How do you know if you’re doing a good job? There’s always an external way to measure quality—being prepared, attending to the details, listening to the collective wisdom about what it means to do good work. Give a crap about the little things, and you’re good.
What about doing a great job? There’s no checklist, no guidelines that will get you there. Being great means being vulnerable; not giving a fuck about what other people think. It’s harder than it sounds.
There are lots of good conferences out there, run by dedicated people who strive to put on an engaging show for attendees and treat their speakers right.
And then there’s Webstock. Everyone tells you Webstock will be an amazing experience, unlike any other event. I spoke there this year, and despite having my expectations ratcheted up to astronomical peaks, the conference managed to exceed them.
It’s a compelling puzzle to reverse-engineer what makes Webstock so wonderful. I could list so many things—the stage, the space, the people, the flat whites. But what really stands out at Webstock is the organizers’ attention to detail. Tash Lampard, Mike Brown, Deb Sidelinger, and Ben Lampard could teach a master class in giving a crap about the small stuff. From the first email explaining what to do and where to go, through the last dregs of the closing conference party, it’s obvious that no issue was too insignificant to merit concern. Along the way, there were a million small touches—several custom flavors of ice cream, their very own conference beer (a reverse IPA they called API), even flowers waiting for me in my room when I finished teaching a workshop.
By setting such a high standard for themselves, the people who run Webstock bring out the best in everyone there. Every speaker clearly wanted to give the best talk he or she could. And it showed.
Want some of this magic in your own life? There’s no shortage of tips on the web that will tell you how to do a better job. Here’s how to run more effective meetings. Anticipate problems and plan for them. Rehearse. Sleep eight hours a night. Write 750 words before checking email. Test and iterate. Ask for feedback. Recycle. Write shorter emails. Tailor your message to other people’s communication style. Proofread. Call your mother. Wash your bowl out after you eat. Follow up with new contacts right away. Save your receipts. Smile at strangers. Meditate. Inbox zero.
Always, the solution is to try, try again, try harder. You can always hold yourself to a higher standard.
I hold myself to a high standard for public speaking. I respect the people who spend their time and money at a conference to hear me speak, and I’m grateful to the organizers who offer a forum to share my ideas. I typically spend between 80 and 100 hours writing a new talk and designing the accompanying slides. I work with a speaking coach who makes me rehearse each talk repeatedly and is unsparing with his feedback. I feel confident when I can stand up on stage, knowing I’m fully prepared.
In August 2012, I had to write a new talk for An Event Apart DC. AEA is another conference that inspires speakers to be their best, and under normal circumstances I would agonize over getting this talk exactly right. Only this year, I was dealing with the aftermath of a personal betrayal that left me bewildered, reeling. I’d barely eaten in weeks. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a full night’s sleep. I was treading water with my clients and behind on all my commitments. People were really starting to worry about me. I was a mess.
I had absolutely nothing left in me for this talk. I wrote the slides at the very last minute, on the train from New York to DC. I had planned to rehearse them that night in the hotel, but instead I had a devastating phone conversation which took my personal crisis nuclear. I don’t remember sleeping that night, alternating between tears and numbness. I have never in my life been less prepared to give a talk.
But, the show must go on. Twelve hours later, I was on stage. The only thing that got me up there was this thought: “Fuck it. I can do this.”
Reader, I killed it. By every measure available to me, both objective (audience surveys) and subjective (comments from friends), this talk was one of the better ones I’ve ever given. I don’t say this like it’s some kind of triumphant tale of come-from-behind victory, the Bad News Bears of public speaking. Stepping off the stage that day, I felt the opposite of victorious: I felt weak, alone, vulnerable. And that, paradoxically, is what the audience responded to.
In retrospect, I’m as proud of that performance as I am of anything I’ve ever done. I’m comfortable when I can tell myself I’m in control, when I can attend to all the small details and various checklists that add up to “doing a good job.” I had to be forced into a place where I simply did not give a fuck in order to find out what I was really capable of.
What elevates someone’s work from “technically excellent” to “truly great” is the extent to which you feel like you’re seeing them live their truth, be fully themselves. When I watch Mike Monteiro on stage, I don’t see someone who’s obsessing over every detail (even though I know he is.) What I respond to is the fact that he’s putting himself out there completely. When Brené Brown talks about being vulnerable, that’s what she means. And that—more than beautifully designed conference swag bags or hilariously-written e-mails—is what makes Webstock amazing. It’s an event where you can tell they’ve put their whole heart into it, and everything great you’re seeing is a reflection of how great they are as people—they’re pursuing not what someone told them it meant to be good, but living their deep, abiding personal commitment to being good.
Jason Scott, the historian and digital archivist, told me at Webstock that a fitting epitaph for his headstone would be: “He gave a crap. He didn’t give a fuck.” That sentiment might not be found on a motivational poster, but I found it inspirational. Care deeply about your personal values and live them fully in this world. Don’t get caught up in worrying about other people’s checklists to tell you what good work means to you.
Give a crap. Don’t give a fuck.