How to be a Human.

Suddenly I seemed so alone.

I looked up from the frantically scribbled notes I’d ripped from my notepad earlier and had, for the last ten minutes, been staring at without actually absorbing anything they said. The cavernous, buzzing central corridor of the amazing conference centre had emptied, leaving me virtually alone in its halls and deafened by the silence.

With just over an hour to go before I was due to play my small part at WorkHuman 2016, I couldn’t shake a feeling I’d had all morning. Up until that point, I’d thoroughly enjoyed the event, immersing myself in the amazing content, connections and wider experiences it had to offer. I’d felt energised, confident and excited to be sharing Why Organisational Purpose Needs a Moral Compass, snapping shots during my sound check and cheekily plugging the session on the Twitter back channel.

But now, things had shifted hugely.

The days before had been a mixture of solid A-List speakers and up-and coming-ideas. I’d listened to Shaun Achor, Michele Gielen and Amy Cuddy, being impressed by their polished delivery and global reputations, but less convinced by some of the things they were saying.

I posted this on Facebook after seeing Shaun Achor:

Maybe on the harsh side, but a conversation starter nonetheless.

That evening I’d written a lot of notes about what it is to be human and this idea that we always need to be a ‘better version’ of ourselves. The letters in bold that stared out of my screen were:

Being human is an art, not a science.

I truly believe that. Our flaws make us who we are, they are part of our individuality.

The anxiety, the imposter syndrome, the constant feeling that I have more to give, the tendency to take two drinks when everyone else stopped an hour ago, the ability to function on little sleep – these apparently ‘negative’ traits are some of the things make me.

For all the shine, sound bites and polished delivery, I just hadn’t fully connected with the headline speakers. They gave great value, but withheld themselves other than in strategically added anecdotes.

I wanted to feel more of that humanity – the kind of humanity I was experiencing talking to all of the other amazing people I’d been meeting since arriving in Orlando for WorkHuman.

Then, early on Wednesday morning, the same day I was due to deliver my session, something incredible happened.

I’m not one to get starstruck, in fact I make a conscious effort not to, but when Michael J Fox took the WorkHuman stage for a conversation, a wave of emotion flowed over me, accompanied by goosebumps that just didn’t go away.

For someone who has been and continues to go through so much adversity, yet still achieve so much, Michael J Fox is admirable. His optimism has won him awards. Yet, it wasn’t this that took me so completely aback – it was his humanity.

In a short, unscripted conversation, he openly shared his past, his present, his future. We got snapshots of his family life, the way he connects with his wife and kids, what his ideal Saturday is. We heard about his relationship with his father, his attitude to adversity and openly laughed as he joked on the extremities of the serious condition he’s been battling since the ridiculously young age of 29.

All it takes to see the impact Michael J Fox created in less than an hour is one look at the #WorkHuman back channel on Twitter.

As he spoke about spending time just hanging out with his kids on Saturdays and joked about keeping track of them as they grow up and disperse into the world, I thought of my own children at home over a thousand miles away and was swept by a wave of emotion. I’m happy to admit that in the darkness of that crowded, dark auditorium, I shed a tear. I know I wasn’t the only one.

An impromptu standing ovation erupted as he left the stage, doing the Johnny B Goode shuffle from Back to The Future as he went. An incredible, touching and openly human performance – this was the connection I’d been looking for. It was genuinely incredible to be there.

On leaving that room, in a haze of reflection, my own anxiety surfaced. Simultaneously feeling like a complete fraud in comparison yet suddenly understanding why I need to share my findings and my work more widely, I spent the next couple of hours inside my own head, drawing a complete blank on everything I hoped to say during my own short window.

I sat in the lounge, feet up in front of me, attempting to pep myself with one of Amy Cuddy’s power poses, as my head felt emptier and emptier. New friends wandered past and took the time to stop and offer much appreciated words of encouragement – a beautiful version of the idea of recognition that had been talked about so much during the event.

Then the time came.

Despite fluffing it in places and waffling in others, everyone was incredibly friendly and positive on my session. I really valued people taking the time to tweet and those who came up to me afterwards with kind words and congratulations. The whole thing was a lot of fun.

As a WorkHuman speaker, I could connect with others as a human, because I immersed myself in the whole event. Michael J Fox connected as a human because he left nothing of himself out of sight.

For me, that’s what the essence of WorkHuman really is. It’s the art of being human, not the science of ‘bettering’ ourselves.

It was an incredible honour for me to be part of WorkHuman and wholly experience everything it had to offer.

Chatting to the cab driver on my way back to the airport on everything from the perils of living in Florida to the weight of aeroplane fuel, I realised something felt different. The nine hour flight back to the UK gave me plenty of time to work and think and I found my brain clearer, more focused than it had been for a very long time.

I’m working from home today to catch up after my trip and as I sit here writing at one end of the kitchen table, my youngest son is at the other, doing something that seems to involve breadsticks, singing loudly and a cardboard tube.

Every part of WorkHuman gave me a chance to think about myself and my work. It was a privilege to be there and meet so many amazing people. Even more of a privilege to get the opportunity to share some of my discoveries with them. Somehow, I feel like I’ve returned a different person.

I feel comfortable with myself. For me, that’s a massive thing.

By Andy Swann on May 13, 2016.
Exported from Medium on July 15, 2016.