It's 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, and there are 200 people watching a "dive-in" movie on a big screen from the pool and the hot tub. Pockets of conversations continue -- including some deeply philosophical ones -- and business ideas spring to life, while a 3D printer buzzes in the corner. This is the final evening of what has been an entirely new experience for me. Yes and Yes Yes, is the new world of human-centred unconferences that are changing how we think about the value of connecting with people, playfulness, and staying young-at-heart.
In 2012, there were 284,600 conventions/conferences/trade shows in the US with a total of 87 million attendees, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. These ranged from the small one or two-day conferences with 100 to 150 people, up to the large multi-day conferences with over 25,000 people in attendance. The one question that has been troubling many is whether there is any value to be gained from them beyond time away from the office, a per diem to play with, and some notes from a few keynote sessions where attendees do not even have to chance to engage with the "thought leaders."
At its heart, Yes and Yes Yes challenges this idea of putting "thought leaders" in the spotlight and provides a platform for free thinkers, futurists, makers, weirdos, nerds, and freelancers. It's an unconference where ideas and thoughts can be shared safely, without judgment, and completely off-the-record.
I sat down with Ann Larie Valentine, one of the five co-founders. She explained a little more about the philosophy behind the unconference:
"The theory is that if you get a group of smart, engaged individuals together in the right place that great things would happen, even in the absence of a traditional conference structure. We also capped the attendance to just 400 people because it's big enough to have critical mass and small enough to connect and be cohesive."
She explained that it's something that you can't quite understand until you get here. I chatted to Kemp Edmonds, who had travelled to Palm Springs from Vancouver. He described it by saying:
"This is definitely a different kind of experience that offers something for everyone. Whether your ideal experience is lounging in the pool with old and new friends, or getting creative by creating costumes for the Saturday night prom. It's a bit like a 'choose your own adventure' experience. Take what you need, decide to do what you feel like doing, and make it happen."
Over the weekend, the event built itself from the ground up. Sessions started to appear on the event app, website, and even in the two pools at the Ace Hotel. Sessions ranged from the practical -- Marketing and Branding; the Future of Work, Co-working, and Freelancing; UX Design; Trip Hacking; and New Disruptive Business Models -- through to the entertaining -- energetic readings of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, role-playing games, and a kitten party.
The attendees found more value in holding impromptu conversations between smaller groups of people rather than a format with big-name keynote speakers and panels of recognized experts. This style of unconference resulted in higher engagement, more intimate conversations, and a broader scope of discussion. Planned and ad-hoc sessions allowed for everyone to build on each other's ideas. It was like a community garden for the mind, which never stops growing as long as you tend to it, nurture it, and surround it with love and understanding.
To illustrate this effect, I'll share my experience of organizing a session on freelancing, co-working, co-living, and the future of work. For many, these have become hot topics recently as more people choose to shake off the shackles of working for large organizations and go independent by joining or supporting the sharing economy, including companies such as AirBnB, PodShare, UBER, Freelancer.com, and the like. It seemed like it could apply to many of the people in attendance.
At 2 p.m., 12 attendees turned up to start the session. After a quick round of introductions that included reasons for attending, the discussion started to form. What quickly became clear was that everyone there was trying to break loose of the debt that is created by the economy by needing to own vehicles, cars, and even property so that they could live a more free life away from the regular 9-to-5 grind and the 401K. One person who was walking by jumped in and said that many Americans are having thoughts about this, and that 2 million Americans in the workforce leave their job each week (according to the US Department of Labor).
The conversations continued with discussions about how to convert a Toyota Prius into a vehicle that could be lived in, through to the dilemma of having the freedom to work remotely on the road, and the struggle of isolation. The idea of "personal pivots" came into being, in which we actively redefine what we want out of life, what income we need to make it happen, how to say "no" to the wrong kind of work when things are tight financially, and how to live with a sense of achievement, recognition and happiness.
After two hours, about a third of the people had swapped out and the conversation had turned to the monetary system and the new world of decentralized currencies such as bitcoin. A pivot on the original conversation and it added a fascinating perspective relating to personal debt and why we need to work.
As a final statement, an attendee organized a storytelling evening that underscored what this unconference was all about -- honesty, openness, fun, and support. Storytellers shared experiences of life, love, death, along with anecdotes such as struggling as a children's party performer. Then a really special moment happened. The final speaker talked about how he met his girlfriend, how he wooed her, and then he ended with a marriage proposal. She said "yes."