It was nearly midnight when I stepped out of San Diego International Airport. The journey there began almost 2 days before, in Perth, WA. This was my first time on United States soil. And my first time ever attending the ATD Conference. In between calling a cab and taking in the city for the first time, I was overwhelmed with two feelings: (a) Severe homesickness (b) unrestrained excitement. It’s the latter that eventually slipped quietly into me like a pair of wings as the cab rolled past the docks that glittered in the late evening light, animated.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Association for Talent Development, the ATD has both an international as well as a US membership base comprising more than 120 countries, a hundred US chapters and 18 international strategic partners and Global Networks. They host a conference each year which is the “Met Gala” of Learning and Development networking events. This year, over 250 sessions were covered around a diverse spectrum of topics all sharing a common denominator: to educate and inspire professionals in Talent Development, worldwide. Think: tens of thousands of L&D professionals from all walks of the industry congregating in harmony and buzzing with excitement as they navigate “constant FOMO” for 4 days whilst connecting deeply and openly with each other. Think hundreds of the world’s most renowned leaders, authors, thinkers, philosophers and practitioners at the peak of our industry sharing their wisdom, insights, quirks and epiphanies with Learning and Development professionals from all walks of life.
When the morning light came in and I was still wide awake from jetlag, groggily making my way over to the San Diego convention center the next day to pick up my credentials and get ready for the big event, I was greeted by big, feverish smiles from all who I locked eyes with. Everyone was buzzing. Everyone was chatting loudly or grinning from ear to ear. The line for the Starbucks queue was over 10 meters long! Despite being pre-9-am, an MC was already belting loud “tony-robbins-esque” tunes and many tippy-toed on to the floor to have a little boogie as they settled into their new surroundings for the next few days.
Honestly? I felt a little intimidated.
That was until I bumped into the first of many, many friends I would make through the course of those memorable days and nights. He headed up all Learning and Development projects at a major bank in the Midwest. He spilled his coffee on me. And I remember how I wasn’t even that irritated by it. (In Melbourne, transgressions like that may end up costing someone an arm and leg!) We stepped out together into the open seating area overlooking the bay. He lit a cigarette. And we talked for a while. It was fascinating hearing all about how they are using cutting edge AI-driven data analytics at his organisation to efficiently measure ROI on learning programs which are being rolled out. He talked about his wife and kids back home and how much he missed them. He asked if we could swap numbers and catch up at Lou & Mickey’s for a steak and a drink later that night. We compared notes on which programs and talks and events interested us most of the course of the next 4 days. Honestly, by the time I walked away and continued with familiarising myself with the convention center floor plans, I was no longer feeling intimidated. Just psyched to be there! (I will always be grateful to him for that).
The days that followed went by in a feverish haze. The inspiration never dulled. And although there is too much that happened to cover in one article, I wanted to chronicle a few memorable moments before they start to elude even my own memory as the passage of time transpires.
If you’re an industry professional in Talent Development, I would be surprised if you have not heard of Adam Grant yet. For those who are not familiar with Adam’s work, this here is organisational psychologist at Wharton, best-selling author, and host of “Worklife” – a ted podcast. Here’s a funfact you may not have known: Adam played himself in the award-winning show called “Billions” on Stan making a cameo as Prince Cap’s board! Anyway, suffice to say, I love this guy.
Adam hosted the opening keynote this year on the topic: “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know”. I especially found his message around “disagreeable givers”, “Unlearning” and “Scientific thinking and its impact on startups” quite powerful. I felt a bit too embarrassed to try and get a photo with him! (I was a bit starstruck!). But now I regret that deeply!
Cammy Bean’s talk on “The accidental Instructional Designer” was perhaps a less “high profile” but deeply empowering and inspiring discourse on the inception and evolution of instructional design. (Even made me consider wanting to become one for a moment!)
Priya Parker presented this year on “The Art of Gathering”. If you’re not familiar with Priya Parker, I suggest you look up this brilliant facilitator, strategic advisor and author. Her work has captivated my imagination and kept me engaged for years now and being able to finally get a chance to see her (albeit from afar) was a real treat!
I would also like to give a warm shout-out to a pair who captured my heart and mind within moments of beginning their talk – the dynamic duo: Dimyas Perdue and Gregory Campbell from TalentSmart EQ who presented a talk around the use of emotional intelligence. TalentSmart EQ has done some brilliant work with law enforcement and the Defense Department in the US and their philosophy, style of oration, empathy and deep connection to their audience almost moved me to tears. This is a pair I did line up to meet after their talk. Their hugs were warm and their laughter made me feel like I could take on the world. I will always be grateful to them for that morning as it was a particularly difficult morning for me, and I found deep solace in that brand of kindness they advocated for; a brand that is becoming more and more rare in the ever-evolving, transactional narrative of modern commerce.
There are literally hundreds of notes in my iPad about all the other people I wanted to acknowledge and all the moments which were so deeply affirming as it related to my chosen field of expertise and my “why”s. But a full exploration would make this a very long article indeed!
But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least talk about this year’s networking night.
This year, the ATD booked out an entire baseball stadium for the networking night. And when we stepped out on to the pitch – face full of grins and our Bud Lights in hand, eager to mingle with the evening and the souls on board filling the air with music and cheers… I couldn’t help but have a little private moment: I sat on the grass; I took out my journal and I scribbled: “Imagine all the choices you made in your life when led up to this moment, where you, a humble man from Bangladesh are here, right now, sharing this most momentous of events with all of these beautiful, talented, intelligent people!”
I guess I am trying to say, that my heart was full of gratitude.
I would also like to extend my heartfelt love and respect to all members of the Australian Delegation who attended ATD this year. In the course of getting to know you all – in the conversations we shared – in the late-night walks and early morning banter – in how we all looked out for each other in the good times and also the tricky times – thank you. I can’t wait to see you all next year in New Orleans!
It was close to dusk when my colleague and I loaded our luggage on to an Uber heading back to San Diego International Airport en-route LAX – to then make our long journey back home to Australia.
“May Gray” the Uber drivers called the weather there, that time of year.
I kept looking at the same docks I passed just a mere few days ago, but it felt like I had already been there for a long, long time.
I walked away from this Conference with an enormous arsenal of new ideas and strategies to take to market. New ways of tackling old problems. Mindful, connected leadership and all that it entails.
I can not recommend this experience highly enough for anyone in my network who works in L&D.
Sometimes, it takes a new experience, to help with the cobwebs as we continue to narrate the course of our lives (inadvertently co-authoring with all the other souls we end up tangoing with).