How a year of conference talks broke me and put me on the right path

I spoke at a single conference in 2016, and another in 2017. I had an amazing time at both! My biggest goal for 2018 was to give more conference talks and maybe-kinda-hopefully take a step towards becoming one of those cool, famous, Conference Speaking People.

I spoke at seven conferences this past year. While this hardly approaches Rachel Andrew or Sarah Drasner levels, seven is a big step up from one for me. I got to travel to Europe twice, San Francisco, and Toronto. I met some wonderful people. I felt more inspired and excited to be a web developer.

If you’re someone with a tendency to get emotionally wrapped up in your work, this post is a warning

Also it demolished my year. Or to be more precise, it enabled me to demolish my own year. I felt worse, less healthy, less happy, and pretty fucking strung out. My relationships suffered. I drank too much. So what the hell happened?

This the hell happened

Conference speaking can be a phenomenal experience. It enables you to travel — usually for free — you meet marvelous folks and often leave feeling more inspired and passionate about your craft. It can also be Good For The Brand™️ and help give you exposure. As a shameless glory boy, I was particularly excited about this aspect.

Talks can also be a trap. Preparing conference talks is, for me, an enormous time sink, nerve-racking, and all-consuming. I hyperfocused on giving great talks to the exclusion of all else, including much more fundamental life things. Yeah, much of my problem here is because I pinned too many of my hopes to conference talks, but I’m betting this is more common than anybody wants to admit. I hope so anyways, that it’s not just me. If you’re someone with a tendency to get emotionally wrapped up in your work, this post is a warning.

Learn from my fuckups and have a happier year than I did.

The bad things I found out

Conference talks are stressful as heck.

If you’re the type of person who gives or wants to give conference talks, I’m willing to bet you want to do a good job on them. And, at least for me, not screwing up in front of a couple hundred people is a pretty strong motivator. I relentlessly pushed myself to make my talks as good as possible. I regarded time as an expendable resource as I poured my whole being into each talk. Having that relationship with your work is comically unhealthy, but it’s hard to see a way out of that hole once you’re in there.

And then there’s the travel! If you struggle with stress and anxiety, travel might not always be an amazing thing. I discovered that — at least for me — travel as an obligation is not always fun. The miracle of air travel is reduced to captivity in a metal tube with strangers who fart in your ear and recline into your laptop. C’est la vie.

It did not fix my impostor syndrome.

Yep, the ol’ self esteem is still in the shitter. I know you’re supposed to say you want to speak at conferences to engage with the community and share stuff that you’ve learned. To inspire people and give back. That’s all very true. But if I’m being 100% honest with myself — and I suppose you as well dear reader — those noble ambitions are not the only reasons I wanted to speak at conferences. I wanted folks to look up at me on that stage and think “wow, that guy has some food on his shirt, but he is also smart and knows his shit.” I wanted validation & recognition. And indeed I got it. Briefly.

I hoped that I’d gain a bit of confidence in my abilities, have a little more self esteem

That feeling of validation — the swagger from giving a great talk — fades pretty quickly. And you’re left in exactly the same spot as you were before. I suppose there really are no shortcuts to loving yourself for who you are. Bummer.

It did not line my pockets with gold.

I didn’t necessarily expect my employer to say “oh wow, you gave a great conference talk! Here’s another 30 grand plus some fancy sneaks fer yer feets!” but, I did kinda hope? I thought that maybe giving conference talks on a couple subjects would demonstrate comfortable expertise across the spectrum of front end development. That this would pay dividends at raises & promotions time.

I gladly paid this opportunity cost by telling myself that it was all worth it.

Welp, I was passed up for a move to the next engineering level, for some totally legitimate and some not-super-legitimate reasons I won’t get into. You know what didn’t factor in the slightest? Giving conference talks, engaging with the community, and positioning myself as an Authority on Things.

Maybe this is particular to my employer, and every other company would have engineering managers ready to leap out of their skin at the chance to give me a raise, but I seriously doubt it. My guess would be — unless *maybe* you’re a developer 🥑 (advocate) — giving talks won’t really factor into advancement at a job. Companies care how you can make them money. If giving conference talks doesn’t help them turn blood into dollars, your community work probably won’t be much of a factor.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that my next boss or colleague was in the audience or up on stage with me, but that’s a hell of a basket to toss your eggs into. Not something to count on, that’s for sure.

