The Culture of Listen-Learn-Make at SXSW 2013

Yesterday, I returned from my first-ever trip to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference. I spent the morning answering coworkers’ questions about it and telling stories about who I met and what I learned, did and saw. More than that, I tried to explain what it all meant, the relevance of the experience. What made SXSW more purposeful than any other conference or convention I’ve ever attended? SXSW

I’m skeptical of anything that is surrounded by as much hype as SXSW. How can any event possibly be all things to all people, especially to a diverse and mammoth crowd of devout iconoclasts? It’s like the joke about the anarchists’ convention–if you’re at one, you aren’t one. So I drove down to Austin with high hopes, but blind date expectations.

If my high school Spanish holds up, the two words that I think most beautifully and accurately explain the meaning of SXSW are escuchar and hacerto listen to, and to make. They are infinitives–the verbs of doing. And they are the commandments of SXSW.

Sometimes I worry that listening is becoming an antiquated skill, like working on your own car or not falling into an open manhole while on your smartphone. Instead of really listening, people seem to engage in a courteous pantomime of listening while they really just think of what they’re going to say at the next pause. At SXSW, I noticed an amazing difference in attitude and behavior. Listening was an active and shared value beyond mere social courtesy. It was an imperative, as if someone posted a no smoking-style sign that read, “Shut up and learn something.” I was surrounded by smart, thoughtful people who genuinely gave a damn about what was being said and didn’t want to miss a thing. One-on-one conversations and large presentations alike were treated as fuel for insight. At SXSW, listening was respected as a powerful catalyst, like the fuse on a stick of dynamite.

In the SXSW mindset, escuchar is important because it leads to hacer. Listening is an essential precursor to making. SXSW asks the question,” What are you making?” Attendees share an almost obsessive impulse to create things–digital properties, movies, melodies–which bring happy utility to the user and money to the maker. SXSW celebrates the act of making as an entrepreneurial exercise. Even if an attendee or presenter was the employee of an established company, their attitude was still one of ownership.

SXSW also defines making as either an adaptive or disruptive act. It either improves an established product or process, or tips over the table to make way for something wholly better. Whether employee or entrepreneur, attendees shared the belief that, if an idea is truly great, then it must result in a useful, well-made thing.

I have never been to an event that does a better job of connecting today to someday. The meaning of SXSW lies in the determination of its participants to turn the dotted line of possibility into the solid line of a plan. I left  Austin quieter and restless to make. I can’t wait to go back next year with something to show for it.

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