I’m sitting in the San Antonio airport, alternating between trying to figure out how to pack this sunshine and warm weather to take back to Toronto while also desperately scanning the running (read: Olympic level racing) thoughts and reflections from the 2013 NODA Annual Conference. This was a less than typical conference experience for me, and I’m not sure yet what to think.
I thought by now I’d be used to ‘new’ and ‘different’ and ‘change’. John Lennon was prophetic in his quote about life happening while you’re making other plans, because that’s certainly been the case for me. I’m still not entirely sure which way is up, where I’m going or, when I allow myself to reflect instead of run (away), who I am. I always walk away from conferences with some great learning, but I didn’t quite anticipate that, this time, I’d mostly be learning about myself.
Attending the NODA conference for the first time was a different experience right from the beginning. In most cases, I ask (beg, plead) to attend conferences, often using my own vacation time to get there. I deeply and adamantly believe in the work for the organization and, in my most privileged moments, I have the opportunity to present and teach with inspiring colleagues.
This time, I went because I was asked to. By my boss. And her boss. For work.
Now, let me say right off the top that I still love Orientation and transition and support the work that NODA is doing to advance this area of the profession. I was impressed by the energy in the room (perhaps partly because it was a gathering of Orientation professionals who ‘do’ energy for a living) and happy to see conversations about Orientation as a process, and the importance of the whole institution supporting the whole student.
As much as I love the field and the people, it was ultimately strange to be an attendee at the conference. Only an attendee. A first timer.
Just an attendee.
I tell students and colleagues I meet all the time to take the word ‘just’ out of their vocabulary. I fight against the most inspiring and beautifully written stories being reduced to only a title or single accomplishment. Yet here I was doing it to myself. I saw board members and wanted to go to meetings. I saw people meeting and networking and wanted to be recognized too. I kept wanting to fit in and stand out, all at once.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I often crave these leadership positions and ‘status’ not to stand out (though it does make networking easier) but because I need the energy, security and (yes) validation of what comes with taking on more responsibilities at a conference.
I need the energy because I’m an extrovert who thrives off of conversation and connection. Yes, I know I can seek this out on my own, but there’s something about having a ready made group of people to interact with. It can be a vicious cycle – you need people for energy but you need the energy to find people to connect with. I learn most, and best, when I can process with others and hear the story behind the information. It was tough to do that this time around, because I didn’t know too many people and my institutional and professional context didn’t always translate well across borders (geographic or otherwise).
I need the security because I need an anchor to keep me safe while I explore.
There, I said it.
I preach about getting outside comfort zones and taking leaps (sometimes out of planes, but that isn’t for everyone), yet I still crave safety and security. I was at my worst when everything was changing, but I’m at my best when there’s that little bit of stability to hang onto when the seas are rough. Even when I jumped out of that plane, I had a parachute, and another human being tethered to me to make sure it opened at the right time. I take big leaps, literally or figuratively, because I have so many parachutes in the wings – dear friends and family who push me forward with one hand and help me hang on with the other. I know now there is no shame in needing that support, and I can find it in a leadership team or less than ambiguous role at an annual conference.
I need the validation because I’m scared. I have a very hard time feeling like I’m ‘enough’ and don’t always find the confidence about myself entirely within myself. Despite what the many pretty Pinterest posts say, I remain a social creature who needs and values a communal approach to development, support and motivation.
I’ve also realized that I tie a lot of my identity to the roles I play (or the hats I wear), but not for the reason you may think. The roles I occupy allow me to express my best self – I’m at my best when I can play to my strengths and muddle through my challenges amongst inspiring people who let me light my own candle from theirs. Here, I’m not defining myself as much as I’m expressing myself – when my own light shines, I can give others permission to share more of themselves which, ultimately, makes me much more than ‘just’ an attendee, ‘just’ a colleague and ‘just’ a human being.