, a facilitator, author and the opening keynote speaker for SXSW22. Priya reminded us of those first few months of covid, when all we did was talk about gathering; When we could do it. When we couldn’t. How many people constituted a gathering? What if we did it outdoors?

Then, rather quickly, we grew complacent. Or perhaps, we were beaten into submission. We told ourselves that zoom was fine. That we didn’t like going outside that much anyway. And we believed it. I believed it. At least I thought I did.

Day one of SXSW22 was a wonderful reminder of how energising and inspiring IRL gatherings can actually be. Despite my own lack of travel fitness (the ol’ MEL – SYD – LAX – AUS really kicked my butt this year), the very average coffee and the numbers being way down on previous years, there was an undeniable electricity in the air that I’d all but forgotten.

It was immersive. I was focused. The hours flew by.

“In the last two years,” Priya continued, “we haven’t had hallways or bathrooms or coffee lines to talk about all the small things, like how our root canal went.”

She was right. Since March 2020, there’s been no shortage of ‘getting the work done’. It’s the small things that have been missing. Today I heard foreign languages spoken all around me. I bonded with a stranger over the lack of power points. I saw people of all different colours, shapes and proportions in three glorious dimensions. And I loved every second of it.

I didn’t’ realise it at the time, but gathering became the unofficial theme for the day.

Straight after Priya was the hotly-anticipated Professor Scott Galloway. ‘Prof G’ came out swinging with his signature cynicism, tearing through his big themes for the year including the idiocy of space tourism, the race for super-apps and the inevitable death of The Zuckerverse.

After 50 minutes and almost 100 slides jammed with market share graphs, company valuation charts and complex ecosystem diagrams, the professor arrived at his ‘biggest unlock of covid19’. Yes, entire industries have been turned on their heads, We have cryptocurrencies and NFTs and electric vehicles and remote healthcare. But the biggest, most profound opportunity to come from covid?

According to Galloway, it’s the realisation (or perhaps the reminder) that our happiness is inextricably linked with the number of deep and meaningful conversations we have in our lives. Deep and meaningful conversations require deep and meaningful relationships. Our biggest focus should be on cementing and repairing our key relationships, be they with parents, siblings or friends. And there’s no better way to do that, than by gathering – in person – when we can.

The third ‘big name’ session I went to today was with Brent Anderson, global chief creative officer for TBWA Media Arts Lab (the division of TBWA created exclusively to service Apple). Anderson’s session, five killers of creativity, highlighted the creativity crises we find ourselves in (all the top movies are remakes or sequels, musical chord structures are becoming more and more similar etc), and the need to regain control of ‘humanity’s greatest superpower’.

Of the five, two (that’s a full 40%!) are almost entirely attributable to a lack of physical gathering.

One was consensus thinking, the idea that we’ve been complacent in terms of what we’re exposed to, letting algorithms select our news, our music, our movies and even our romantic partners. We see more of what we like and less of what we don’t, pulling left field thinking back towards the middle and limiting the ingredients at our disposal to remix.

When we gather, we have no choice but to hear things we don’t like. To see things that are unfamiliar. To be exposed to ideas and view points and perspectives that aren’t already our own. Exposure to ‘new’ is a natural byproduct of gathering. It expands our world and with it, our thinking and our creativity.

The second killer was fear. Anderson acknowledged that most agencies have no shortage of great ideas, especially in pitch decks and presentations. What agencies do lack is a culture that can make these ideas happen. More often than not, the killer is fear.

Fear is structural. When the stakes are high and the risk is great, what does the DNA of the agency dictate we do? Swing big or play it safe? Take a chance or wait for the next one?

Trust is the only known cure for fear. And trust, as we know, is built far quicker in person.

The more complex a conversation, the more we gain from having it in the same physical space. Conversations about creativity are inherently complex. There’s nuance. There’s body language. There are dozens, sometimes hundreds of micro-decisions that culminate in a single macro one. These micro-decisions are made with the raise of an eyebrow, a sideways glance, an uncomfortable smile, all of which are near impossible to detect amongst a screen of small, muted faces.

Micro decisions build trust. Macro decisions build trust. Trust is the bedrock of creativity.

With that, I’m off to do some physical gathering of my own. Despite yesterday being a glorious 23 degrees, Austin has decided to turn things down to a chilly four this evening, which means it’ll be gathering of the indoor beer drinking variety for me.

Dan Monheit

Dan Monheit, founder of Hardhat


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