Speaking Gigs, Attending Conferences, and the Importance of Gathering
In a world dominated by virtual interactions, coming together in person offers an opportunity to foster deeper human connections that are impossible to achieve through any other means. Jason Fried recently took the stage in Vancouver and David Heinemeier Hansson did the same at Rails World in Amsterdam.
Today, they join Kimberly Rhodes to share their unique perspectives on life beyond the digital realm. Listen in for their valuable tips for making the most of attending or speaking at conferences and embracing the personal growth that comes from stepping out of your comfort zone.
Check out the full video episode on YouTube
- The importance of real-life interactions to point out what’s lacking in our digital-first world.
- The transformative power of in-person connection to reshape perceptions, and foster deeper human connections.
- The value of public speaking for the speaker: how speaking at conferences can help speakers distill their knowledge, engage with their audience, AND challenge themselves.
- Why emotion trumps content at conferences—what attendees are really seeking.
- Tips for navigating conferences, making meaningful connections, and pushing past your comfort zone for personal growth.
- Finding the right mix between expanding your social capacity, and knowing when to step back and recharge.
Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website. Full video episodes are available on YouTube and X [formerly known as Twitter).
If you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or email, and we might answer it on a future episode.
Links and Resources:
Rails World 2023 Opening Keynote - David Heinemeier Hansson
The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort To Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self
Books by 37signals
Sign up for a 30-day free trial at Basecamp.com
HEY World | HEY
The REWORK podcast
The 37signals Dev Blog
37signals on YouTube
The Rework Podcast on YouTube
@37signals on X
37signals on LinkedIn
Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework, podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes, and I’m joined as always by the co-founders of 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinermeier Hansson. Guys, both of you have recently done some speaking engagements, Jason in Vancouver and David at Rails World in Amsterdam. So I thought we would just chat today about not only conferences, but why people should be gathering, why these kind of events are important. Who wants to jump in first?
Jason (00:27): I’ll say something
(00:30): I hadn’t spoken in front of a live audience for, I dunno, three years basically since before Covid. I used to do it a lot. And I didn’t do it and then it got really easy, of course not to do it, you just jump on Zoom and whatever, right? No travel, it’s no extra time and that’s fine, I’ll still do that. But I decided I was invited to speak in Vancouver and decided to go because I was sort of curious about how it would feel again. And it turns out it feels pretty good. It feels pretty good to get on stage in front of people and have a live audience. And I’m not much of a schmoozer. I don’t really like the small talk, but it’s still nice to meet people and to be around people. But mostly the thing that was interesting is that, it’s one of the few places you have someone’s full attention these days, you don’t really have people’s attention online.
(01:15): You can tweet, you can put videos up, people watch five seconds and they leave or they watch 20 seconds and they leave or they do something else. They got three windows open. Granted, someone can have their phone open at a conference as well, but for the most part, when you look out in the audience, people are looking back at you and they’re listening and they’re there and they’re present and that is a really, it is turns out as a very special, special thing. And for me, I realized that that is something I definitely want to do at least a few times a year, is be present with people, have people’s full attention, give them my full attention as well where I can’t do anything else. I can’t fidget, I can’t look at some other screen. I’m there, they’re there. We can actually have a really good tight back and forth. I think that’s really valuable. And of course it’s like how humans have always done things, so it’s obviously a good way to approach it and I’d like to do that more and more.
David (02:02): I think it’s easy to undervalue the connection that you can create when you are in person with someone. We’ve talked about our meetups and how important they are to the company and at least my experience at Rails World was sort of an echo of that, but for an entire ecosystem, for an entire community that meeting in person with as it was in Amsterdam, 700 of your closest friends, people who like the same thing as you do and it sounds so woowoo, it sounds so whatever, feeling the energy of the room, feeling the energy of the people who are really excited about things, if anything has become even more important in the realm of social media because you get this fake sense of community or unity or of connection online, but it’s tarnished by the fact that it’s happening on these platforms that are programmed with algorithms to optimize for certain kind of engagement.
(03:01): And that kind of engagement is usually not the good vibes, energy engagement. Usually it’s the negative vibes, energy engagement. And if you soak in that for too long, it really colors your perspective of, oh, this is what people are people, a lot of the times total assholes and the interaction that you have with them are going to be friction filled, they’re going to be uncomfortable, they’re going to be just like, I wish I wasn’t here. And then you show up in person at a conference and I don’t think I’ve actually ever had anything that would even amount to the lowest level of contentious exchange that I’ll have on Twitter on a daily basis happen in person. You get such a recharge of your faith in freaking humanity by just meeting a bunch of people who are genuinely happy, excited to talk about things, to meet around things, to see you and for you to see them.
