I am at heart a very shy person. My shyness is selective though: while some people are terrified at the thought of speaking in public, I revel at the opportunity, and am comfortable in front of any sized audience. It’s being in the audience that terrifies me.
I don’t mean the “sitting on the hard chair, listening to the speakers” part of being in the audience. I mean the “hanging out in the coffee room after the speakers” part. I’m just no darned good at “working a room,” and I get so flummoxed by the prospect that I often fade into the silent background.
Partly this is because I’ve not got a good backstory. I can’t say “I manage the user interface design for Microsoft Word” or “I invented spray-on underwear lubricant.”
I am an easily distracted generalist, good enough at a wide range of things, expert at none; I’ve never been able to focus for long enough, or to tolerate the overlords implicit in a “position” to acquire a good title.
So my self-description is left to something like “well, I make websites and I’m a programmer and I’ve got these clients, and I blog and podcast, and sometimes I go on the radio, and I used to be a typesetter.” Not compelling stuff, I imagine.
Catherine has the same problem: she’s a weaver, a jeweler, a metal-smith, a spinner, a painter. Sometimes she says she’s an “artist,” sometimes a “craftsperson,” and sometimes she just says “I make things.” But she’s not shy.
Another cause: I don’t have an innate “small talk” ability. I love small talk — I could talk about the weather and the Blue Jays forever given the right conditions — but I’ve had to learn it from scratch, so it’s more an awkward second language than a fluent dialect.
And of course I’m just plain afraid. Terrified of the unknown, suddenly left frozen at the thought of freeform social contact.
Given that the interesting part of conferences happens during the “hanging out in the coffee room after the speakers” part, this fear / awkwardness / terror leaves me at something of a disadvantage.
Halfway through reboot, I decided that, fuck it, I had to just jump off. Pretend I wasn’t terrified, and see what played out.
I went down to the “sign up for dinner out with the people you’ve met” list by the door, choose a group at random, and put down my name (previous plan: cower back to my hotel). Then I figured out a way to get a ride to dinner, and even hung out with some rebootkins before dinner by pulling up a chair and chiming in. I even sat down for a brief chat with Scoble.
Much to my complete surprise, it worked.
And I didn’t explode or die or (I think) make a fool of myself. It was fun. I learned a lot (and had a great meal).
I think I will stop being shy now; it’s obviously worn out its usefulness.