I once saw a documentary piece on Pixar and how Steve Jobs had instructed the architect who was building HQ to physically design the building so that nooks and crannies were hard to find and “collision points” were everywhere. Why did he do this? Because he felt that the best ideas often came when people were walking down the hall and bumped into other people… because in that moment of collision (or was it serendipity) excellent ideas were born via unscheduled, relaxed, low-pressure conversation and collaboration.
Whenever I leave NCTE it often feels as if this has happened to me. And nowadays, the week before I venture there, I just sense that somehow, someway, through some sort of some-thing, I will have an offhand encounter that will lead to an offhand conversation that will ultimately result into an explosion of personal insight.
Here’s a Jim Burke story to illustrate the point:
A bunch of years ago at NCTE Jim and I sat down for a coffee. We used to meet for dinner every year until “scheduled dinners” stole away our ability to do this (and boy do I miss our sushi date, Jim, if you are reading this). Anyway, during this coffee break I ran a kooky new book idea up Jim’s flagpole.
All I really had was a title at the time and a small premise.
“I have an idea for a new YA book of fiction, a comedy,” I said.
“If I may be so bold to ask, what is it?” Jim replied. (Jim is always unfailingly polite… unlike the blustery moi.)
“Well, here’s the title… ERECTION! It’s about a middle school boy who gets busted with a boner in math class.”
Jim broke out laughing. Now the thing is, none of this was premeditated. I do not even think I arrived at the conference planning on pitching Jim an idea for a book, one that I sensed would certainly engage boy readers. (The holy grail, in a way, these days.)
However, the moment Jim busted out with a belly laugh I had a flash of insight that this book was even funnier than I suspected. And would be relatable in a way that was more than I expected. And would be touching the taboo yet staying within bounds in a way that was more than I expected. And that’s when I knew I had to write this book. Jim’s sensibilities weren’t offended at all. (My fear.) And humor, as I suspected, held the potential to carry the day when it came to tackling a difficult subject. (Like male puberty.) Jim literally was the first person I told about this idea and even though that was years ago, a seed was planted at NCTE that afternoon which I knew I’d one day HAVE to harvest. (NOTE: this idea morphed into my new book THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING UP which has garnered the first starred review of my fiction writing career.)
Of course, all of this happened by happenstance, by running into one another when we each had a moment. Though I have no idea whether or not Steve Jobs would have liked my book, I do think he would have knowingly nodded at how the idea was born and cemented.
Attending conferences live and in the flesh will deliver a plethora of tremendous insights for those who make the trek to Chicago this week. Perhaps it will be a lesson plan that unlocks a kid who has previously been a really tough nut to crack? Perhaps it will be a person you meet while waiting in line for a mid-day snack that makes you remember why you love being a professional educator deep in your bones? Perhaps it will be a book editor who gives you your first break, a principal who offers you a new job or an online friend who suddenly becomes more than a mere avatar. Heck, you might even learn something while sitting in one of the sessions listening to one of the tremendous presenters. (Shocking, I know.)
So why should folks attend more conferences. Because serendipity awaits.