(04:00): And that level of antidote I think is just so important when you spend as much time as most of us do online today that you know what? It’s not the real world or it’s just one fraction of the real world. This, meeting someone shaking their hands. This was one of the things I really underappreciated. The physical touch, the kind of connection that makes and the facilitation that it opens for someone’s mind to expand. I had several conversations with people at Rails World about technical things where I knew they were probably on the other side of this issue. Their natural base on this was to perhaps do the opposite of what I was doing in some degree, but the fact the handshake literally opened their mind and mine to appreciate the counter argument. And you’re like, do you know what? We don’t have handshakes on Twitter. There’s not a physical connection to broaden your perspective and open someone’s mind. And it’s really evident when you contrast the two things back to back, that the physical realm has something special that you need to have on a recurring basis not to be swallowed up by the whole that is social media.
Kimberly (05:13): Okay, so you guys are now in the position where these conferences are coming to you and asking you to come be on the main stage and speak, but I think about Rails conference in particular where there were several 37signals and employees who applied to speak. I’m curious your thoughts or your take on someone who’s listening who may be like, yeah, I should be applying. Is there something that would help push them over the edge of why they should go from just being an attendee to actually up and a main speaker?
David (05:43): I think speaking at a conference is the grander version of the old adage that to really learn something, you have to teach it. You have to be able to reduce it to its fundamentals in such a way that someone else can pick it up and the pressure of being on stage, I think it’s still probably the number one fear most people have is public speaking to some extent. That level of stress is the kind of, mostly, good stress that focuses your attention, that forces you to distill the material that forces you to get better and understand it more deeply and then face a challenge. Do you know what, especially in the technology world we sit in a lot of times, environments that don’t subject us to any form of physical stress. We might be stressed about a deadline, but that’s sort of ephemeral, floating out there.
(06:39): The stress you get and I still get it, I’ve been speaking for over 20 years, walking onto that stage is invigorating. It’s kind of like the version of a cold shower, that there’s something about this, that putting your brain into an environment where it’s being forced to deal with all this input at real time stretches it, makes it better, makes you more capable of thinking fast, thinking on your feet and the relief when you’re done is also just incredible. So I think that whole experience of do you know what, first of all, realizing that everyone, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t get some level of stress response from speaking in public, maybe someone who’ve done it 20,000 times. I don’t know, Jason, we should ask Gary V actually. He looks like the kind of person who would not have a shred of stress in his bones when speaking to a large audience. I still have that even though I’ve done it a ton of times. Most people have quite a lot of it and that’s half the point. Half the point is embracing the challenge, the obstacle is the way.
Jason (07:43): The other thing I was going to add, by the way, there’s something that comes with speaking in person and meeting people in person that really softens the blow in a sense. So for example, there’s two things people typically say to me when they meet me after a talk. One is you’re shorter than I thought, and the other one is, you’re nicer than I thought. Which is like there’s this, I’m patting myself in the back here with that one, but really people have this assumption that with these opinionated assholes who, and we are opinionated and we can be assholes I suspect, but for the most part when people go, oh, you know what, that was kind of reasonable, that was way more reasonable than I thought. When I hear this person on stage saying this thing and they’re a human being and they’re sort of explaining themselves in a way where I’m actually fully listening.
(08:23): I’m not just reading 140 characters and backing that up with 5,000 words of assumption. I’m actually listening to what they have to say that’s kind of reasonable and I get where they’re coming from in a way that they never would have had they read an article or just looked at a tweet or something in some social networks. So I think that that’s the other thing I wanted to shove that in. That was part of your first question, but I think that’s a really important part, which is bringing some humanity and allowing people the space and the opportunity essentially to see you differently than they could in any other way.
David (08:58): I think this is the essence of seeing someone as a human. When you’re literally looking at their face in reality and you’re getting all the little micro inputs. It’s funny because we’re obviously big boosters of remote work and remote work is wonderful and it’s enabling all these magical things, but it’s also true that to appreciate someone’s humanity, especially if you don’t have a preexisting base of trust, preexisting relationship, in-person is a better method, is a better delivery mechanism for this. I think what’s also true is that conference talks, especially the kind of keynote talks or fireside chats are frequently less about what you say, what are the particulars of the thing you’re presenting or a project you’re working about and more about how you make people feel. At Rails World for example, most people walked away from the whole experience with a deeper appreciation for how that conference made them feel.
(10:03): They made them feel like they were part of a vibrant community, that there were things going on that things were exciting more so than like, oh, someone showed a new API that I was excited about. That’s also there. That’s also part of it, but this ability to make someone feel a certain way I think is truly special about the in-person. And I’d say what’s so fascinating there is that it’s kind of like standup comedy where your rapport with your audience when you’re doing standup comedy is like 90% of whether they’re going to laugh or not. Whether they have been set in the right mood to hear your joke in the essence of how it was intended or otherwise. If you take a lot of standup jokes and you just write them down, not only are they not funny, they might be offensive, they might be stupid, they might be all sorts of things, but delivered in that moment in the atmosphere in the room that had already been worked up for 20 minutes to get to the point they land completely different.
(11:07): And that’s the same thing about going to a conference. I can say the same thing in a tweet and get literally a thousand replies saying you’re an idiot. And then I say that at a conference and maybe they think I’m an idiot for a second, but they allow the possibility that, you know what, maybe I’ll think about this for just five seconds more. Maybe I’ll go into this evaluation of an idea with good faith that this person is actually trying to teach me something, actually trying to convey something that they’ve learned that there’s not a hidden agenda. I’m not trying to sell you something, I’m not trying to, whatever it is that people often in social media will immediately reach for, oh, they’re just saying this because. No, I’m saying this because I believe it. And it’s so much easier to convey when you are face-to-face with someone and you can smile and you can nod and you can do all these other things.
Kimberly (12:01): Okay, I’m going to switch a little bit to the attendee perspective because being at conferences, I think we can all agree that as fun as they can be, they can also be exhausting, especially if you’re not an extrovert. Do you have any tips or guidance for someone who might be listening who’s like, yeah, I should go to these conferences, but I typically avoid them because it’s just too much. Some people just don’t love that gathering and feeling like you’re going to have to be on all the time.
Jason (12:28): I mean I would say don’t go. I would say don’t force it for sure. If you’re not looking forward to it. If you don’t want to go there and sit the whole time, you don’t have to go. You can also just be very picky and choosy. You can be like, I’m just going to see this one person. I know I paid for a ticket to see three days worth of speakers and in total that’s 34 speakers, but I actually only want to see this one person or these four people. That’s fine too. Leave, you don’t need to do that. Of course a lot of the value in these things is in between speakers or at the breaks in the hallway and that sort of thing. But I don’t know. I’m not a fan of forcing yourself into really awkward situations that you’re not going to be comfortable with.
(13:08): Of course that’s where you grow, but there’s other ways to grow in life too. You don’t need to force yourself at conferences. But I do know that a lot of people sit through conferences, they sit through a bunch of talks they don’t want to hear because they feel like they paid for it and so they must get their money’s worth. I would absolutely not encourage them to try to do that. Go for who you want to go for and leave when you’re done. I also personally, I don’t go to dinners after talks or whatever. I go home or I go to my hotel room or something. I kind of need some downtime. So just be yourself, figure out what works for you and I wouldn’t push it too hard
David (13:43): Just for the sake of argument, I’m going to take the other side here. Push yourself, go to it to some extent. And do you know why I’m saying it? Because I’m talking to myself. I am very much an introvert. I very much, if it was just sort of my natural least obstacle flow, I would deliver my talk and then I would head to my hotel room and that would be the end of it, especially at Rails World this year I really forced myself to be present for more or less the whole day and talk to about a billion people and was incredibly exhausting. As an introvert I get drained when talking to just a few people and talking to literally a hundred in a given day, just completely exhausting. And that’s the point. That’s good. Would I want to do that every week? Absolutely not.
(14:28): Would I want to do it every month? No. Would I want to raise a 24 hour race every week or every month? No. Do I completely appreciate the opportunity once a year or a couple of times a year to really stretch myself to almost the breaking point, either physically or mentally that you go a little bit beyond, you know going in. Do you know what? I’m not really going to like it in the moment, but it actually is important. I feel this way about working out too. I’m not one of those people who love working out. I don’t love lifting weights, but I also know, do you know what the gains that you get from working out, they’re worth it. It’s worth it for me to be uncomfortable and sweaty and worn out for an hour, a couple times a week such that I can get the long-term benefits of that.
(15:15): And I think especially given the fact that we live in this social media context, if you don’t do that, if you don’t take occasionally the opportunity to deal with this marathon experience of social overwhelming exposure, if you are an introvert, I don’t think it’s going to end well. I think the sense of self-isolation, that is possible when you work remotely and you get much of your colleague and industry exposure just through social channels, they do tend to atrophy your humanity in much the same ways that if you don’t lift any weights and if you don’t push your body, your muscles will shrink. It is a use it or lose it situation and I think your social capacity has some of that. So again, I’m mostly just talking to myself as I always am, that I’m pumping myself up here to realize that at some point, not in a month and not in two, but some time further out, I’m going to say yes again, because I want this. Even though my natural inclination is, no, no thank you, I’m going to do it because of that, the obstacle is the way.
Kimberly (16:25): Yeah, and I don’t know about you guys, but I feel like Covid just made it so much easier to just not leave, to not go to these things and to just sit at your house and be comfortable with that and not put yourself in those kind of positions.
David (16:37): And that’s exactly the essence of it. There is a comfort crisis, which by the way, there’s a wonderful book, and this was partly the book that was playing in my head as I was saying this called The Comfort Crisis. And it talks about this lack of meaning that can occur when you are constantly in your comfortable bubble, and you’re never trying to reach outside of it and you’re never trying to get uncomfortable, you’re never trying to push yourself. You should push yourself, you should put yourself mentally, physically, socially, in all the ways you’ve got to occasionally stretch it a bit or you will continue to shrink until you are a saddle person ranting at everyone and everywhere on online. And I don’t think you want to end up there.
Jason (17:21): I agree with all that. At the same time, I don’t think conferences have to be the place to do all that. So in general, I agree. You should push yourself here and there. You should get out of your comfort zone. You should try new things, learn new things, test yourself, that sort of thing as well. But I mean, I think ultimately though, take inventory of all the options and some things if they just aren’t really for you, that’s okay. It’s totally fine. You don’t need to. And the other thing I would say is I remember way back in the day in the conference circuit, I would see the same people at conferences all the time and I kept wondering, do you ever work? What are you doing? So you also don’t want to overdo the conference circuit and try to go everywhere and feel like if I just go to this one more conference, I’m going to finally learn the thing that I need to learn to know. You got to get in there and do the work. So you got to go back into your hole and do the work too. So there’s not this magic thing that’s going to happen if you just go to that one more conference or just hear that one more speaker.
Kimberly (18:21): Yeah, that’s great advice. Okay, before we wrap up, do you guys have any plans next for speaking engagements that we can share? I know Jason, you said you’re open to doing more.
Jason (18:32): Yeah, I don’t have any on the books right now. I’m still doing a bunch of Zoom stuff to universities and whatnot, but I’m trying to line something up here and there. I have a new rule though, which is like I don’t like to do. I don’t like business travel, and as long as I stay in the same time zone, I’m happy to travel for work. But I really don’t want to travel across time zones. Luckily, I’m on the west coast now and there’s a lot of opportunities in the west coast time zone, so hopefully there’ll be some other things coming up. But I’m not in a flight to New York. I’m just not really into that anymore.
David (19:02): I’m still in recovery mode from Rails World, so it’s not even in the, brain closed for business on that. And do you know what? In a couple months I’ll feel an opening again and then you consider it. But I’m with Jason. This idea of traveling long distances for this kind of stuff. Do you know what? Not my favorite, which was one of the lucky scheduling accidents, if you will, that we had our meetup in Barcelona back to back with the conference in Amsterdam, which then also in retrospect, actually I wouldn’t do that again, neither. That was two weeks away from home. That was kind of too long. But this is kind of that trade off. I think you got to have some of it built up. I don’t have the natural urge to do it all the time, and I need absolutely to step back and recharge and also just do some work.
(19:47): One of the reasons I really enjoyed Rails World this year was I had so much new stuff to talk about. It’s so much easier to do, and I find it more invigorating when you go somewhere to share something new. I mean, I have a thousand things I could talk about for hours and hours on end, but they would be rehashing things, at least for myself. Whether it’s new to the audience or not is a different matter. So yeah, I’d like to have something new. I’d like to just spend some time building some things. We’re building a bunch of exciting things at third sim signals at the moment. We’ve announced most of it. We’re building a new calendar. We have once.com coming, and I have a bunch of things on the framework library side that I’m thrilled and pumped to push on. And then in six months, some of that will have come to fruition and we will be in a place to talk about that from a perspective of we did it or we’ve done it not from like, oh, this is something we’re thinking about.
Kimberly (20:39): Yeah. Well, I’m sure our audience will be keeping an eye on Twitter to see when you guys are speaking next. And I know you always have the podcast circuit as well. So this is an episode of 37signals Rework. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast. Full video episodes are available on YouTube and Twitter. And if you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or text us at that number 708-628-7850. And we just might answer your question on an upcoming show.