This weekend, I attended the Kalamazoo X conference in Kalamazoo, MI. KalamazooX, or KalX (as it is more often referred by organizers and attendees alike) is "a one day, single track non-tech conference for techies", or perhaps "it is a soft skills conference", or perhaps not. You see, like a book filled with complex characters, rollercoaster plot twists, and profound revelations, it is hard to describe KalX; each description I hear is somehow right and yet completely wrong, painting KalX as something you have already experienced where speakers talk of project planning, team communication, and time management. But KalX is different. KalX is where you hear about the importance of empathy, the roots of genius, or the virtue of personal reflection. KalX might help with your soft skills, but only through indirect action, through powerful talks on why practice trumps passion or creates genius, how apathy and empathy are both needed to foster better relationships (at work or otherwise), or what it is to simply give a shit (and sometimes, to give a shit too much).
Whether speaker, organizer, or attendee, KalX is catharsis in the shared and personal experience; strong emotions —anger, joy, sorrow— marked by F-bombs and tears; and unexpected moments (some uncomfortable, some reassuring) where attendees might think "me too", "that's bullshit", or "I am not alone"1. It is in those moments that KalX shines, the moments when we are raw and exposed.
Four years ago I attended my first Kalamazoo X conference. It was then held in a classroom at a local college and there were about 50 people in attendance, including speakers and organizers2. I had no idea what to expect, so when I found myself crying, stuck in the middle of a row of people I barely knew, I felt surprised, uncomfortable, and confused3. I do not recall if I knew at that moment, but I now look back on that day as the start of what would lead to the diagnosis of my anxiety disorder, its treatment, and the continuing changes to my life that followed. That experience pushed me closer to asking for help.
Though it was for me, I would never say KalX is life-changing; each person experiences it differently and each year is different. In the safe space of peers, where the speakers, unfettered by recorded sessions, can open up about their personal experiences and the things that, in other forums, might be hidden from view for fear of judgement or isolation, KalX facilitates personal discovery. This year, I felt anxiety rise from nowhere when one speaker (Ed Finkler) started to tell my story. Ed doesn't even know me and yet there he was talking about General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), fearing entering bars to look for people as though a lion might be waiting to attack, thinking things through to find every possible outcome and worrying about all of them intensely. Though I wanted to hear more about how he coped with it all4, I was amazed to even know that there was someone out there just like me. It was scary and reassuring, and I might have been the only person in the room that thought so.
When I first started writing this post, I tried to summarize the whole day, but I couldn't do justice to Christina Aldan, Ed Finkler, Kate Catlin, Jay Harris, Cory House, Leon Gersing, Lauren Scott, and Alan Stevens, or their talks on empathy, apathy, genius, passion, and more besides. It is hard to describe what they said in a way that could convey what it was like to experience it at the time, just as it is hard to describe KalX as a whole. It is even harder to describe these things to convey how someone else might have experienced the day. In realizing this and the inadequacy of phrases like "it's a soft skills conference" or "it's a non-tech conference for techies" I have wondered, how could I describe KalX in a single sentence? I don't think I could, not because KalX is some indescribable experience, but because each person finds value from it in different ways. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is no apt summary, no convincing abstract; sometimes you just have to read the book for yourself.