It is sunny, it is warm. Music plays seemingly spontaneously from every corner. Everyone is friendly. Around 30,000 people are here to be inspired by brilliant experts about the future of technology and the digital arts of film and music.
We have to choose to be terrified, to live in the vulnerability of that fear
Robots, connected cities, driverless cars, AR, VR, Star Wars, Obama - all are represented here with a glimpse to an exciting future.
Yet, after two days the theme that seems to have popped up again and again is failure. But here is the catch - failure is portrayed not as a negative but as a positive. Intellectually, we all know that failure is an inherent part of success. But experiencing that in practice never feels good and most of us actively avoid it, doing what we can to eliminate the risks of it happening.
Stop fearing failure
As Regina Dugan of Google and formerly of Director of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the part of the US Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military) says, failure is an inevitable part of doing something hard. It is not a problem. Fear of failure is the problem. That is what stops us from taking a risk. She says that to make something epic, we have to choose to be terrified, to live in the vulnerability of that fear.
Fear came up again in the talk by the hugely compelling Brené Brown, the American scholar and author. Her talk was about what it means to dare greatly, those people who choose to go after big ideas and opportunities. In her honest, direct-as-only-an-American-can-be assessment, if you are brave with your work and your life, you will get your ass kicked. But that is a courageous and brave thing to do and in so doing you are putting yourself out there and being vulnerable.
There was that word again - vulnerability. It is a word often associated with weakness and not one that many of us would readily admit to.
Here were two immensely impressive, successful women embracing an emotion that we largely try to avoid. Why? Because to be innovative and creative you have to be bold and that will mean that sooner or later we will get our asses kicked, multiple times. But those are the inflection points from which great work can come.
Ignoring the inner doubt
The engagingly profane Michael Nieling, Founder of agency Ocupop, picked this up again. His talk, ‘F*ck no. Sh*t yeah! Damn right?’, again picked up on theme of being brave and bold. Nothing comes from no, so if the opportunity looks exciting then say yes, and realise that something may go wrong. But, he recognises that in our hearts many live with the imposter syndrome, the fear that we don't really know what we are doing and are just waiting to be found out.
What to make of all this talk of failure and vulnerability? As I reflect on my first two days of SXSW, what is emerging is the importance and power of emotion.
As business people, we spend a lot of our time in the rational world. As marketers, we spend a lot of our time thinking about how to create an emotional connection with our customers. Do we spend enough time recognising our own emotions, our fear and vulnerability and embracing them?
I think ultimately the focus on failure has in fact inspired confidence that we are all faking it until we make it and as creatives, as innovators, we have to risk failure every day to do our best work.