The power and the peril of self-congratulation

Justin Spratt, Elan Lohmann and Daniel Neville shoot the breeze in true GeekRetreat fashion last Saturday

It’s exactly a week since GeekRetreat Stanford Valley and I’m sitting in my freezing cold Berkeley apartment collecting my thoughts and the countless pages of notes that I wrote on the plane back to the US on Monday night. (Moving around the world at such an alarming rate is such wonderful medicine for perspective.)

After some heart-warming perspectives from participants (Marlon Parker, Snowgoose, Jarred Cinman, Eve Dmochowska have all written insightful, provocative posts – but there are others still emerging) there has been a great deal of debate whether the retreat is a ‘talk fest’ or whether ‘anything changes’ as a result.

I think this debate is fascinating – but for less than obvious reasons.

The first is implied with the horrible ‘circle jerk’ term (which I promise never to use ever again unless it is absolutely necessary). If you don’t know what ‘circle jerk’ means, please look it up, or take my watered-down explanation here. The term refers to a group of young men sitting around in a self-referencing circle pleasuring themselves. Although gross, I think this is a really good analogy for the kind of self-referencing, isolated, homogenous, male-dominated community that often dominates when members of the South African IT community get together.

On the other hand, I’m struck by the liberal use of this term for every event initiated by this community.

Self-congratulation, where not warranted, is no good (although I can think of much worse things). But I find it incredible how hard we South Africans are on ourselves, and how seldom we are able to congratulate ourselves and one another. I always remember an old mentor telling me how we Africans grow up with a very large burden. Everything we do has to save the world, or the continent at least – and it robs us of the kind of play and enjoyment that enables innovation to thrive. Being in the US I understand the value of congratulation, and I also understand the value of play – both of which need to be nurtured in order for us to build anything worthwhile.

I also think that the circle-jerk term is probably a symptom of the dissatisfaction that many feel with the self-referencing, smallness of the ‘IT crowd’ in SA. There are, however, some incredible people on the outside (and even the inside in some cases) who are optimistic about breaking up the circle and looking for some deeper meaning for the community.

This is the last that I’m going to say about it personally because I’d rather spend my time on more important debates, especially ones where the critique is more well-informed. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled that there has been critique – it shows that people care, and that is our greatest battle overcome. I only wish people would be critical about important things like why a particular strategy for mentoring young geeks was chosen, why the culture of the retreat is dominated by particular world views, or why IT pros find it impossible to have a constructive discussion about race and solutions towards diversity.

I, for one, will continue to sing the praises of those who came and shared at the GeekRetreat – and especially those who will continue the conversation after the event. I’m only certain of one thing these days and that is that ‘change’ comes in different forms and that deep, meaningful change happens slowly, gently, without the kind of fanfare that we’re used to.

As Elaine Rumboll said in one of the sessions, ‘It’s questions that change the world; not answers.’

For me, and for most (if not all) of the people who attended the GeekRetreat, so many questions were fired inside of me to say that that, for now, is enough.


2 thoughts on “The power and the peril of self-congratulation

  1. Hey Heather, thanks for a great post, and once again, for the opportunity to attend Geekretreat. Good luck this year with the Masters…I’d love to hear you’re getting on.

  2. For the record, Geek Retreat lacked all the crap I normally find at these tech events. You plan to focus on the real issues is spot on. Keep up the great work.

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