I wanted the wrong things.

Yeah, I know you’re way ahead of me here. “Expecting a couple conference talks to assure you that you’re not a shambling moron; and expecting money to rain from the skies upon your worthy head? You must be a lunatic.” I mean you’re not wrong, Mister Hypothetical Person, you’re not wrong.

I knew these things wouldn’t just magically happen overnight, but I was absolutely hoping the needle would at least move in that direction. I hoped that I’d gain a bit of confidence in my abilities, have a little more self esteem, and that my employer would factor my demonstrated knowledge into a well-deserved raise. None of these things happened in the least. What did happen was this: I blew an enormous hole in the rest of my life.

Sprawling neglect

I spent an enormous amount of time preparing talks. Probably something on the order of 80–120 hours per talk; I don’t know for sure since I can’t count that high. I gladly paid this opportunity cost by telling myself that it was all worth it. Grinding away on them was worth the time, effort and stress, since giving great talks would pay off in better self esteem and a better situation at work. Neither of these prospective benefits happened.

What did happen was that I neglected huge portions of my life. I get way too connected to my work because it’s a part of my life directly under my control. So if I can give amazing talks, then my life has value; has meaning. So I focused on my talks to the exclusion of other, much more important things.

I put on weight, I drank a LOT — not to the point of alcoholism, but your concern is appreciated — I forgot to pay bills, I canceled on friends, my relationship suffered, and I basically produced no art whatsoever.

I couldn’t figure out why I was so stressed out over conference things. I couldn’t figure out why they were making me feel so miserable. It’s not like I did twenty talks in a year after all, seven should be very manageable. And yeah, seven probably is very manageable for people who have less shambolic physical & mental health. But for me, it took just seven straws to break the camel’s back (I have no idea how camels work).

So, tell us what you learned, this post is getting long

In the end, I’m glad for the experience, bad as it was. And no, I don’t wish I had this year back to do-over. I think it made me a better person and a more level-headed professional.

Toiling on my talks to the exclusion of so many things in my life, hoping against hope that I’d get some sweet, succulent affirmation, then missing out on a promotion and raise was a real kick in the teeth. It hurt, but I think it was an invaluable lesson on intentionally focusing your attention on the right things.

In the end, seeing that I could pour my whole being into something and in the end, not accomplish what I truly wanted taught me to focus more active attention on “core” life things: health, friends, family.

On the right path, or at least a different one

So I turned down three conferences in early 2019. I bowed out of a React performance workshop i was co-developing with a developer I greatly respect. I pulled the plug on a WebGL tutorial series. I did this in order to remove as much outside pressure and distractions as possible, so I can spend 2019 singularly focused on myself and the people in my life.

I anticipated these decisions would leave me feeling guilty, like I’ve let myself down. Perplexingly, the opposite happened. I feel truly confident for the first time in years; like I’m finally making sacrifices for the *right* things.

I’ve completely stopped drinking. Yes, seriously; and if you know me in real life, my answer is no, I can’t believe it either. Since just before Thanksgiving, I haven’t had a sip of alcohol. This probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for me, it extremely is. I’ve started eating better since my micro-epiphany and I’ve lost 6 lbs with many more to go. I’m spending more time with friends, and heck, even my relationship has improved. I’m renovating my house and giving away a bunch of my things to create a more stable, clean, beautiful environment for myself.

It’s impossible to “hustle hard” if you’re not equally-or-more conscious of your mind & body. I was more-or-less abandoning self care to go full speed ahead on community work. I was throwing innocent passengers into the locomotive instead of stopping for more coal (I have no idea how trains work). It’s just so hard to know that you’re burning yourself out without the benefit of hindsight. It’s so hard to know what your limits are without crashing through them like a runaway train fueled by too many salarymen (??????).

So, conferences broke me. But in breaking me, they showed me where my focus should have been all along. Try to not push yourself too far, too fast. Focus on your mind, on your body, and on your relationships. I’m taking time off to do just that, and the community will still be there when I get back. Thanks for reading.