I travel to several business conferences each year, and after a while they all start to feel the same. I know they're supposed to be important for networking, but nobody seems to be having a great time or learning very much. I leave feeling exhausted. Do they have to be this way?
You mean those meetings at look-alike hotels in sterile office parks, with mountains of bland food, endless PowerPoint presentations, and painfully superficial banter at the obligatory cocktail hour? I speak at a number of these conferences — perhaps we've met? I probably have your business card somewhere....
While your cynical attitude is justified in some respects, it also strikes me as naive. Most of the time, most of us surely would rather be at home than at another airport Hyatt. But you may be underestimating the critical value of networking. I've come to view the presentations (including my own), while potentially useful, as secondary to the opportunity to make contacts and exchange ideas. In fact, I think the formal parts of most programs should be condensed to promote as much schmoozing as possible.
I'm guessing your exhaustion stems not only from all the travel and long days in arctic air-conditioned ballrooms, but also from the anxiety associated with meeting people and exchanging ideas. Those who have the best time at conferences tend to be the ones who engage in conversations that go beyond small talk and perfunctory business discussions, and who leave feeling they've gotten to know someone new.
By the way, I really appreciate the air-conditioning. It keeps attendees like you from nodding off when I speak.
I'm a hedge-fund analyst, and sometimes I think people in my industry are a little crazy, including myself. But I guess the same could be said for everyone in business. We all have our quirks, and we all do dumb things. My question is, should everyone see a shrink?
Normality is indeed relative, and I couldn't agree more that we're all a little crazy now and then. Of course, there's a wide spectrum of craziness — from serious mental illness, to neurotic tendencies that cause all sorts of misery and trouble for ourselves and those around us, to the milder manifestations of our unique personalities that account for the color and texture of life.
I assume you're talking mainly about the latter two manifestations. (If it's serious mental illness, stop reading and find help now.) Neuroses encompass a vast set of traits on the job, including self-defeating, repetitive patterns that get us nowhere in relationships; an inability to find pleasure; fears of being more successful or creative; and on and on.
Good psychotherapy can address these issues very effectively. And while I don't think everyone should see a shrink, doing so can make an enormous difference. Beyond that, I apply my clinical skills every day as an adviser to business leaders who aren't getting therapy but simply find it helpful to have a sounding board on the psychology of everyday corporate life.
There's still stigma in the business world that makes executives reluctant to seek therapy. Acknowledging that we're all a bit crazy — as you do — is a healthy place to start.
Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs on people and culture issues. Send him questions about the psychology of business.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.