What I’m Watching: a bunch of DEF CON talks and villages
What I’m Reading: budget books (that time of year!)
I need to confess something. After nearly a decade in the legal, policy, and political world—including two runs for office, time as a litigator, and now as an elections administrator—I still feel out of my element at conferences. When it happens, I try to remind myself that you can only grow if you intentionally force yourself outside of your comfort zone, but let’s be real, that rationalization does nothing to ease your mind in the moment.
I’m spending this weekend at DEF CON 27. It’s my first time attending and, to be honest, I was extremely intimidated from the minute I booked the flight until about halfway through the first day. Attending DEF CON had been on my professional development bucket list for years, but it wasn’t until this year that I had gotten the nerve to go. Why? Well, not only is DEF CON a 20,000+ attendee-sized conference, but it’s a conference curated for the information security community, of which I am not a member.
And did I mention it’s spread throughout several huge Las Vegas hotels? And that there’s a whole segment of the conference dedicated to critiques of elections administration (my job)? But as I saw the speaker panel and event announcements over the last few weeks, I realized that letting my fear get in the way would cause me to miss out on an uniquely educational opportunity to build relationships and resources for my office and for my county. I had lots of reasons to be nervous, both personal and professional, but they pale in comparison with the knowledge I’ve gained after just a day of attending.
I know I’m not alone in feeling that that professional development nervousness so this morning I wanted to A. encourage you to do the thing; and, B. offer some tips for getting past it so you can actually learn from the opportunity (and hopefully enjoy it.) For one thing, it isn’t a phenomenon isolated to conferences. There are plenty of times that government employees are asked to lead a project, conduct a public input session, or stand in front of a TV camera for the first time. I’ve yet to meet any colleague that was immediately comfortable with doing any of these things, but the most successful ones accepted the invitation despite their fear. It’s easier said than done, but let me share a few points that I try to keep in mind.
1. Imposter syndrome is a very real thing, but don’t let it control your decisions. Let me be the one to tell you that you are competent, qualified, and up to the task.
2. Lean on a friend. Find a trusted colleague, friend, or family member that will encourage you and remind you that you can do it.
3. If you’re going to a conference, even a short one-day seminar, set a goal of meeting just one new person. Aside from the obvious professional benefits of making contacts, it’s way easier to navigate conferences with other people. Bonus: you also might help ease someone else’s nerves by reaching out.
4. Be open to learning something. Attending seminars gives you substantive knowledge, but speaking at them gives you feedback, too. Sure, not all of the feedback will be useful, but be open to listening.
5. Do some research in advance. If you’re going to a new conference, get familiar with the format, the logistics, and the layout. Read up on the speakers or plan out which talks you don’t want to miss. If you’re setting up a public input meeting, think about the likely comments you’ll hear and write up your talking points. Directing your nervous energy at preparation helps you feel better and ensures you’ll be ready for the event.
The next time you have the chance to take on a daunting task or attend an event for the first time, embrace it. The benefits are tangible. Being pressed on why you’ve done certain actions or how you implemented a process helps you to crystallize your decision making. It also helps you look critically at your work to see where you could improve upon it. You also might find yourself in spaces where you can commiserate with others on long-standing challenges or new ideas. Own the discomfort and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn.