An Englishman in Austin – Part 4 – or – Why you MUST get out of your comfort zone.

SXSW4

As I sit here in the airport waiting for my trip back to London, I’m reflecting on these last few days at South by Southwest in Texas. I came here with a number of things to get done – playing our part in a DTI trade delegation, meeting future business partners and getting to know entrepreneurs and small business owners.

I must confess though, that I had another motive. I’d heard that the South by SouthWest festival was THE event to come to hear from amazing visionary people from across many fields and areas of expertise. I can certainly vouch for that, in one day this week I heard from the head of Google’s X programme, the superbly named Dr. Astro Teller, a former NSA technical director turned whistle blower and Sci-Fi visionary Bruce Sterling – along with a host of other people from politics, journalism, technology and the arts.

So was that a day to sit back and relax, to enjoy listening to polished presentations which gave an interesting take on stuff which I already knew? No, it’s been one of the most mentally hard-working days I’ve encountered for a long time: and here’s why.

Here at SXSW, it’s not about incremental learning – about professional development – here, I’ve been hearing from people and about ideas so far outside the sphere of my own experience, that I’ve been finding it difficult to get a mental handle to hang on to – in short it would be easy to sit back and file it all as “stuff that I just don’t get”

But here’s the thing, I came to SXSW so that I WOULD “get” some new ideas, and learn from amazing people, I came to deliberately get outside my comfort zone – something that I try to do in a significant way when I can – and here’s why I commend the idea to you as well:

1: Develop an Enquiring Mind.

When you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you end up questioning everything around you. In the US I always find that out-of-place feeling is heightened – I can understand the words, but not quite understand the language, I’ve watched the culture on TV, but never been close enough to feel it. That sense of not knowing what’s going on, at least for me, gets my mind working in a different way – a lot harder for a start.

That switching off of expectations is very hard work, but a great reset to the brain – it’s good to think in a new way.

2: See through a New Perspective

As I head back home, I’m trying to bring with me that fresh perspective. Having gotten into an enquiring frame of mind, it’s great to carry that back home and observe things there afresh. Having spent some time in another culture seeing how they do things differently is a great prompt to re-evaluate those things that we take advantage of back home, and think about how they might be done differently.

3: See the Future

Good ideas travel around the world. In that interface between the local and the global, good ideas from one place or culture are adopted elsewhere. Getting out into other cultures – and particularly seeking those where new ideas might be expected to come from – gives a chance to see the future. For the highly evolved world of digital technology and commerce, south by southwest here in Austin has been an obvious source of those “next big thing ideas”, but with influences from around the world having so much impact on our own culture, any travel is sure to bring a new insight whether it’s to the developing world where disruptive technologies and influences are accelerating development, or in the east where new economic forces are shifting the balance of power.

4: Give your Brain a Workout

Of course seeing the future is one thing, but understanding it and how it relates to us is not at all easy – in fact its very hard work indeed for the brain. Let’s be honest though, our brain needs a good work out once in a while, and using that particular muscle does make it stronger for the future. Out of our own comfort zone we do give our thinking gear a thorough workout and that’s got to be good.

An Englishman in Austin – Part 3

SXSW 3

OK, if you haven’t already heard about it, a moment on google should bring you up to speed on Meerkat, the latest and greatest mobile social platform to become the “next big thing” here at SXSW. It’s been a few years since the last product made a big impact onto the global stage from a launch at SXSW, and since then the eagle-eyed have been on the lookout for the next “twitter moment”. This year they weren’t disappointed as the whole conference seemed to be abuzz with “what is this meerkat thing anyway” and various people waving phones about in new and more confusing ways.

The irony is of course that it was twitter that gave Meerkat its “twitter moment” by cutting off meerkat from its feed (its “graph”) a couple of days ago (surely nothing to do with twitter’s acquisition of a competing startup I’m sure), but more than irony, this demonstrates something that the big boys and girls here at SXSW have been quietly wrestling with in their own businesses:

There’s a gap – quite a big one – between flash in the pan social network fads, and real businesses. Sure Facebook and twitter have managed to get their business models to a point where advertising makes sense and thus to a sustainable revenue model, but the more recent crop of new entrants – snapchat, what’s-app and now meerkat are still sitting in many folk’s “social networks that I don’t understand” bucket.

When one social network is the catalyst for propelling another into the news it just highlights the self-referential bubble that these tools and organisations are sitting in. The real-world businesses which can crack the code and make these tools work as a way real tool for two way communication with customers are now the ones to watch.