Sasha Laundy

Unexpected Lessons From ORDCamp: Unstructure Is the Best Structure

I had the pleasure of spending the weekend attending ORDCamp in Chicago. It’s an unconference bringing together a wide range of artists, founders, engineers, educators, writers, and even a couple of beekeepers. I learned so many things I expected to learn (cool new ideas, tools, and stories) but the overall Gestalt experience brought several unexpected realizations.

The whole crowd at the closing session.

This is my fifth or sixth unconference. This format bring together people around some common philosophy or topic. Unlike a conference, there is no content set ahead of time. No confirmed talks, no pre-arranged speakers. The attendees construct the schedule together on the first night. This works way better than you’d think.

Session leaders are not necessarily even experts in their topic. It’s perfectly acceptable to just start a session around a question you have been pondering, creating a space for an interesting discussion. I ran a session called “Training Animals (and Humans) for Fun and Profit.” I’m not an animal trainer and I’ve never had a pet. A dog training book [1] changed the way I think about parenting, strengthening relationships, software user interfaces, and how to change my own habits. I wanted to share what I’d learned.

Sessions don’t have to even be about ideas. One of the more popular sessions was watching someone play the video game Spelunky. Others were more hands on. I’m particularly sad I missed Flaming Nunchucks, which was exactly what it sounds like.

One reason this format works so well is that it creates just enough structure. Organizers make sure social norms and expectations are clear, give advice on how best to navigate the experience, and then put the content squarely in the hands of the attendees. This works so well precisely because there is a void to fill. If you don’t step up and offer something interesting to the community it’s going to be a pretty boring day. It puts people in a contributor mindset, which changes everything.

At normal conferences, you can really phone it in. Sit in the back, half-listen to the sage on the stage, flip through Twitter, hang out with people you already know. But at well-run unconferences, opportunities to engage feel precious and fleeting. You want to attend every session and meet everyone.

At the intro session, organizers Fitz and Zach encouraged us to settle in, “carefully place your stuff precisely anywhere” and lay off the tweeting and posting to indulge in a weekend for ourselves. I left my laptop and phone in my bag the whole weekend. I knew it would help my focus, but I didn’t expect it to so radically improve my energy level. Instead of sliding into Twitter or email when I had a down moment, I had time to be thoughtful: to say hello, ask a question, get some water, or play Chopsticks on a musical Tesla coil. Twitter and email feel stimulating but are actually shallow and exhausting: aspartame for the mind.

When we felt the urge to check our phones, organizers and ORDCamp veterans enouraged us to see that as a sign to get up and leave the session we were in and explore others. Making it socially acceptable to say ‘no’ politely and find something that’s a better fit for you isn’t disrespectful. Quite the opposite: you get a better session, and the other folks in the room get engaged, excited partners. [2]

The other piece of unexpected advice came from ORDCamp veteran Bill. “Choose the session you’re least interested in.” I couldn’t resist the interesting sessions for the first few rounds, for the 5pm slot I chose The Art and Science of Smoking Pigs. I’m never going to have the space to do it myself, and how much could there possible be to say about pig roasting?

Moshe blew me away. He’s spent years refining his barbeque technique, and showed us the science, art, and culture that went into the best barbeque I’ve ever had. Not only that, but he fed us rib tips and barbeque sauce-covered Cap’n Crunch. And he brought a blow torch and charred up a few different wood samples so we could get a sense for the different smoke flavors.

Luck surface area [3] is an immensely useful concept. Bill’s advice was essentially to increase my serendipity surface area, exposing myself to ideas that perhaps weren’t interesting because I just hadn’t seen them in the right light before. [4] I’ll certainly never see barbeque the same way again.

Unconferences in general are all about increasing serendipity surface area. They are just enough structure to create an amazing skeleton, and then get out of the way and allow the incredible brains in the room to fill the space deliberately left empty. It’s a structure that gets out of the way.

Hacker School is such a radically efficient educational experience for exactly the same reason. In some sense, it’s a 12-week-long unconference with ad-hoc one-to-two person sessions. It’s a school that gets out of the way of your learning. This is also why I chose an unstructured hack night as the first format for Women Who Code. The group simply a social platform to bring together phenomenal people and then get out of their way so they can build the code and relationships that they need.

The most surprising thing I’m taking with me is perspective on my daily life. NYC hardens you around the edges quickly. There’s so much noise and hubbub to filter out, and so many people demanding your time, attention, and money. With world-class everything, it’s easy to slip into casual jadedness. Seeing people share their excitement and passion for beekeeping and parenting and schools and tattoos and nunchucks and games and sousaphones, I couldn’t remember the last time I was that viscerally excited about something. I want to put that feeling in a jar and keep it with me in the big city.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, get yourself to an unconference. Or make your own.

[1] Recommended to me by habit formation expert BJ Fogg, whose work has also been immensely useful.

[2] This is also great relationship advice.

[3] Luck surface area means increasing the opportunities you have to be lucky, either by increasing your exposure to opportunity or by preparation to take advantage of it when it comes around.

[4] Someone’s offhand comment on Friday gave me a great new metaphor: ant trails. Ants wander around exploring somewhat randomly. As they go, they lay down trails of pheremones. When other ants come across these trails, they follow them. In short order, the entire workforce are no longer exploring, just trucking food back and forth on established trails. It’s the best way to efficiently keep their colony fed…at the expense of exploration. It’s very easy to go to sessions in your wheelhouse. Bill’s advice got me out of my ant trails.