Lessons from SXSW 2019

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the SXSW Conference & Festivals in Austin, TX. Though it would be difficult to plan an unsuccessful event in Austin, which might be the most fun city I’ve experienced, SXSW exceeded my expectations. I learned a lot, met creative people I’ve admired for years, and gained admiration for creative people I hadn’t heard of before.

So, in honor of ten days of SXSW, here are ten lessons from SXSW 2019:

Lesson 1: Listen to everyone.
Lesson 2: Get off screens and blink.
Lesson 3: “Disruptor” is not an occupation.
Lesson 4: Default to creative work and schedule promotional work.
Lesson 5: The people you admire are just people.
Lesson 6: Resist innovating for innovation’s sake.
Lesson 7: Showmanship isn’t necessary.
Lesson 8: When you’re not at your best, be a pro.
Lesson 9: Don’t hunch over your digital devices.
Lesson 10: People will ask you what you do, so have an answer.

I learned this one from Shakey Graves when he chose to throw a life lesson at the audience to try and improve lives and also to kill time as he re-tuned his guitar between songs.

To paraphrase: Just because someone has beauty, popularity, a suit, a cool job, a microphone, or millions of dollars, doesn’t mean they know any better than you, your partner, your friends, or your family members do.

So listen to everyone, especially yourself and those closest to you.

Thanks, Shakey.

One of the most unique products showcased at SXSW was a device that helps relieve dry eye syndrome, a condition that has become more prevalent as we’ve increased the amount of time we spend looking at screens. It seems that when human beings engage with a screen, we blink considerably less than what our eyes need in order to properly lubricate themselves.

While I see this device as a noble product that can help us cope with a modern-day health issue, I also see a simpler alternative: Get off screens.

We’ve survived so much as a species — war, genocide, plagues, earthquakes, tsunamis, and awful television. Are we actually going to depend on technological devices to mitigate the adverse effects of not blinking?

We’re better than this. Let’s get off screens and blink.

A top contender for Buzzword of the Decade has got to be “disruptor.” I hear “disruptor” used so often in so many different contexts that at this point I don’t know what the word means yet find it hilarious.

It seems I’m not alone.

As part of SXSW, I attended a comedy showcase at Esther’s Follies, where stand-up comedian Jena Friedman delivered my favorite joke of the evening. I won’t share the joke since I didn’t write it; suffice to say that it had to do with “disruptive disruptors” and that even the “disruptors” in the room laughed.

What I will share is the truth in Jena’s joke: “Disruptor” is not an occupation.

Comedian is an occupation, as are professor, operations manager, video editor, speaker, cook, hockey player, and many others. Some of these occupations might end up “disrupting” something, depending on how we choose to define and measure “disruption,” but that doesn’t make “disruptor” an occupation.

I learned this one from Ryan Holiday after asking him how he advised reconciling doing focused, creative work and promoting it. His recommendation is simple and effective: Default to creative work and schedule your promotional work.

Whenever you find yourself with some time to work on your creative projects, forget about promotion, and instead focus on doing the actual creative work. Once your creative work is done, then and only then, schedule the emails you’ll send and the posts you’ll share. Once those are done, get back to work.

Trying to be creative and self-promote at the same time will lead to shallow focus, which will hurt the quality of your work, which will make it harder to promote, which will force you to push it even more on others, and so it goes.

A better strategy, in the words of Ryan: “Make it so you don’t have to fake it.”

Before I asked Ryan the question that led to Lesson 4, I was nervous. Wow. He’s Ryan Holiday. He introduced me to stoicism. I have to get this question right.

After Ryan answered my question, it hit me. He’s just a guy…

Then I realized something about everyone I admire: They’re all just people!

They’re all just people! They’ve directed their energies toward some admirable and (hopefully) noble pursuits, but they’re still just people, with families, friends, diets, insecurities, loves, and anything else you can think of that makes people people. They still have to brush their teeth, use the restroom, choose which toppings they want on their pizza, and figure life out.

Media might elevate the people you admire to the status of demigods or “people who are better than you,” but that’s an illusion. They might be admirable, but they’re still just people, and as such, they’re not inherently better than anyone, dead or alive, and that includes you, unless you’re neither dead nor alive, in which case we should talk sometime.

Without naming any specific examples, there were several digital products showcased at SXSW that struck me as, well…unnecessary.

Do songwriters really need a “disruptive” app to write songs? Do comedians really need a “disruptive” app to edit their jokes? Do we all really need a “disruptive” app that manages another “disruptive” app that makes sure we don’t use certain “disruptive” apps too much?

I don’t think so.

We live in a time where innovation is glorified across all areas of life and we rarely pause and ask why. Why are we innovating? Why?

So resist making something new just because it’s new.

Resist innovating for innovation’s sake.

John Paul White got onstage for his set at NPR’s Tiny Desk Family Hour wearing a well-pressed suit and a Martin acoustic guitar. No fireworks, no backup dancers, and no caged tigers. Only a suit and a guitar.

He was, as far as my ear is concerned, the best performer of the night.

Showmanship is sometimes a helpful tool, but it’s important to remember that it isn’t necessary. Because while showmanship can be effective or gimmicky, depending on how it’s approached, being good at something is undeniable.

Gina Chávez, also featured during NPR’s Tiny Desk Family Hour, had arrived in Austin from a grueling tour and having to perform deeply emotional songs in an intimate setting. Before playing her first song, she was candid with the audience about not being at her best.

Then, she performed a solid set, start to finish.

It’s okay to not be at your best, and it’s okay to accept it, and even address it (sometimes). But you can be at less than your best and still do what you have to do. That’s what separates professionals from amateurs: Amateurs need to be at their best to be professional, whereas professionals are professional no matter what; they do what they have to do.

So when you’re not at your best, be a pro.

At SXSW, I met a computer scientist who was struggling with health issues due to years of hunching over his devices. In his words: “It’s not worth it.”

It really isn’t. Be aware of how you’re engaging with your devices. Prioritize using yourself well over using your devices. Take a break and go for a walk. Whatever you have to do. But please, don’t hunch over your digital devices.

My first day at SXSW, I met someone from a company that offers employee-training services. I asked him several questions and learned a lot about him and his career. Suddenly, he asked, “What do you do?” to which I replied, after pausing for way too long, “Uh…I’m a student.”

Here’s the thing. I am a student, not only because I’m in graduate school, but because I’m always learning. I truly see myself as a student, so my answer wasn’t a lie. The problem is that I’ve also done and do other things besides being a student, and some of those other things would’ve been far more relevant to bring up at that moment.

You’re not defined by what you do, and it’s unrealistic to expect a single sentence or “elevator pitch” to define all of you. Still, people will ask what it is you do. When that happens, it’s best to have an answer.


You’ll learn more, more quickly. Plus, it’s a great tool to capture lessons learned at SXSW 2019 that you can then write into a short article.

The Barton Creek Greenbelt in Austin, TX. Photo by Lars Plougmann. Lesson 12: Go hike here!



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